Decision about Rabbi Krakoff leaves rift Shaarey Zedek is working to heal.

Shaarey Zedek1When a petition to hold a special congregational meeting signed by about 20 percent of its congregants was presented to the Congregation Shaarey Zedek board at the beginning of August, signers were hopeful their request would be met.

Members of the Save Our Synagogue (SOS) group and other petition signers, numbering 550 people, sought a special meeting on Aug. 24 to voice their opposition to a decision not to renew the contract of Rabbi Joseph Krakoff, who had been at the synagogue for 16 years and whose tenure ended July 31 after a separation agreement was signed.

SOS’s hope was to have the board reverse its decision and keep Krakoff in place. Barring that, the petition called for a vote at the special meeting to remove officers and three at-large executive committee member and replace the officers with three SOS candidates — CSZ members Larry Berry, Jackie Zeff and Dr. Gary Edelson.

The petition, written according to CSZ bylaws, represented a no-confidence vote in the current officers and spoke to major objections voiced by members at a CSZ Town Hall meeting on July 15 about the lack of transparency and congregational input regarding the Krakoff decision.

The special meeting did not happen. The synagogue board voted down the meeting, explaining in an Aug. 13 letter to congregants that the “petition does not meet legal standards” according to bylaws and Michigan law.

The letter explains the executive board may only be removed if there is “cause” and prior board approval — neither of which was satisfied.

Also, the letter states that only the board has the authority to fill vacancies, not a vote by general membership.

An April 1 annual meeting, including elections, was set. April 1 is the earliest date possible in the two-month window stipulated in the bylaws.

On Aug. 24, instead of attending the special congregational meeting they sought, SOS held its final gathering at Akiva Hebrew Day School in Southfield. About 275 people attended. Larry Berry led the meeting.

SOS leaders disagreed that their petition did not follow bylaws.

Larry Berry“The only way to compel the officers to schedule the special meeting as requested in our petition would be to institute a lawsuit; your advisory board unanimously rejects that course of action,” he told the group. “SOS does not want to be the entity that makes this ‘family’ dispute a matter of public record, thereby harming the entity we are working to save.”

He also discussed the matter of reinstating Krakoff.

“In conversation with the rabbi, he related to me that he, Susan and the children are doing well,” Berry said. “Further, he is busy planning the next phase of his career and returning to Shaarey Zedek is not an option at this time.

“Therefore, with retaining our rabbi no longer a viable option and not wanting to pursue legal action … it is, as we say in the Army, time for SOS to ‘stand down.’”

He went on to say that although the desired result was not achieved, “it would be a grave mistake for any of us to think this effort was for naught.

Mary Knoll“Due to the SOS movement, more members of the congregation became actively engaged in congregational affairs,” he said. “Further, issues of congregational governance that were privy only to the leadership of the congregation were openly discussed and debated by the general members.

“However, I believe the most important achievement of SOS was the fact that 550 individuals had the courage to take a stand and act to correct a decision that offended the collective sense of justice.”


Time For Healing

Fallout from board actions and subsequent reactions from many in the congregation will include loss of membership. No one can predict how many of the 1,300 families will seek other synagogues.

“We have had some resignations,” CSZ President Mary Knoll told the JN.
“We’ve also had many people step up their commitment financially and in their involvement. We do have a plan for full recovery. Change takes time.”

Berry says participants in the final SOS meeting had mixed reactions.

“A percent voiced their opinion to work within the system, keep the fire on low and get them in April [at the annual meeting],” he told the JN. “Others were more emotional, saying they were not sticking around as synagogue members. At the end of the day, all have to do what’s in their hearts.”

Phil NeumanSynagogue board member Phil Neuman of Farmington Hills has decided to go. He tendered his board and family membership resignation from Shaarey Zedek in a letter dated Aug. 14.

“It was a very hard decision,” he told the JN. “I had been at Shaarey Zedek for more than 20 years and made many friendships. I looked forward to Shabbat services; it was where I hung out. I was a gabbai [ritual director] and was honored to be one. I enjoyed that very much.

“But things changed after they did what they did to Rabbi Joey,” he said. “It caused a tremendous rift, and the synagogue just simply wasn’t the same place any more for me. I was so disturbed by what happened, and I had no idea this was coming. I couldn’t stay anymore.

“They did not tell the whole board about the decision about the rabbi — maybe some select board members, others, but nothing was brought up at the board level at any time. I still remember when I heard about it. I was totally shocked.

“I did participate in SOS and did not feel it was a breach of board membership,” Neuman said. “The best thing I could do was to help this group save the synagogue — that was their goal.

“To be honest, I hope it can be healed,” he said. “I don’t see Shaarey Zedek going back to what it was because a lot of things have been said and done. They say time heals all wounds, but I’m not sure about this one.”

Now Neuman says his family will be shopping for a place to celebrate the High Holidays.

Krakoff and his family will celebrate the holidays at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills as new members. Their son’s bar mitzvah date in 2015 is already scheduled.

The rabbi will continue teaching Jewish Federation FedEd classes and a Friday beit midrash class at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills. He will consult with the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network, and continue to officiate at life-cycle events.

He also is working on a resource guide for Rosh Hashanah rabbinic sermons about Operation Protective Edge for the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.


Into The Future
Shaarey Zedek’s board reacted to the rift in the congregation by holding a town hall meeting in mid-July attended by more than 600 members.

After hearing feedback about the board’s lack of transparency and failure to seek member input about the Krakoff decision, as well as gauging the emotion attached to the situation, the board instituted Congregational Conversations.

So far, three of the parlor meetings — open to all members — have been held. Knoll says they will continue.

“They offer an exchange of ideas,” she said. “At first, there are questions for leadership. We learn a great deal having an exchange of conversation. The meetings provide additional means for people to have a voice and to demonstrate we hear them. There is still a lot of pain for some.

“The results of the conversations are discussed at the board level where concerns can be addressed and initiatives can be implemented, always with an eye to improving.

“I think the town hall, Congregational Conversations and one-on-one contacts between leadership and congregants have truly driven us to stability.

“I’m excited to move forward in the most positive way, and we are certainly looking ahead to being more open.”

The Aug. 13 letter to the congregation outlines these changes:

• Two petitioner representatives will be appointed to serve positions on the board, the Rabbinic Search Committee and the Nominating Committee (for elections at the 2015 annual meeting).

• Two petitioner representatives will be appointed to a new task force to review current bylaws and recommend changes.

• Quarterly meetings of the executive board will be open to all to discuss issues concerning the operation of the synagogue.

An SOS leader said these proposals were rejected by SOS leadership because their goal was recall of the executive board.

These concessions are considered “meager,” the source said.

Knoll concluded the letter: “We appreciate your patience and understanding as we navigate these difficult issues. We assure you that our congregation, with its 1,300 families and endowment, remains strong and will continue to thrive for the benefit of future generations … We welcome and encourage your input and participation.”

Berry, a third-generation Shaarey Zedek president, says he consented to lead and get involved in SOS because “you have to take a stand for what you think is right whether you prevail or not.

“I have no ill will,” he said. “The board made a bad decision and executed it worse — that’s what I objected to. They are not the devil incarnate.

“Those not satisfied will organize themselves in anticipation of the April meeting. I will not be involved in that. I’ve done what I can do. There’s a Yiddish quote that says something like ‘The more shul, the less Torah.’ I will devote myself to more Torah.” 

By Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor

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