Jewish center members appeal to attorney general


The sale of the Van Cortlandt Jewish Center has left some of its congregants confused and appalled.

Gary Axelbank grew up in the Jewish center; both of his parents were members that held distinguished roles in the congregation. Axelbank himself was not a member and did not apply to be one until earlier this year after watching the center’s leaders struggle to make changes to keep it afloat.

He wanted to gain membership because he was concerned for the center’s future and wanted a vote on the matter.

Axelbank’s request for membership was denied.

Meanwhile, Jack Kleinfeld, chair of the board of trustees at the Jewish center, said membership has declined significantly since the center started in the 1960s, leaving them with roughly 60 members where they once held 700.

Kleinfeld said the goal of the sale to Innovative Development Construction was to save the center financially and allow the center to build back up its membership with the space they will be allotted as tenants in a building they once owned.

Axelbank said he finds it odd Kleinfeld complains of a lack of members when he, along with a handful of others, were denied membership earlier this year for reasons he found to be inadequate.

Axelbank received his rejection letter Feb. 21 of this year.

The letter said the board of trustees voted to suspend approval of all membership requests on Feb. 13. The letter, signed by center president Stuart Harris, also said it acknowledged the longstanding relationship Axelbank and his family have with the center.

”The board, faced with uncertainties in the VCJC’s future, is concerned about influences on its direction,” the letter said.

The bylaws of membership for the Van Cortlandt Jewish Center state anybody over the age of 18 and of the Jewish faith is eligible for membership with no other restrictions provided.

Two rejection letters, obtained by The Press, read, “The fact that you live so far from our Shul leads us to believe that you will not be walking to Shabbat services. Because of this we cannot grant membership.”

“No one is required to attend any service,” Axelbank said.

The center’s bylaws do not include restrictions proposed for membership based on proximity to the center.

“Any eligible person who desires to become a member of the Center shall make a written application for admission to membership on a form to be furnished by the Center,” the bylaws read. “Such application must be subject to the approval of the Membership Committee.”

Louise Salant has been a lifetime member of the center and was one of the members who requested the meeting that was held May 19. She attended the meeting believing the focus would be the future of the center, not holding a vote on the sale.

When the time came for the vote, she said, she was left confused.

“How do you vote on something when you have not seen it,” Salant said in reference to a contract between the developers and the center.

In the May 19 meeting, Kleinfeld told congregants the center would be moving forward with the sale of the building to Innovative, which recently purchased two private homes in the area.

Kleinfeld said the vote taken at the May 19 meeting was not a vote for approval of the sale because the contract is still being finalized.

He said a contract is still being drawn up between Innovative and the board, but when a contract is finalized it will first be presented to the board for a vote and then to membership for a vote.

But those votes, Kleinfeld said, will not be to approve the the sale of the building but rather the terms under which it will be sold.

Kleinfeld’s couching of the vote was less than definitive at the May 19 meeting.

“I move that the membership of the VCJC endorses the current plans being finalized with Innovative Development to sell the property and then become tenants in a renovated facility,” he said. “The membership understands that any final agreements between the parties will require the membership’s explicit approval,”

Salant said the voting process at the meeting was confusing, with Kleinfeld rushing the voting at the end as people were leaving and calling out members’ names to collect votes over the noise.

Eight members of the Van Cortlandt Jewish Center have signed a letter laying out their concerns to state Attorney General Letitia James. The letter states members called for a meeting twice before they were granted one May 19.

As per the center’s bylaws, special meetings can be made at the request of the president, the board of trustees or in a written request by 10 members of the center. Bylaws do not clarify if a written request by members is subject to approval.

A meeting was requested by 11 members Feb. 11 and again April 14. Both times, members wrote in their letter that they were requesting the meeting to discuss alternative options for the center that would allow them to continue owning the property.

“This request to hold this special meeting was denied by the board. This was a flagrant breach of the by-laws,” members wrote in the second letter.

This is not the first time members have written to the attorney general on this matter. In July of last year, a letter was written in protest of the sale of the property.

The alternatives members wished to discuss include reaching out to nonprofits and organizations that assist religious institutions.

Members said they connected Kleinfeld to organizations they believed could offer insight into alternatives and assistance with next steps so a sale would not be necessary.

One of the organizations was the Fordham Bedford Housing Corp., which has worked previously with faith-based organizations to provide senior housing and community services that can create a different revenue source.

Laura Chenven, a member of the center, said when she reached out to the Fordham Baedford Housing chief executive Heng Ly, who said he never spoke with Kleinfeld.

“The outcome of the decisions being made about the future of the Van Cortlandt Jewish Center will impact hundreds of lives in the Jewish communities of Van Cortlandt Village, Kingsbridge Heights, Riverdale,” members wrote, “and many hundreds more in the community at large.”

Van Cortlandt Jewish Center, membership denial, sale controversy, Jewish community, voting procedures, community concerns