Here’s a followup on the controversy swirling at the Home of the Sages, the synagogue and nursing home at 25 Bialystoker Place. Last week, the Observer reported that developer Peter Fine is poised to buy the building for the bargain price of $13 million. Ethical questions have been raised about the transaction and members of the congregation have gone to court to stop the deal from going forward. $10 million from the sale was reportedly earmarked for an organization in Israel.
Today the Observer has new details. First off, the newspaper has heard from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara’s office that he is investigating the matter. Bharara is, of course, leading the prosecution of Assemblyman Sheldon Silver on alleged corruption charges. He’s also going after not-for-profit organizations throughout New York for financial shenanigans. Shortly after Silver’s arrest in January, executives of the United Jewish Council of the East Side, a non-profit closely associated with Silver, received subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney. So his interest in this latest case is not very surprising.
In another development, the Observer reports that the state Supreme Court judge hearing the Home of the Sages case, Arthur Engoron, suddenly recused himself without explanation yesterday. As for Peter Fine, a spokesperson for the real estate developer had this to say about how he became aware that the synagogue was interested in selling:
Peter has been involved in the community his entire life, with family connections that go back to his childhood. He first become involved in development opportunities in the community in 2007, when he was interested in the Henry Street Settlement House project, which didn’t move forward at that time in light of the financial meltdown in 2008. In 2008, he had his first conversation about the Home of Sages project with Mendel Aschkenazi. He was introduced to Mendel by Heshy Jacob back in 2008.
Presumably, the “Henry Street Settlement House Project” referred to by the spokesperson was a scuttled plan to build apartments on top of the Abrons Arts Center on Grand Street. Mendel Aschkenazi is the deceased son of Samuel Aschkenazi, who is board president of Home of the Sages. The elder Aschkenazi reportedly planned to move the synagogue to his home in Kew Gardens, Queens. The synagogue, using proceeds from the sale, would pay him rent ($48,000 per year).
The Observer article goes into some detail about Heshy Jacob, a close friend of Assemblyman Silver, who also happens to be the longtime chairman of the United Jewish Council of the East Side. Jacob is the general manager of the East River and Hillman cooperatives on Grand Street. In an interview, Jacob said, “I have no comment to make because I have nothing to do with the entire issue.” The newspaper seized on a photo, apparently showing two of Jacob’s cars parked alongside the synagogue/nursing home. He emphatically stated that the spaces do not belong to the Home of the Sages.
On Friday, the New York Post reported that Peter Fine is also in contract to buy an adjacent parcel and air rights from the neighboring Bialystoker Synagogue. The Post contended that William Rapfogel, the imprisoned former head of the Met Council on Jewish Poverty, actually brought Fine into the Home of the Sages deal. Rapfogel, Silver and Jacob are closely associated, often portrayed as a triumvirate with enormous influence on the Lower East Side.
A hearing before a new judge, Jeffrey Wright, is tentatively scheduled for tomorrow.