The unpleasant underside of synagogue life raises questions about the power of rabbis and boards to keep some Jews out
By Amy Klein, Religion Editor
A few weeks before the High Holidays, Aaron Biston went to pray at Beth Jacob Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills.
After services, during the Kiddush, Steven Weil, the congregation's rabbi, came over to Biston and asked him to leave the synagogue because he had been banned from its premises several months prior.
Biston refused and demanded, in front of his 13-year-old daughter, to know why he should comply.
Biston said the rabbi replied by addressing the girl: "Your dad's a thief, a crook, a bad man and a menace to the community."
Biston then cursed out the rabbi.
What happened next is a matter of some dispute, but both parties agree that the rabbi publicly asked Biston to leave the synagogue and never return.
Biston is now threatening a lawsuit against the congregation unless, he said, he receives a public apology from the rabbi and is allowed to return to the synagogue. Weil has already sent a letter to Biston and his daughter, in which he apologized for his language but said he stands by his decision to ban Biston from the shul.
Biston's public airing of his story and his threat to file suit have brought to light a number of complaints from others who also have been asked to leave Beth Jacob. They claim the rabbi is autocratic and mercurial and bars people who don't fit his image of an appropriate congregant.
Weil is a charismatic and intense leader. He came to Beth Jacob from Detroit in 2000, and he can often be seen wearing the work boots and jeans of his upstate New York farming upbringing. He is known for innovative programming, including a cigar club where the rabbi and young men in the community smoke, drink and learn Torah, and the summer Kollel, a post-college learning program.
He spoke to The Journal in the company of synagogue president Dr. Steve Tabak and former synagogue president Marc Rohatiner. Together they openly discussed the half-dozen people who have been banned from their shul.
Although they did not divulge identities of the people they had banned in order to protect them and their accusers from public scrutiny, they painted a picture of individuals whom they believe pose a threat to Beth Jacob's membership.
Among the stories was that of Biston, who was a defendant in a civil lawsuit over a real estate deal with another member of Beth Jacob that went sour. Court documents allege that Biston cultivated the deal on the shul's grounds, although Biston claims to have known the man outside of the shul.
The other individuals include someone alleged to have sexually harassed a synagogue member, a man alleged to have behaved inappropriately with children, a woman alleged to have stalked a member with whom she believed she had a relationship and a man who, shortly before being asked to leave the shul, was convicted of pedophilia.
This ugly underside of synagogue life raises the question for all synagogues, not just Beth Jacob: What power does a rabbi or executive board have to deny entry to Jews?
The legal answer is straightforward: A synagogue is a private institution, and when it comes to membership -- or in this case, entry, because most of the people asked to leave were not members -- the synagogue is entitled to accommodate however it sees fit.
The religious answer is not quite as clear. According to halacha (Jewish law), one needs a beit din, a religious court, to put a person in herem -- which means to excommunicate them, to cast them away from the community and isolate them. But the old rules don't really hold today, when there are many congregations from which to choose.
"Many times, throughout Jewish history, there were rabbis who placed people in herem," said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, West Coast director of the Orthodox Union. "In those days it was a major thing; today, they'd laugh and go to the next town."
The Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which runs the Orthodox religious court of California, said it does not get involved in private synagogue matters. "The RCC is a council of rabbis, not a council of synagogues, per se, and doesn't set synagogue policy," said Rabbi Avrohom Union, the administrator for the RCC.
In any case, all the religious courts have refused to intervene in the Biston case. (Biston said he is taking his case to a New York beit din.) The Orthodox Union, the governing organization for Orthodox shuls, holds that a rabbi has the authority to act independently.
"Each rabbi is the morah d'atra, the rabbinic halachic authority of his congregation -- that's why he was chosen," Kalinsky said. "If the rabbi feels strongly about [someone], he will go to his board, which is responsible for the issues of governance in the synagogue, and they could enforce what they deem appropriate."
Even if the question is neither legal nor halachic, it nevertheless remains one of ethics: If a synagogue is intended to be open to all Jews, how should leadership deal with characters they feel are unsavory or pose a threat to the community? What is the balance between freedom and security?
Synagogues everywhere always have grappled with the issue of security, but especially since the attacks of Sept. 11. With terrorism and anti-Semitic attacks on the rise internationally, most Jewish institutions have strengthened their security. For example, on the High Holidays this year, a month after the Jewish Federation offices in Seattle were attacked by a gunman, murdering one worker, most synagogues in Southern California increased the number of guards at their doors and carefully checked guest lists of people who had preregistered.
The price? Drop-ins, unaffiliated, undecided and last-minute shul-goers, were turned away. In addition, before the High Holidays, Los Angeles City Councilman Jack Weiss met with neighborhood synagogues to discuss security issues and precautions.
