At 4 p.m. Tuesday, a group of about a dozen Hasidic Jews, whose ranks would soon swell enormously, gathered behind a police barrier on a Park Avenue sidewalk between 53rd and 54th streets to prepare for a large-scale protest. The group, organized by the Central Rabbinical Congress of the United States and Canada, has taken issue with RFR Realty’s hotel development in Jaffa, Israel, which, the protesters say, has dug into an ancient Jewish graveyard.
As their numbers increased, the all-male protesters, who had chosen the sidewalk outside RFR’s 390 Park Avenue headquarters for their demonstration, set up a speaker system, handed out informational fliers to passersby and hung a large banner across a wooden frame on a flatbed truck: “RFR Realty: Stop Desecrating an Ancient Jewish Cemetery With Your Development in Jaffa.” Police officers stood on the other side of the temporary gating erected on the rubber strip in the sidewalk that demarcates the RFR office property line. Security guards for RFR stood outside the building’s glass-walled lobby. By 5 p.m., what seemed like hundreds of Orthodox Jews had arrived. By 7 p.m., Rabbinical Congress spokesman Daniel Green estimated that between 7,500 and 10,000 protesters were present.
“I’m just here to make sure they don’t go onto RFR,” a security guard said.
Rabbi William Handler had some choice words to share with The Observer. He harshly criticized Aby Rosen, who heads RFR with Michael Fuchs, calling Mr. Rosen “arrogant,” “pretentious” and “empty.”
“I think he rather enjoys the confrontation,” Mr. Handler said. “He doesn’t realize that people are really laughing at him.”
Mr. Handler said Mr. Rosen’s “in your face” taste in art–the 390 Park lobby features Mike Bidlo’s 2005 piece Not Warhol (Brillo Boxes, 1964), an exact copy of an Andy Warhol artwork–exemplifies his general attitude.
The rabbi acknowledged that Mr. Rosen is himself Jewish and that his parents survived the Holocaust. But: “He sounds to me like a rebellious child who turned his back on his father’s religion,” Mr. Handler said. “He still calls himself Jewish but I don’t see what’s Jewish about him, except for eating gefilte fish and watching Fiddler on the Roof.”
In his speech atop the flatbed truck, coming after Rabbi Hershel Kler’s speech in Yiddish, Mr. Handler said Mr. Rosen “seeks to make money over the bodies of our sacred dead.” He said Messrs. Rosen and Fuchs had betrayed the Jewish faith, comparing them to Bernard Madoff and saying they worshiped “gelt, gelt and more gelt.”
Mr. Rosen did not respond to an email request for comment. But his office sent a statement that both criticized the Central Rabbinical Congress for being anti-Zionist and said its claims were false.
“Every stage of the RFR hotel development in Israel has been reviewed and approved by the applicable government agencies of the State of Israel,” the release, dated Aug. 10, says. “Over the past 18 months, we have worked with the Antiquities Authority, the government agency that oversees developments in areas of known archeological significance. The Antiquities Authority oversaw all excavation work at the site. The human remains that were discovered during the Antiquities Authority’s excavations were determined to be of Pagan origin, not Hebrew, and were turned over to the Ministry of Religious Services for reburial.”
Mr. Green said representatives from the Rabbinical Congress sent two letters to Mr. Rosen and received no response. He said, though, that these representatives spoke to RFR secretaries, who confirmed Mr. Rosen had received the letters, and to Mr. Rosen’s son. “Obviously, many phone calls were attempted, but no one was ever put through to Mr. Rosen,” Mr. Green said.
The release says Asra Kadisha, a group that has aligned itself with the Rabbinical Congress in protest, has been “harassing its [RFR] employees through the use of inappropriate telephone calls and email. Several death threats and bomb threats are currently under investigation by the NYPD and the District Attorney’s Office.”
Mr. Handler explained why the thought of building a hotel on top of a Jewish cemetery is so repulsive. “We believe when a person dies that’s not the end of life,” he said. “Many times people have to come back two and three times to complete unfinished work.”
A graveyard, he said, is considered a “house of the living,” because “souls hover there.” Citing the Kabbalah, a sacred Jewish text, he said, “If you disturb the rest of those who are buried, there are very serious consequences.”
Such as? “Plague, earthquake, sickness, economic tragedy,” Mr. Handler said, adding that any Jews who do not protest are implicated in the crime.
“Think about Israel,” he said. “A nuclear-armed Iran is around the corner. And Hezbollah, and Hamas. This is not a time to be playing with God and giving him the finger.”