Embattled Hamptons Rabbi Moving On


After months of legal battles and high-stakes shul politics, the rabbi at the center of a million-dollar contract battle in East Hampton is set to take a new position as senior rabbi at an Upper East Side temple, The Jewish Week has learned.

But divisions between supporters and detractors of Rabbi David Gelfand at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, a Reform temple, may continue for some time, as efforts continue to oust board members who refused to extend the three-year contract, which expires at the end of next month.

Rabbi Gelfand will preside over his final Sabbath services at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons on June 3. After that, he will use up accumulated vacation time before beginning his new position at Temple Israel Of The City of New York.

Members of the Jewish Center, citing growth in membership during the rabbi’s tenure, sued the shul’s board of directors in a bid to have them renew his contract, but a judge recently upheld the trustees’ authority.

The case wound its way through the state Supreme Court with a series of motions, injunctions and rulings that dealt victories and setbacks to both sides. While supporters of the rabbi were preparing for another push, the rabbi’s announcement will likely forestall further action.

Rabbi Gelfand was selected by a search committee at Temple Israel despite allegations that surfaced in the press of financial improprieties and bad relations with synagogue employees in East Hampton. Some said the rabbi had not been forthcoming in addressing the allegations.

The rabbi did not return a call seeking comment. But a supporter, Leonard Gordon, a 30-year member of the Jewish Center, said Temple Israel had vindicated him with its selection, which must be approved by the full congregation at a meeting on Monday.

"Temple Israel found the charges against him by the board to be baseless and unwarranted," said Gordon, a past president of the Jewish Center. "We are extremely sorry to lose Rabbi Gelfand and wish him well."

Gordon said he and other supporters would work to unseat members of the board who opposed the rabbi. "The scheduled meeting to amend the constitution will be held this Sunday, again on the grass if necessary," he said, referring to a meeting of the rabbi’s supporters last October that was held outside the temple after the trustees barred them from using the building. "We have almost 600 proxies, which will be an overwhelming vote for the election of new trustees at the next annual meeting," said Gordon.

Some members want to change the shulís bylaws so that members, not the trustees, will have the final say on hiring or firing a rabbi.

Barnett Lieberman, a trustee of the Jewish Center and chair of the committee that decided against renewing the contract, said the board was "pleased the rabbi has secured a new position. We wish him nothing but the best. This is an opportunity for him and Kathy to move to New York, which is much more an activity center for Jewish life and learning." He added: "We look forward to celebrating simchas together."

Both Lieberman and Gordon said they were hopeful the congregation could heal its divisions and reach a consensus on a new rabbi.

"Most of the people on this board I have worked with for 30 years and have showed good sense in many areas," said Gordon. "They went off on a wrong turn on this one."

The Jewish Center will now work with the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis to appoint an interim spiritual leader.

In a letter to members of Temple Israel announcing the selection by a search committee, officers of the congregation wrote that "Rabbi Gelfand is recognized as a national Jewish leader who has a long and distinguished history of building strong congregations, most recently at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, NY."

The letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Jewish Week, also notes that the rabbi "has developed an impressive array of programs that have stimulated temple life and have enriched the lives of countless individuals."