Yonkers, NY – New York – Six months after the sale of a dwindling Westchester congregation, the synagogue’s rabbi has sued his own board members for deliberately undermining his attempts to foster the facility’s growth.
Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Viñas, spiritual leader of the Lincoln Park Jewish Center, filed suit with the Equal Opportunity Employment Opportunity Commission, charging board members with unlawful discrimination and retaliatory practices as reported by the New York Post (http://nyp.st/2iteknh).
According to Rabbi Viñas, members of the staunchly Ashkenazic congregation have displayed a pattern of racial bias against many of the synagogue’s newest members who are of Latin or African American descent.
The nearly 80 year old Lincoln Park Jewish Center which once boasted a membership of more than 350 families, was on the decline when it first hired the Cuban-born Rabbi Viñas in 2003 reported New York Times (http://nyti.ms/2it9BSz).
Despite his own Sephardic roots, Rabbi Viñas was amenable to running the synagogue according to its Ashkenazic traditions as stipulated by his contract and within two years the Orthodox Rabbi Viñas had brought new energy into the Conservative synagogue with a mostly aging membership, bringing in an additional 30 families, approximately half of whom were of Latino descent.
Over time, Rabbi Viñas continued growing the synagogue while carrying on in his own efforts to bring Jews of many cultural backgrounds into the synagogue, including those who believed they are the descendants of families who had abandoned the outward practice of Judaism during the Spanish inquisition.
“It is still difficult for many people to recognize how diverse the Jewish community actually is,” Rabbi Viñas said in 2005. “Now it’s time to come to grips with that and show how it can work.”
The Lincoln Park Jewish Center shifted to Modern-Orthodoxy, billing itself as an inclusive and diverse congregation and becoming home to Torat Emet, a Jewish educational and spirituality center catering to Spanish speaking Jews. This past winter, the Lincoln Park Jewish Center was sold for $2.8 million to a Chasidic synagogue in Brooklyn as reported on LoHud (http://lohud.us/2isKJdu).
The existing congregation, which has a membership of approximately 65 families, will be allowed to continue on site services for three more years as it searches for a new home.
“We have to look to the future,” said Rabbi Viñas at the time of the sale. “If that means we have a smaller facility, we continue the mission. The mission is the important thing, not the building.”
Trouble had already been brewing at the Lincoln Park Jewish Center for years, according to the lawsuit which said that the relationship between Rabbi Viñas and his board had already grown rocky by 2008. The board had reportedly spread rumors that their spiritual leader had plans to turn the shul “Spanish” and accused him of stealing funds from the rabbi’s discretionary fund to further that goal. Although an investigation proved the charges to be unfounded, according to the lawsuit, they surfaced again months later.
The complaint also charged that several synagogue members had their religious identities questioned by board members. One woman was allegedly told that her Dominican husband and biracial children didn’t “look Jewish” and were “creating the wrong impression” and board member Helen Schwartz reportedly told Rabbi Viñas that he wasn’t Jewish because of his Hispanic roots. In another instance Schwartz allegedly said “wouldn’t it be terrible if the darkies took over the synagogue?”
The lawsuit also charged the synagogue with unfairly cutting Rabbi Viñas’ salary and, after forcing him to sell the rabbi’s residence, reneging on a promise to pay him a three percent bonus for finding a buyer.
Rabbi Viñas is seeking compensatory damages against the board, which he claims subjected him to humiliation and mental anguish in addition to significant financial losses.