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March 22, 2012 By: By:
Shul Donation in Legal Limbo
A Conshohocken man is suing a Delaware County congregation over the $100,000 he gave to the shul a decade ago in honor of his late mother.
Dale Sattar, a 75-year-old retired engineer originally from Iran, contends that Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron, which shut down last year, is required to donate the money to another charity, selected by him, and is refusing to do so. Although it's no longer operating, the Havertown synagogue still exists as a legal non-profit organization.
"Every chance I get, I pray to God to judge me the way I treated the synagogue -- and to judge the synagogue and officers the way they treated me," said Sattar.
Beyond the legalities, the case offers a rare glimpse into the complications and the mechanics of what happens when a synagogue is forced to shut down.
Sattar's claim is based on his 2002 donation agreement, which was made years before B'nai Aaron faced the prospect of closing due to declining membership and rising costs.
In keeping with the agreement, the synagogue did rename its sanctuary after Sattar's mother, Heshmat Senehi Benhaim. The congregation also used the money for work on its 26,000-square foot structure.
But the document stressed that, under certain conditions, B'nai Aaron might be required to part with the $100,000 -- even though it had already spent it.
The agreement spelled out that if the synagogue ever merged with another congregation -- and if that synagogue didn't rename its sanctuary after Benhaim -- the $100,000 had to go to the Boys Town Jerusalem Foundation of America. That's the American arm of an Israeli charity that educates disadvantaged youth.
However, the agreement also says that if the congregation dissolves and donates its religious properties, they will be "donated in the name of the Synagogue and the Heshmat Senehi Benhaim Sanctuary."
Sattar is not seeking to get back the money for himself, he said. He contends that B'nai Aaron has functionally merged with Adath Israel in Merion Station and that Adath Israel has not offered to rename its sanctuary after Benhaim. Adath Israel has offered to put up a plaque bearing his mother's name in a prominent spot in the synagogue, but Sattar has said no.
B'nai Aaron's attorney, Allen Mandelbaum, has countered that the synagogue never merged with Adath Israel -- though it did pursue merger talks with several congregations, including Adath Israel -- and is undergoing the process of legally dissolving.
"While the congregation would have liked to resolve the matter with Mr. Sattar in a mutually satisfactory manner, the congregation will now leave Mr. Sattar's claim in the capable hands" of the judge and the legal system, Mandelbaum wrote in an email.
In September, Sattar filed his lawsuit in the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, but Mandelbaum is pushing to have the case decided by the Delaware County Orphan's Court, which is overseeing the synagogue's dissolution.
The court documents touch on much more than legal minutia. The papers contain echoes of the raw emotions that accompanied the breakup of a longstanding Conservative synagogue.
The documents also offer a glimpse into the mechanics of a synagogue shut-down, and how a substantial amount of money is often involved.
For example, after the congregation voted to dissolve in March of last year, B'nai Aaron sold it's building to Trinity Christian Church for $1.65 million.
Pennsylvania law states that a non-profit corporation that is dissolving must disburse its assets to another charitable organization, under the supervision of orphan's court. Money from the sale of the building cannot be divided among synagogue members.
An agreement between Adath Israel and B'nai Aaron stated B'nai Aaron's Torahs and other items, as well as most of the proceeds from the sale of its building, would go to Adath Israel.
A lawyer representing Adath Israel wouldn't disclose how many of B'nai Aaron's 200 families joined Adath Israel at reduced cost, but one former member said he'd been told the number was around 80 families.
It's not clear when, or if, Sattar's case will ever go to trial. He recently dismissed his attorney, with the intent to carry the case forward himself.
Sattar stated that his goal is for the money he donated -- which he said was the bulk of his life savings -- to go toward a worthy charity, and that his mother cared deeply about the Jewish state.
"I live off of Social Security, I'm not a well-to-do person. I never buy anything that is not on sale. If I have to do without, I do without," he said. "I will go in front of a judge and do the best I can. If I win, I win. If I lose, I lose."
A widower with no children, Sattar comes across as a quiet, private man who occasionally indulges in short bursts of irascibility.
The fourth of 10 children, he grew up in a traditional Jewish home in Teheran, Iran, and came to Philadelphia in the mid '50s, at the age of 20, to study at what was then known as the Drexel Institute of Technology.
He lives in a sparsely furnished condo in Conshohocken, where he moved from Allentown a little more than a year ago to be closer to siblings. A large photo of his mother dominates his living room.
His mother, who grew up in Teheran, never finished elementary school and was 14 when she married. She, her husband and some of her younger children followed Sattar to the area in the 1970s, when she became an active congregant at B'nai Aaron. She died in 2000, at the age of 87.
Sattar alleges that the synagogue elected to dissolve, rather than merge, in order to avoid adhering to his agreement and give the money to Boys Town. He acknowledged that the gift had been spent on building repairs, but he asserted that due to the sale of the building, B'nai Aaron has that much money.
Both Mandelbaum and Deborah Zateeny, a lawyer representing Adath Israel, denied Sattar's allegations. B'nai Aaron had no choice but to dissolve because no other synagogue was willing to take on its debt, which would be required under a merger, they said.
"The determination for B'nai Aaron to seek dissolution of its corporate entity was not predicated on Mr. Sattar's interests," said Mandelbaum.
Despite the fact that synagogue mergers have been fairly common, Zateeny said that non-profit groups are often hesitant to merge because it's risky for a group to take on another's known and unknown debts. One court document showed B'nai Aaron carrying about $200,000 in various financial obligations.
"That is why B'nai Aaron, from a legal standpoint, was unable to find a merger partner and was forced to go the dissolution route," said Zateeny.
She also stressed that "the matter arises under an agreement between SJCC-BA and Mr. Sattar, and Adath Israel is not a party to that agreement."
Mandelbaum said that B'nai Aaron has reached out to Sattar to settle the dispute and has been rebuffed. Sattar said the offer to put a plaque in the hallway of Adath Israel did not seem consistent with a $100,000 gift. Sattar claims he is the one who has tried to reach an amicable agreement and has been ignored.
He said the episode has left him disillusioned with synagogues and he insists that he's been treated dishonestly. It has "made me ashamed to be a Jew."