The eviction will allow Jack Braha to take his six-story, 15,368-square-foot property and turn it into a resource of luxury rentals. “They’re now officially out,” Braha declared in regard to the shul, which for a number of years has found itself caught in a tug-of-war between two at-odds developers, Braha and Steven Ancona. According to Braha, the synagogue’s seforim and Torah scrolls are still located within the sanctuary, and the congregation’s leaders can make arrangements to remove them.
The developer disclosed that the apartments on the third through sixth floors of the building are scheduled to go on the market in the spring, while the second floor unit is expected to become available for rental in the summer. A 1,200-square-foot commercial unit on the first floor is already available, and a separate segment of that floor will be transformed into a residential lobby. Occupying an entire floor, the residential units will contain three bedrooms, three bathrooms and 12-foot ceilings. Braha said that the asking rents are not yet available.
As previously reported in the Jewish Voice, the shul’s problems began about a decade ago, following a lengthy and relatively peaceful history. “We began as a model synagogue and in the 1950s, we officially became the Young Israel of 5th Avenue that was housed in the building owned by the National Council of Young Israel,” McBee explained. “We were located right upstairs from them. In the 1940s, they were raising funds to get our shul started, and by having a synagogue in the building, they were able to obtain a tax-exempt status.”
It wasn’t until decades later that the NCYI decided to sell the building and throw the synagogue out of their home. “Basically, around the year 2002 or 2003,” McBee revealed, “the National Council woke up and realized they were sitting on a gold mine in terms of property value. That, of course, propelled them to want to sell. We felt that this was very unfair to us, as they had originally wanted us there for the reasons of getting tax exempt status; they raised money from donors who thought their contributions were being earmarked for our shul and now things were quite different. We then sued them.”
McBee said that at that point, a small Sephardic synagogue called Magen David of Union Square was also established on the second floor of the building. Steven Ancona, one of the congregants of the Magen David synagogue also happened to be a real estate developer, and he offered to rescue the Sixteenth Street Synagogue from the dire consequences facing them by turning four of the higher floors of the building into luxury condominiums. Ancona told McBee that by executing this plan, he and his partner Jack Braha would be in a position to allow the Ashkenazi congregation to stay in their Flatiron district home. “We thought that Ancona would be our white knight who would save us from having to find a new place for our shul,” says McBee. The shul president ruefully noted that in the years to follow, the plans went awry and took a turn for the worse. “As it happened, the relationship between Ancona and his partner, Jack Braha, disintegrated,” said McBee.
Subsequent to beginning the development of the high-priced residences, Braha accused Ancona of violating his lease terms by not paying the rent. “We had thought that the deal we made with these guys was based on their word of honor,” says McBee. Braha then attempted to have the Sixteenth Street Synagogue evicted and in response they sued him on the grounds that “he went back on the deal,” in McBee’s words. The case was in court for several years, with rulings going back and forth, but eventually the Sixteenth Street Synagogue did not prevail. Having lost the case, they appealed, but lost on that score as well.
At the heart of the dispute between the Sixteenth Street Synagogue and Jack Braha, is the commitment that Braha made to the synagogue at the time of purchase that, despite his need to hold the deed to the entire building to accommodate his tax objectives, his interest was developing the upper four floors of the building, so that the Sixteenth Street Synagogue would be allowed to remain in the building for posterity. The clear intent of the deal is buttressed by the fact that Braha purchased the building from the National Council of Young Israel at two-thirds the market value because the synagogue retained the remaining one-third. The original plans only called for the renovation of the upper four floors for condominium development, with the first and second floors remaining as the Sixteenth Street Synagogue and Magen David of Union Square. This intent was expressly stated by Braha at the 2005 synagogue dinner celebrating the intended residential development on the upper floors and protecting the synagogues’ place on the lower floors. In fact, Jack Braha and his brother Elliot paid for a full page advertisement in the synagogue’s dinner journal congratulating the developer on the project saying: “You truly made it happen.”
Speaking with the Jewish Voice just a couple of days after the actual eviction went into effect, McBee bemoaned, “We were failed by the legal system. The shul had gone to court seeking to continue a 67-year-old tradition, but the court did not protect us. I simply cannot believe this is happening in New York City in the year 2013.”
McBee explained that his shul’s dispute is not with the National Council of Young Israel – “we resolved our differences with them in 2008,” he noted, “when we agreed to have some of the building developed into condos” – but remains solely with Jack Braha.
In a sharply worded statement to his fellow congregants, McBee said: “We are not just a local synagogue, but a downtown urban and cultural center with visitors from around the world. We are in our seventh decade of servicing the Jewish community. This is an unconscionable act! And the fact that a traditional Jew has filed for plans with the Department of Buildings to change the first floor from a synagogue to a ‘residential lobby, storage and accessory exercise room’ is mindboggling!”
The Sixteenth Street Synagogue, with an active membership of over 120 families, was – until the eviction – holding daily, Shabbat and Yom Tov prayer services. But now it is scrambling to find a new permanent home, temporarily carrying out its Shabbos minyanim at the NYU Bronfman Center. “We are still hoping to keep the Sixteenth Street Synagogue alive,” McBee told the Jewish Voice, “but it’s not easy. We’ve actually been looking for over a year for a new site for the shul, but – in addition to the fact that rental fees in the area are quite high – we need a location that would be appropriate for such a public facility.”
Near the conclusion of the Jewish Voice’s interview with McBee, this writer recalled how he had once been stranded in Manhattan after work on a Taanis Esther due to a temporary shutdown of the local subway, and – desperately seeking a shul for the Purim evening tefilla and k’riat Megillah – he happily discovered the warm and welcoming services at the Sixteenth Street Synagogue. “That story perfectly epitomizes what made our shul so extra special and valuable,” McBee responded excitedly. “It’s so important to save this shul for the sake of the many Jews who are either traveling through the area or working locally, and need a minyan on the spot, as well as for the many members who have relied for so long on this center of Torah and tefillah.”
The devoted shul president noted that the synagogue’s officials are exploring the legal options for another appeal even as they cope with the sense of loss and seeming finality of the eviction. “We truly feel as if we have lost a close relative,” McBee intoned, “so it’s hard to focus on technical matters right now. But we will continue trying to save our beloved shul.”