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Report: Another Synagogue Controversy on the Lower East Side, This Time at Home of the Sages

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25 Bialystoker Place.
25 Bialystoker Place.

According to the New York Observer, the Home of the Sages Synagogue will ask a judge next week to approve the sale of its building at 25 Bialystoker Place for $13 million. In recent years, the building has served as the New East Side Nursing Home. The buyer is reported to be Peter Fine, an affordable housing developer.

The state Attorney General has signed off on the deal (a requirement any time a non-profit organization wants to sell an asset). Fine apparently wants to develop new housing on the site, “joining Home of the Sages with two other nearby lots.”

But it seems that some members of the congregation are not at all pleased with the decision to sell. The article notes that no one on the board of directors, including President Samuel Aschkenazi, lives on the Lower East Side. Aaron From told the Observer, “I’ve been attending services there for 25 years. I don’t know any of the guys on the board. None whatsoever. None whatsoever.”

The lawyer representing the congregants opposing the sale said that not even Rabbi Shmuel Fishelis (the synagogue’s rabbi for 35 years) has heard of most of the board members. Members became even more suspicious when it became known that the board intended to divert $10 million from the sale to a non-profit in Israel called “Friends of Mosdot Goor.” And then there’s this. In 2014, the synagogue signed a contract to lease a space in Kew Gardens, Queens. It turns out that space is “actually located in Rabbi Aschkenazi’s house, above his garage,” the Observer reported.

The developer, Peter Fine, is said to be a friend of William Rapfogel, the former Lower East Side power broker now in prison for accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks at the Met Council:

The deal first began to percolate about a year and a half before Mr. Rapfogel went to jail in 2014. All of the institutions and the land involved fall under the jurisdiction of the Attorney General’s Office Charities Bureau (OCB). In a wolf-guarding-the-henhouse situation, Mr. Rapfogel had actually been appointed by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to the panel that advised the AG’s office on best practices for charitable institutions. According to a lawyer who spoke to the Observer on condition of anonymity because of ongoing dealings with OCB, “Two years ago, when Willie went into the office, he was the prince. Whatever he said was golden. No one looked, no one checked. When he went to jail, a lot of things he did began to blow up, and this one of them.”

In 2013, the Orenstein Senior Building, located next door to the House of Sages, was sold to developer Ruby Schron for $28 million. The property was previously co-owned by another prominent institution on the same block, the Bialystoker Synagogue, and the United Jewish Council of the East Side. Last year, members of the Bialystoker Synagogue raised questions about the transaction and about how the proceeds from the sale were to be used.

A year ago, UJC Chairman Heshy Jacob told The Lo-Down that another jointly-owned parcel on Pitt Street across from the fire station and the Bialystoker Synagogue’s air rights were available for purchase “at the right price.” He suggested that Bialystoker could end up partnering with the Home of the Sages to sell the lots together as one development site. It’s unclear whether Peter Fine has made a deal for all of the parcels, as the Observer article seems to suggest.

UPDATE: The Observer changed its story to note that Rapfogel and Fine did not work at the Met Council at the same time. The reference to the two men being co-workers has been removed from our post.

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7 COMMENTS

  1. I would think the AG would want to take a new look at anything that had previously involved Mr. Rapfogel.

  2. Peter Fine of Atlantic Development is a Board member (former Board of Governors) of the Real Estate Board of New York – Political Action Committee (PAC) for REBNY (which donated $10,000 in 2014 and donated since 2012 to AG Schneiderman’s campaigns – may not mean much since this PAC donates to most politicians – but has some relevancy), Co-Founder of the “Committee to Save New York” a group of business and real estate executives set up to help Cuomo secure budget cuts…and a member of “Taxpayers for an Affordable New York Inc.” an Anti-tax group of big business interests.

    Lots of foxes guarding lots of hen houses? From the Observer: “…Atlantic’s rise seems to serve as a reminder that, indeed, building affordable housing can be lucrative..”. “Lucrative” means someone is making large profits and someone…taxpayers?…are having their tax dollars handed over to this guy. I’m not sure affordable housing is supposed to be “lucrative”. A living, yes, lucrative? Nah.

    Good for Mr. Jaroslawicz, the pro bono lawyer who is acting on behalf of the shul.

  3. Who elected or appointed the Board? This is especially troubling given that “not even Rabbi Shmuel Fishelis (the synagogue’s rabbi for 35 years) has heard of most of the board members.” Who has legal standing before the judge (in which court and on what day) to raise the issues raised in this article? Are the board members fulfilling their fiduciary responsibilities?

    My grandfather used to live in this home and we used to daven(pray) there.

  4. This is a shonda. Blocks away you have REBNY members Ron Moelis, L&M, BFC & the awful Donald Capoccia who just happened to get the empty lots after being empty for 47 years. AG’s office really needs to investigate REBNY members who are donors to Andrew Moreland Cuomo. The fish really stinks in the AG’s office and in our Governors office.

  5. If it’s true that $3MM of the sale are earmarked to help the synagogue keep running in a room in the board president’s home, in a location where not a single actual member of the congregation is likely to ever visit, that man should be going to jail.

    Note that the Observer has since corrected their article to note that Fine and Rapfogel weren’t co-workers at the Met Council, although they’ve left in the part about them being friends. And the fact that Rapfogel was head of the advisory committee to the AG Charities Bureau is just astounding.

  6. Checking out the address on Google Street View, it looks like it’s not just a room above his garage, but is a real synagogue where the garage would otherwise be. You gotta wonder if the rabbi is paying self-employment tax on the full fair market value of the attached parsonage, though, because that looks like a really nice house.

    https://goo.gl/maps/daL7E

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