Yoel Falkowitz was recently ejected from the synagogue and barred by the Rabbi of the Spring Valley, NY synagogue he regularly attends on the grounds that he is an apostate (“kofer”). The Rabbi, Avrohom Yehoshua Retek, accuses Falkowitz of expressing heretical beliefs in shul and influencing others. He has mocked the biblical story of Jonah and the fish, and has remarked to a fellow congregant that “I’m not so sure there is a creator” –the self-appointed Rabbi said in an interview with HasidicNews.com.
Falkowitz’s embarrassing ejection occurred on Feb, 10, 2018 during the Friday evening liturgy. Approximately midway through the liturgy, right before borekhu, the Rabbi, having previously warned Falkowitz not to attend synagogue that week, approached him and said “it’s my shul, get out!” When Falkowitz refused, the Rabbi went over to the central bimoh and announced that the service will continue downstairs. Congregants hesitated, but after some moments of intense glaring by the Rabbi they followed him to the other room where the service resumed without Falkowitz’s presence.
For the morning service the next day, the spiel repeated itself. Falkowitz was asked to leave and when he refused the Rabbi directed his congregants out of the room and continued the service elsewhere while Falkowitz remained in the synagogue alone.
After suspending shabbos services for one week while strategizing action, the Rabbi hired guards for the third shabbos to be stationed at the shul’s entrance and prevent Falkowitz’s entry should he attempt it. Falkowitz, learning that some action was being planned against him for that week, did not show up, and has subsequently not appeared at Retek’s synagogue.
In order to punish Falkowitz and deter his return to the synagogue in the future, the Rabbi filed trespass criminal charges against Falkowitz. Around March 1st, Falkowitz received a notice of the second-degree criminal trespass charge by mail and was summoned to answer the charge in court.
In an interview with HN Falkowitz denied all the charges against him, including that he ever expressed any heretical opinions in shul. The Rabbi has a personal beef with him and has tried to instigate congregants against him, he says. When that failed the Rabbi sought to punish him out of spite in order to redeem the Rabbi’s honor and appear victorious. Members of the shul are disturbed at his ejection from the synagogue, Falkowitz says.
Falkowitz has hired a lawyer to repel the criminal trespass charge. He argues that his barring from the shul violates his civil rights since the shul “belongs to the state because it is tax exempt”. His GoFundMe page has raised $2,839 from 70 contributors since its launch five days ago. The prosecution has offered him a plea deal in which it would not seek any substantive penalty if he agreed to stay away from the shul for six months. But Falkowitz has rejected the offer, professing innocence and demanding that the charge be dropped at once unconditionally.
The synagogue in question is known as the “Parkview shul”, after the 64-unit condominium development, Parkview Condominiums at Maple & 45, within which it is located. The developer is a Hasidic individual who availed himself of federal urban renewal funds for the project, and all the condominium’s residents are Hasidim. The synagogue’s Rabbi, Falkowitz, and nearly all of its congregants are condominium members. The Rabbi had apparently paid the developer extra for the privilege of running the shul.
Federal standards for the project require that space in it be designated for a “community room”. However, being that Hasidim eschew secular social activities, the developer instead granted a concession to Mr. Retek to run religious services there on shabbos and be the “synagogue”‘s Rabbi. The room’s use as a synagogue is legally acceptable on its face although the federal standard requires that if it be used for religious purposes, then all religions be granted access equally.
In light of the federal rules governing the “community room”‘s use, Falkowitz appears to have a very strong legal case entitling him to attend services there against the wishes of the rabbi, who does not appear to have a right to exclude someone on religious grounds, even if the heretical charges against Falkowitz were to be true.
Falkowitz is infamous for having taken controversial positions within the Hasidic community. He is one of a select few brave Hasidim who have come out openly in support of Yaffed’s effort to improve secual education in Hasidic schools. He is also a professional actor, having roles in the film Menasheh and the TV series High Maintenance, defying the Hasidic norm to shun all television and cinema.
Nevertheless, in a sign of a general relaxation of strict communal conformity in recent years, Retek’s campaign against Falkowitz, while sincerely held by the Rabbi, has not been followed by any other elements in the community. Falkowitz’s children have not been ejected from their Hasidic school, and he is permitted to attend other synagogues, albeit being located farther from his home.