Beth Radom Congregation is facing a period of healing following a decision by its board not to renew Rabbi Steven Schonblum’s contract after it expires next July and after an unsuccessful challenge by a group of members seeking to replace the board and overturn its decision.
A Dec. 6 letter from the board to congregants explaining the decision regarding the rabbi alleged “unauthorized” conversions and “poor decisions” in managing his discretionary fund, both of which placed the Toronto shul at risk, according to the letter.
Following a Dec. 16 special meeting and congregational vote, the board emailed congregants to say that a motion asking for the board to resign was defeated. As well, the letter asked for co-operation to “ensure that our community not only heals but thrives.”
In an initial letter to congregants dated Oct. 22, the board announced that it would not renew Rabbi Schonblum’s contract, but it didn’t specifically say why, citing concern for his privacy.
The letter said, however, that there had been “ongoing contractual issues” over the past several years. It added that the matters were serious and documented, and there had been discussions with the rabbi, as well as attempts to remedy the situation.
In its Dec. 6 follow-up letter, the board explained its decision regarding the rabbi, who since 2001 has been spiritual leader at Beth Radom, an unaffiliated Conservative egalitarian synagogue with 350 families.
A former ritual director of Pride of Israel Synagogue, Rabbi Schonblum received his smichah shortly before he joined Beth Radom, at age 40, after a decade of study in a distance learning program run by Tifereth Yisrael Rabbinical Yeshiva, which is Orthodox and based in Long Island, N.Y.
According to the board’s Dec. 6 letter, “numerous” complaints, dating back to 2009, had been received from congregants about Rabbi Schonblum, who nevertheless was described as “an extremely likeable and personable individual.”
The complaints related to his availability and responsiveness to members’ needs, including shivah visits, visiting the sick and returning phone calls and emails; use of Internet content for sermons without attribution, and unresponsiveness to the board of governors.
Most notably, the board said the rabbi’s conversions “placed the shul at serious risk for liability,” and that his management of the rabbi’s discretionary fund placed Beth Radom’s status as a charitable organization at risk.
The board said he used synagogue letterhead for conversion certificates after he was asked not to, and was “unable or unwilling to demonstrate that informed consent had been provided” regarding the limitations of his conversions.
Jordan Cait, a vice-president of Beth Radom, told The CJN that the board’s priorities right now are “healing, and to listen to the congregation, and to have them participate with the transition committee that we’re forming to help set the direction in finding a new rabbi.”
Because of the controversy, some congregants have withheld their dues, leading to financial difficulties for the synagogue.
A Dec. 11 letter from the five people who challenged the board – Symon Zucker, Sidney Zucker, Howie Meyer, Wendy Melvin, and Risa Veffer – blamed the board and its actions for what it called the “current financial crisis at the shul.”
Cait, however, described the situation in an interview as “a seasonal cash-flow problem” and “now that the situation is over and the new year is upon us, we’re asking congregants to pay their dues.”
In its letter, the dissident group offered explanations for the accusations directed at Rabbi Schonblum.
The group said, for example, that alleged wrongdoings with respect to the rabbi’s discretionary fund had been authorized by the board, and that the rabbi had in fact complied with other requests regarding his sermons and conversions.
They also wrote that the congregational vote was not the one they had requested. They said they had asked for separate votes about the future of the current board and the renewal of the rabbi’s contract.
A majority of two-thirds in the membership vote would have been required to override the board’s decision and have current board members resign.
Symon Zucker, a former board member whose father was a founder of the shul, said that a little more than half the votes were in favour of the board’s resignation. There were 134 opting for the petition, with 126 against, and 17 abstentions.
Cait views the results differently. He said the board had told some undecided members that by abstaining they would be voting for the board.
Zucker told The CJN he will stay at the shul. “We’re not a dictatorship. We abide by the constitution. There’s an election coming up next November. We’ll address it again.”
Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis and spiritual leader of Beth Tzedec Congregation, said that Rabbi Schonblum is not a member of his group, which comprises members from all the main Jewish movements, and that he could not comment on his particular case.
He added that he didn’t know whether Rabbi Schonblum had ever applied to join the TBR, and he did not recall ever having received a complaint about him.
But speaking about Conservative conversions, Rabbi Frydman-Kohl said that “Conservative rabbis, generally speaking, utilize the Beit Din, or rabbinic court, of the [Conservative movement’s] Rabbinical Assembly, and all of those conversions are conducted under what I’ll call a fairly consistent model. And occasionally, there will be Conservative rabbis who for different reasons will convene their own beit din. In those cases, the beit din is usually three rabbis, but might include a non-rabbi as a member.”
Rabbi Schonblum did not respond to The CJN’s requests for an interview.