Bias Case Roiling Yonkers Shul Pulling In Latinos

From an early age, Rabbi Rigoberto Emmanuel Vinas recalls, he began developing the vision of a diverse, multicultural Jewish community he would adopt as a spiritual leader and make into his life’s mission.

That mission has included the creation of El Centro de Estudios Judios, an organization devoted to welcoming Latinos interested in Judaism; the publication of a Spanish-English newspaper for the same population; and Torah classes in Spanish — all activities launched by Rabbi Vinas soon after he was ordained in 2001.

Since then, he’s added an online presence with the creation of a YouTube channel, Tora Tropical, which carries Spanish-language lectures about Jewish prayer, ritual and history, and a Facebook page with about 14,000 followers.

The mission also included the outreach efforts he conducted at the Lincoln Park Jewish Center, which Rabbi Vinas joined in 2003 with plans to turn around the decline at the Yonkers synagogue, in part, by drawing new members from minority groups. The rabbi, who was born in Miami to two Cuban parents who converted, envisioned attracting a good number of Anusim, or “forced ones,” people whose Jewish ancestors were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition — a community to which the spiritual leader also belongs.

Those activities have made Rabbi Vinas, known to friends as Manny, a much-admired figure among Latinos who are Jewish or drawn to the faith. But what the rabbi wasn’t bargaining for is the discrimination he says he and many of the newcomers faced from some of the longtime congregants, including members of the board. The discrimination became so ugly and persistent, he claims, that he was forced to file a complaint last spring with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Nor was Rabbi Vinas bargaining for his dismissal from the congregation last August, when the board voted not to renew his contract, he said in a recent interview. The rabbi and his lawyer, Vincent P. White, regard the board’s action at least partly as retaliation for the EEOC complaint. The EEOC has since given the rabbi a “right to sue” letter, allowing his lawyer to file a federal lawsuit against the congregation, but Rabbi Vinas has decided to take the case to a rabbinical court before pursuing that option. (The synagogue’s board has until Jan. 22 to accept or reject the Beth Din of America’s invitation to enter into binding arbitration of the matter.)

Finally, Rabbi Vinas wasn’t bargaining to hear about a petty larceny committed at the synagogue on Dec. 21, when Robert Kalfus, a vice president of the congregation at the time, allegedly entered Lincoln Park’s main office at night and took files and checkbooks from the secretary’s desk, according to the rabbi, who said he learned of the incident from a board member he can’t name. The information was later confirmed by a source who is deeply involved in the synagogue and wished to remain anonymous.

Both the unnamed board member and The Jewish Week’s source said the incident was captured by the congregation’s surveillance camera and that the board voted several days later to oust Kalfus from his leadership role and bar him from entering the building again.

Deidra Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office, wrote in an email to The Jewish Week last Thursday that the office has closed the investigation “due to insufficient evidence” and that no charges will be filed in the case. Earlier this month, the public information officer for the Yonkers Police Department, Det. Sgt. Dean Politopoulos, said Kalfus returned a number of pilfered items while claiming that he wasn’t responsible for their theft.

In an email to The Jewish Week, the congregation’s president, Jack Schweizer, said the congregation “denies any allegations that it engaged in unlawful or wrongful conduct of any kind” — a reference to Rabbi Vinas’ EEOC complaint and the later allegation that his dismissal was unlawful. Beyond that, Schweizer said, neither he nor any board member of Lincoln Park would comment on the case at this time.

The Lincoln Park Jewish Center in Yonkers. Wikimedia Commons

Reached by phone later in regard to the board’s ouster of Kalfus, Schweizer said that any board meeting is “an internal matter” and that he wouldn’t comment on any actions the board took behind closed doors.

Kalfus, a resident of Yonkers who works as a photojournalist, said in a phone interview: “Anonymous sources gave you incorrect and false information.”

Whether the larceny has anything to do with Rabbi Vinas’ allegations of discrimination is an open question. But White, the rabbi’s lawyer, told The Jewish Week that the secretary whose files were stolen “actually was a witness to a lot of the discrimination,” as well as a “victim of rampant discrimination. … She saw it all.”

As spelled out by the EEOC complaint, the rabbi’s case against Lincoln Park includes allegations that the congregation has had a long history of discriminating against non-whites and that racist members “have employed subterfuge and sabotage against not only Rabbi Vinas, but Latino and African American members.”

In one instance, the complaint alleges, one board member asked the rabbi rhetorically, “Wouldn’t it be terrible if the darkies took over?” Others on the board allegedly spread rumors that the rabbi was planning to remake Lincoln Park into a “Spanish and Black” congregation and accused him of stealing from the rabbi’s discretionary fund to implement that change — rumors that continued to circulate even after an investigation concluded that the funds were “properly distributed.”

The situation caused at least one board member, Justin Kravetz, to leave the board shortly after it dismissed the rabbi, Kravetz told The Jewish Week. “I was one of the board members who didn’t like the way things unfolded, and I couldn’t be part of it,” said Kravetz, 50, who said he’s “as Yankee, white and Ashkenazic as you get” and became close friends with the rabbi.

Although no one from Lincoln Park’s leadership would talk about Rabbi Vinas’ allegations, several former Latino congregants who felt misled by the rabbi did speak with a reporter. They were divided, though, over whether the rabbi and Latino newcomers to Lincoln Park faced any racial or ethnic discrimination.

One of them is Mariantha Harris, 52, whose name was given to The Jewish Week by Rabbi Vinas and by one of his critics. Part black and part Cherokee Indian, Harris is one of the former congregants who said her reception at Lincoln Park was unfriendly and, at times, even hostile. She overheard racist comments “on a regular basis,” including the suggestion that “darkies are taking over the synagogue,” she said.

Harris called the rabbi a “wonderful man” with a “wonderful heart” who had done a lot for her and her son, who also belonged to the congregation. But she believes he failed to follow through on his promises, including the conversion she wanted, and she finally received a conversion from a Satmar rabbi in Brooklyn. Another former congregant said some newcomers waited for as long as five or six years to be converted before leaving the congregation and undergoing conversion elsewhere.

Rabbi Vinas’ response to those complaints is “guilty as charged,” he said, adding that Orthodox rabbis who do things by the book “move very, very slowly” on conversions and don’t make any promises. The conversion is contingent on the individual’s level of seriousness and his or her willingness to practice tradition.

If anyone has any questions about Rabbi Vinas’ conversions, he said, referring to himself in the third person, “you can be absolutely sure that he took his time to do things right. I’ve never done a conversion I regretted.”

The rabbi’s allegations of discrimination are nothing new to Diane Tobin, executive director of Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue), a national organization that advocates for greater ethnic, cultural and racial diversity within the Jewish community.

“From our point of view, this case sounds like a microcosm of the Jewish community as a whole,” said Tobin, whose group’s website lists Rabbi Vinas as one of its speakers. “You have an aging congregation in a changing neighborhood,” leading to a culture clash between those who’ve belonged to the synagogue for decades and newcomers who might look or sound different. Many synagogues want to be welcoming and even believe that they are, she added, “but that’s not often the case.”

The rabbi knows his experiences tell several stories, including the one concerning discrimination. But “if I could choose which one to tell you,” he said, “it would be the story about amplifying and opening the definition of ‘who is a Jew.’ It would be the story of my work with marginalized Jews who are looking for a [spiritual] home and who just want to be counted. The Jewish story would be all the better if we counted them.”