Shul’s Out: Sixteenth Street Synagogue Praying It’s Staying

The embattled building (Photo courtesy of the Forward).

The embattled building. (Photo courtesy of the Forward)

The stay of eviction that the Sixteenth Street Synagogue received at the eleventh hour, allowing it remain at 3 West 16th Street through the end of 2012, might have been a holiday miracle. But the holidays are over, and so it would seem, are the last vestiges of hope for the Orthodox congregation that has called the six-story building home for the last 67 years.

Acting supreme court justice Debra James has decided not to extend the stay of eviction that was granted on December 24, pending examination of the synagogue’s claim to 1/3 ownership of the building. The synagogue has been ordered to evacuate the premises immediately.

“It’s very upsetting, how can I tell you otherwise? I’ve been there since 1988. This is my only Jewish home,” synagogue president Richard McBee told The Observer. “This is a very vibrant synagogue, and the idea of that shutting down is just simply wrong.”

Mr. McBee said that the congregation is planning to file an appeal. If the appellate court decides to hear the case, the synagogue will be eligible for another temporary stay of eviction. However, given that all the lower courts have ruled that the synagogue’s eviction is a simple matter of contract law, it seems unlikely that the appellate court will agree to hear the case.

That the synagogue has been widely acknowledged as an aggrieved party, caught in a web of good intentions and bad agreements, has not proved equal to a contract between the synagogue’s would-be savior—Steve Ancona—and the man who now owns the building, businessman Jack Braha.

That Mr. Ancona and Mr. Braha struck up their agreement as part of a bid to save the Sixteenth Street Synagogue from eviction in the first place makes the most recent turn of events particularly tragic.

The deal was born out of a lengthy legal battle that began in the 1990s when the National Council of Young Israel decided to sell the building.

The Sixteenth Street Synagogue, which grew from the National Council’s model synagogue in the 1940s, considered itself part-owner of the building and sued the council for the right to stay. The battle was wending its way through the courts when Mr. Ancona struck on what seemed, at the time, like an ideal solution.

Mr. Ancona, who is a member of Magen David, a Sephardic Synagogue that developed from Sixteenth Street and eventually moved to the building’s second floor, formulated a complicated business deal. Mr. Braha would buy the building—in his name only, for tax purposes—and provide financial backing to convert the top four floors to luxury condos. After the condos sold and Mr. Braha recouped his equity and a 10 percent return on investment, Mr. Ancona would turn over the basement and first two floors, as well as the remainder of the profits, to the two synagogues.

The deal, unfortunately, did not include any written agreement with the Sixteenth Street Synagogue, and after Mr. Ancona failed to finish, let alone sell, the condo units on time or pay the requisite rent, Mr. Braha sued Mr. Ancona. The synagogue was a casualty of the dust-up.

“The Sixteenth Street Synagogue was promised a free deal for life. But that wasn’t a deal I made with them,” said Mr. Braha when The Observer spoke with him last week. “My deal was with Ancona. Their claim to ownership is out, gone, history. In 2006 [the date of the sale], they became guests of Steve Ancona by virtue of Steve’s lease with me.”

Mr. Braha blamed Magen David, which has since relocated to a new space on Sullivan Street, for abandoning Mr. Ancona and the Sixteenth Street Synagogue when the renovations went over budget, a reading that Mr. McBee disputed. He said that he wished Magen David success and prosperity and that the synagogue had invited them to join them temporarily in their new space (an offer Sixteenth Street does not plan to take them up on, as it is too far from its members).

Mr. Braha admitted that the situation was unfortunate, but said that as the investor, it wasn’t his responsibility to fix it. “I got stuck with the orphan baby on my front porch,” Mr. Braha summed up the situation.

Mr. McBee said that the synagogue is hopeful that the appellate court will agree to hear the synagogue’s case.

“Our legal principle is that from the time we were in the building with National Council, we had explicit 1/3 ownership,” said Mr. McBee. “We lived in the building as co-owners. It’s very hard to get a court to understand these kinds of complexities, but they are 100 percent real. That is what is so frustrating and hurtful about these decisions.”

The Sixteenth Street Synagogue and Mr. Braha have tried and so far failed to work out an agreement that would allow Sixteenth Street to stay.

Mr. McBee dismissed Mr. Braha’s proposed solution—that the synagogue pay $7.5 million to cover that amount that Mr. Braha has spent on the building since buying it, in exchange for a long-term lease on the entire building, as financially unworkable.

As for Mr. Braha’s suggestion that the synagogue pay something close to $12,000, or market rate, for the first floor, he said that he was very open and willing to try to work out a deal, but that the synagogue did not have unlimited funds. And after trying to work out a deal for four years with Mr. Braha, he said he was dubious that it could be done.

“So far, he hasn’t put anything forward that is ‘here is my proposal to you,’” Mr. McBee said. “It’s always, ‘here is my proposal to you if can do this.’”

kvelsey@observer.com