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BY LESLEY SUSSMAN | Testimony was concluded last week in a bitter three-year court case in which a Brooklyn rabbi who was once convicted of stealing a Torah from an Upstate synagogue and trying to fence it, now claims to be a member and assistant rabbi of an East Village orthodox synagogue — which the synagogue’s rabbi and congregation members strongly deny.
Rabbi Pesach Ackerman of the Anshe Mezeritz synagogue, 415 E. Sixth St., said the Brooklyn rabbi does not attend services there and has fabricated the story in an effort to wrangle control of the synagogue for personal financial gain.
At the conclusion of a three-hour hearing on Wed., April 25, before State Supreme Court Justice Ira Gammerman, the judge indicated that, in his preliminary opinion, he saw no solid evidence that Rabbi Bernard Welz was a regular attendee of the East Village synagogue, or that he had made the required contributions to qualify him a member.
The judge told Welz’s attorney, Meyer Silber, that he was ready to render a verdict right then, but allowed Silber to take 30 days to provide any additional proof that might change his mind. Gammerman said he would make his final decision on June 4.
Welz was not available for comment, but his attorney said after the 10 a.m. hearing that he was disappointed by it.
“I respectfully disagree with the judge,” Silber said. “He precluded significant evidence that would have proven our case. We will now explore other options.”
Charles Knapp, the synagogue’s pro bono attorney who took over the case last year after the previous lawyer withdrew, said that the opposing side had “failed miserably to make their case.”
Knapp said of Welz’s attorney, “He offered no positive paper trail to prove his client’s claim that he was a member of the synagogue or the acting assistant rabbi. He was unable to testify that he worshiped at the synagogue on anything remotely approaching a regular basis. I think that’s why the judge found at this point that Silber had established neither element required by the statute.”
Rabbi Ackerman, 83, who has served as the synagogue’s rabbi since 1969, said afterward that, while he was pleased with the way things went in court on Wednesday, “I won’t feel relieved until a final verdict is made.” He added that he was saddened by the Brooklyn rabbi’s action, which cost his financially strapped synagogue thousands of dollars in court fees.
“I can’t believe a rabbi can be such a liar,” he said. “I’ve only seen him in my synagogue on rare occasions. It was a terrible experience to have to go through all this, and a costly one.”
Congregation members said they, too, had never seen Welz in the synagogue. Stuart Lipsky, a retired disabled schoolteacher, said, “I’ve been coming regularly to this synagogue for the last 10 years and I’ve never once seen this guy. He just wants to worm his way into membership so he can get a piece of the action for any future development that might take place here.”
Ido Nissi, a synagogue board member, said what drove Welz to sue was a 2008 plan to renovate the synagogue.
“He and many other people mistakenly thought that the synagogue was being sold,” Nissi said. “That’s why he really falsely claimed not only to be a member but also the assistant rabbi, so he could get hold of some of the money that he thought would be coming in from the sale.”
Welz, however, in a written affidavit he submitted in 2010, said he had other motivations for filing the lawsuit.
“I have reasons to believe that the finances and property of the Meseritz congregation are not being properly maintained,” he wrote, “and for that reason I seek the court’s intervention.”
When he was 22, Welz was arrested and convicted for stealing and trying to fence a Torah that was taken from the Woodridge Synagogue in South Fallsburg, N.Y.
“Concerning the allegation that I was involved in a stolen Torah more than 15 years ago,” Welz wrote in his affidavit, “that was the outcome of youthful indiscretion in which I allowed a stolen Torah to be left in my home in an immature rationalization.”
On May 5, 1993, Welz and a co-defendant, Aaron Glucksman, pleaded guilty to being in possession of the stolen Torah. The two men were sentenced to community service — Welz received 30 hours of community service — and had to repay any financial loss suffered by the synagogue. The court showed the pair leniency since neither had a criminal record.
Anshe Meseritz board member Robert Rand told this newspaper that Welz “started out stealing Torahs and now he’s trying to steal a synagogue. He’s a pathological liar who has a history of doing this before with other synagogues in the neighborhood,” Rand charged. “He’s nothing short of a predator.”
At the hearing, while under questioning from Gammerman, Welz admitted that over the years he has only occasionally appeared at the synagogue — mainly during the Jewish High Holidays.
Welz, who gave his address as 116 Avenue I, Brooklyn, claimed in court papers to have been the Anshe Mezeritz assistant rabbi since 1995 when he first started coming to the synagogue.
Welz is also the subject of a best-selling book, “Terrorist Cop,” written by Orthodox Jewish N.Y.P.D. Detective Mordecai Dzikansky. Dzikansky was a member of a special Torah Theft Task Force that was formed after a spate of Torah thefts in New York State.
Dzikansky wrote of his and his partner’s 1993 arrest of Welz and Glucksman that, “We received a phone call from a Judaica dealer in Brooklyn who told us that some youngsters from Sullivan County in Upstate New York had phoned him to say they wanted to sell a Torah.”
The detective recalled that he and his partner hid themselves in a small closet in the dealer’s study and arrested the two men on the spot as they were trying to fence the Torah.
“As we secreted ourselves in that tiny closet, the deal went down,” the detective wrote. “Suddenly we emerged from the closet, pounced on the two religious youngsters, and arrested them. We recovered the stolen Torah on the spot.”