What may be the final chapter in a long standing debate between a real estate developer and a Manhattan synagogue has been written, as a New York State appellate court judge ruled in favor of developer Jack Braha, owner of the building, and denied the Sixteenth Street Synagogue’s interim stay of eviction, enabling Braha to oust the synagogue from its home of 67 years.
According to the Forward, the problem began in 2002 when the National Council of Young Israel, owner of the 3 West 16th Street property, decided to sell the building. The Sixteenth Street Synagogue, also known as the Young Israel of Fifth Avenue, which had been operating in the building since the 1940’s and considered itself co-owner of the building, sued the Young Israel for the right to stay on premises.
A three way deal, which at the time seemed to satisfy all parties, was arranged by Steven Ancona, then president of Magen David of Union Square, a small Sephardic minyan which also called the building home. The deal called for Ancona to buy the building and renovate the top four floors of the six story building which would then be sold as condominiums, allowing the two synagogues to remain on the lower two floors of the property. Ancona brought Braha in on the arrangement to front the money for the purchase and Braha, who purchased the property with funds from the sale of another development, was named as sole owner of the building for tax purposes. Ancona received a thirty-five year lease on the property and responsibility for the proposed renovations and while he may have given verbal assurances to the two synagogues regarding their futures, no details of those arrangements were ever put in writing.
What seemed like a marriage made in heaven soon began to unravel as disagreements between Braha and Ancona came in quick succession and the planned development for the building stalled. Ancona and the synagogue sued Braha in February 2008 and two months later Braha filed a countersuit and moved to evict Arcona and by extension, the synagogues.
With Magen David having relocated to another property, it was the Sixteenth Street Synagogue that found itself caught in the dispute between Arcona and Braha and its claims of partial ownership of the building seemed tenuous, as it wasn’t listed on either the original deed or in the deal between the two feuding former-partners. Further complicating things for the synagogue was a November 2011 agreement reportedly signed with Braha as a show of good faith, saying they would vacate the premises within the month as reported on TheRealDeal.com.
The synagogue had hope for optimism this past December when a temporary emergency stay of an earlier eviction order was granted but a January 11 ruling denied the synagogue’s attempts to extend the temporary stay giving the synagogue only two choices as dictated by Braha: face eviction or pay the $7.5 million that the developer claims is owed in rental payments.
The official eviction of the Sixteenth Street Synagogue took place on January 22 and despite the sub-freezing temperatures, over a dozen congregants davened Mincha outside the former home of their synagogue to protest their ouster. Congregants were allowed back into the synagogue on January 23 to remove the synagogue’s belongings, and the tallis-wrapped Torahs have been temporary relocated to the Sixth Street Community Synagogue for safekeeping. For now, the congregation is meeting in other locations but sent a petition with 1,099 signatures to Braha asking him to reconsider.
“The Sixteenth Street Synagogue’s petition is riddled with inaccuracies,” Braha told The Jewish Press. “Their argument should never have been with me but with the exact same people who broke their deal with me – Steven Ancona and Magen David.”
While the congregation may no longer call 16th Street home, the Sixteenth Street Synagogue continues to live on. (The congregation is currently meeting at three different addresses.)
“We are continuing to do what a shul does,” said the Sixteenth Street Synagogue’s president, Richard McBee. “We daven, we learn and we provide services to our community. The reality is, we fought to save our home and we lost, but on the positive side, this is a new beginning for us. We have to accept that whatever happened here happened for the best and, God willing, we will continue to thrive.”