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Seaside shul congregation is split over property lease to Chasidic sect

Members accuse one another of 'bullying' and 'distortion' in row over proposed deal with Belz group

    Southend and Westcliff Hebrew Congregation is split over the potential leasing of a shul property to a group of Belz Chasidim who have recently joined the community.

    The congregation owns the Talmud Torah building adjacent to the synagogue. In a deal proposed by the shul’s board, the Belzers would fund the building’s refurbishment in return for the option of leasing the premises for their own use.

    More than 100 congregants have signed a petition demanding that any deal regarding “the purpose, acquisition or use” of shul property should require “the prior approval of at least 50 per cent of the members present and entitled to vote at a general meeting”.

    However, in a letter to members SWHC chair Derek Silverstone argued that the petition sought “to limit the governance of the board of management”. As such, the board was unwilling to convene a general meeting. But a meeting to discuss the issue — rather than vote on it — is planned for Sunday.

    In emotive emails seen by the JC, members for and against the Belz deal have accused each other of “distortion”, “inflammatory language” and “bullying”.

    One supporter of the board’s plan wrote: “We have regular minyans now that we didn’t have before thanks to the Chasidim. We have another kosher shop at the top of Hamlet Court Road selling a huge array of food and goods. Who could complain about having greater choice in the area? Do people fear the unknown?

    “Should it make any difference that just as men and women sit apart in our services, so outside the shul and out of respect between sexes Chasidim prefer to sit apart when in a social context outside their homes. It’s different. But a difference that shakes our community to its roots? Of course not.”

    A respondent argued that “a lease on the TT [Talmud Torah], depending on the length of it, could tie the hands of a future [board] in the event a decision was made to try and relocate the shul and its facilities”.

    Mr Silverstone said the petition was effectively “asking the trustees to work counter to the rules of the congregation — and it’s illegal to do that. I told them their proposal was contrary to the rules and that rather than wait for them to go through the whole process of an EGM, I would be happy to go and explain exactly what we were doing.”

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