But what of the insider whom synagogue leaders believe may pose a threat to synagogue members? In a climate of increasing vigilance against sexual predators, many religious leaders these days would rather err on the side of caution than take any potential risk.
"What is the line between making your shul an open place and a safe place?" asked Rabbi Abner Weiss of Westwood Village Synagogue, who was rabbi of Beth Jacob for 15 years prior to Weil.
Weiss is also a licensed therapist, and he said there are situations where rabbis are obligated by law to report to the authorities when a person is a danger to others, such as when they are suspected of child or elder abuse.
A man once dressed up in Army fatigues and ran around Beth Jacob wielding a knife, Weiss said. They had him committed, but when he seemed better, Weiss let him back into the synagogue and invited him to his house for lunch. "That was a mistake, because he was unstable," the rabbi remembered. "He didn't take his meds. I'm sorry that I wasn't more careful about letting him into the house."
The man threatened the rabbi and had to be medicated again.
Which is why in some cases, it's better to err on the side of caution, Weiss believes. When the rabbi was leading Beth Jacob, he said, one man was accused by members of getting too close to children.
"It upset parents, so I quietly spoke to him, and I said people are uncomfortable, and I didn't want him to get into trouble. I suggested he would be more comfortable somewhere else," he said.
That man left the synagogue -- but he came back after Weiss left, presenting Weil with the same problem.
"He's a single man, doesn't have children, why is he sitting on the ground talking with little kids in the middle of the prayer services?" Weil said. "We asked him to come to the office, and we explained to him why we were asking him to leave," Weil said, and they also notified other shuls in the area to alert them of the danger.
Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills said that when he was a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a "bag lady" came into the synagogue. "There were people who were uncomfortable, and we talked about it and said, 'You know, these people have a right to come in; she's not bothering anybody,'" he said.
The situation resolved itself without conflict.
"I think she just stopped coming," said Vogel, whose congregation is Conservative. He added, "The synagogue should be a haven for anybody. Think about the haggadah, 'Kol dichvin' -- those who have spiritual need and those who are just hungry should be able to come there."
That sentiment is shared by Rabbi Dan Shevitz of the Conservative synagogue, Mishkon Tephilo: The shul should be open to all.
"Beiti bet tefila, yikarehu lechol ha'amim means that a house of God has to be universal, since God is universal," he said. "We can't tell people they're not welcome in God's house."
Shevitz should know, because his congregation has its home two blocks from the beach in Venice. Homeless people can often be found sleeping on the top of the shul steps, behind the white pillars at the entrance, and often wander into the synagogue during services.
"Sometimes they come in and they're abusive or they think it's a church. The harder cases may be someone suspicious, or who maybe smells, who wanders in and sits in the back." he said.
The congregation usually lets these people alone, although for security's sake, they offer to check their packages, and if the person is compliant, he or she can stay.
Sometimes, he said, vagabonds also come for Kiddush. "Sometimes guests are greedy, but I figure if they're hungry, then they'll eat it. It's better than giving them money and them shooting up," Shevitz said. "If we can use the Kiddush to alleviate hunger in the community, then that's a good thing."
"We don't check the tzitzit of anyone who comes in; they can enjoy the tefillah and Kiddush like anyone else -- as long as they're not disruptive," Shevitz said.
Disruptiveness is another story when it comes to synagogue etiquette. Rabbis, like comedians and politicians, sometimes must tolerate hecklers.
"There are people who can be disruptive in a synagogue setting," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who spent 20 years as a Conservative pulpit rabbi in Washington, Philadelphia and the Bay Area.
"If someone was being disruptive during or after services when I was a pulpit rabbi," he said, "I conferred with the president and key members of the board -- and every situation is different -- it would involve someone speaking with the individual, making them aware of their conduct." If that didn't work, he said, the person was told, "This is not the place for you."
Diamond said pulpit rabbis often have to deal with people who are dangerous, offensive, disruptive or just plain political. He once had to deal with a leader in his congregation "who often was irritating and very much a contrarian and said and did things that were very hurtful to me as a rabbi."
Diamond said he went out of his way to be extra nice to this thorn in his side. "People were watching to see how I would respond, and it was important for me as the spiritual community leader that I wouldn't let him get to me."
Shul politics and dealing with disruptive leaders and members is one of the topics discussed in the synagogue leadership institute, Diamond said. The program, which is five years old, trains emerging synagogue leaders, taking lay leaders from different synagogues to "engage in serious text study and give them leadership skills."
Another part of the course involves mediation and dispute resolution. Lawsuits between shul members are very common, he said.
"Most rabbis are well advised to try to stay away from these legal matters," he said, although the rabbi can try to encourage the people to go to beit din. "Too often it's a lose-lose situation for the rabbi. Unfortunately, if it's bitter and nasty, he should try to get them to reconcile, but it's best to stay out of it."
