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.