Weil didn't become involved until recently in the Biston dispute. The lawsuit that caused rift revolves around a civil court case with a shul member, Gary Klein. The two entered into a real estate deal together in 2000, and within the next year they were on opposite sides in a civil lawsuit.
In 2005 a jury verdict was returned against Biston, who filed a motion for a new trial, but the case was settled before the motion was ruled on. The settlement agreement provided for payment of $300,000 to Klein.
Biston says the entire affair is a private matter irrelevant to his attendance at Beth Jacob.
"Rabbis should not get involved with other members of the synagogue," Biston said. "Who is he to decide who should be able to pray at the temple? No rabbi can decide that."
Weil said he only got involved in the Biston case because, as stated in allegations in court documents, Biston had first approached Klein on synagogue grounds to discuss the real estate transaction that ultimately resulted in the lawsuit. Biston claimed to have known Klein beforehand.
After the settlement, Klein said he went to the rabbi and said, "I waited three and a half years, now I have the goods; you have it here in writing ... he used your institution."
When Klein approached him, Weil got the board involved. Beth Jacob's bylaws provide that the executive board has the right to ask people to leave. This transaction is done privately and is not subject to a trial. But some people who were asked to leave the shul have taken offense at the manner of the proceedings.
Gadi Pickholz wrote a letter from Israel to a Web site, www.lukeford.net, run by blogger Luke Ford, saying that Weil "falsely accused me of sexual impropriety of an unstated nature with a congregant of unstated name (how convenient) in an attempt to get me out of his shul."
Ford also had been banned from Beth Jacob and Young Israel of Century City. The rabbis of the synagogues and Ford all declined to speak on the record about the ban, which has to do with Ford's blog and his former involvement writing about the porn industry.
"We did not go into reasons of why we were asking [Pickholz] to leave in order to protect the person," Weil said. He and the board had been following up on a specific complaint from a member, and they solicited advice from the police. "The Beverly Hills police said we had to protect the members. It was left pretty vague -- we did not want to get into it. I was careful to tell him, 'We're not saying you're guilty; we've taken on a policy that when credible accusations are made, we're going to ask people not to return.'"
Another man asked to leave the shul said he found the whole process mystifying. "It was Yom Kippur morning , and I was saying 'Avinu Malkeinu,' and [Weil] said can you come outside, I want to talk to you," said the other man who requested that his name not be used. He told the rabbi that that he'd come out when he finished davening, and was told, "You have to leave this shul, and if you don't come now, I'll call the police."
The police came and evicted him. Later, he said, "I tried to talk to some people on the board, but I don't know why he did the whole thing." A few months ago, the man said he ran into the rabbi at an event and confronted him. "What did I do?" he asked the rabbi, who told him it was about a problem with another member.
"A man came crying to me that he couldn't come to this synagogue without being verbally abused and threatened," by this man, Weil told The Journal. The man in question had been a tenant of the other man, who was elderly, and they had also been involved in a court case.
"The case was five or six years old, and it was resolved in court; it's a civil issue that has nothing to do with the shul," the man told The Journal. Weil said that if people like this man would like to return to the synagogue, they'd have to go before the executive board and "ideally ask for forgiveness" from the people they offended.
"A community has a responsibility first and foremost to create a safe and secure environment," Weil said of the various cases of eviction.
"We want to create a place where young people of all ages can explore their Judaism in a warm environment," Weil said, "where adults can explore their Judaism emotionally, spiritually or intellectually. And where there's a sense of responsibility to the community, to Israel, to tikkun olam [heal the world]."
Despite the recent allegations against him, Weil's vision for the synagogue has proven results. When he came to Beth Jacob from Detroit in 1999, the congregation had between 400 and 500 member families, about 50 of them families with children. Now, some eight years later, Beth Jacob membership has almost doubled, with more than 800 family units -- some 200 of them with children and teenagers -- making it the largest Orthodox congregation on the West Coast. The synagogue leaders pride themselves on being diverse and welcoming.
And it is perhaps that same sense of openness that has made the synagogue seem inviting to some undesirable characters, Beth Jacob leadership said, although, noted board president Tabak, asking six or seven people to leave from among the thousand or so that pray there on a weekly basis "is not very many." He said, "One of our greatest strengths is our greatest weakness."
"We're likely to attract the good and the bad," added Rohatiner, a past president and a lawyer who was also present during the meeting.
Does Beth Jacob attract more undesirable characters than most synagogues? "I think [because of our size] it's much more likely you can blend in here," Rohatiner said.
Weil added: "On a typical Shabbat there are six different prayer services, another five different youth services. It's very easy for someone to slip though the cracks. We view as our responsibility to make it a safe place for anyone who walks into the synagogue."
As a result of the public airing of the ejection of Biston and others, Rohatiner said that one change will be made: The executive board will deal with these cases.
"It's beneath the raabbi's position to ask these people to leave," Rohatiner said. "That's not what we're about."