Accused child molester sues synagogue in ‘hostile takeover’ attempt, congregation charges

By Victoria Bekiempis (NY Daily News)
April 28, 2017

Leaders at a Brooklyn synagogue say a former congregant is trying to force his way into a leadership role and accuses him of inappropriate conduct with teenage boys.

In August, Zvi Geller, 40, sued Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom on Rodney St. in Williamsburg, calling for new board elections. He also said the board wouldn't let him build a youth center.

But the synagogue leaders, which members describe as the last Orthodox, non-Hasidic place of worship in the neighborhood, say Geller is attempting a "hostile takeover."

In an affidavit filed Tuesday against Geller's suit, synagogue president Martin Needelman said Geller opposed the appointment of a new rabbi after its longtime leader retired.

"Geller strongly opposed the Congregation's attempt to seek a new rabbi and without being formally appointed, he began acting as if he were the effective rabbi of the Congregation," Needelman stated.

The affidavit further accuses Geller of sleeping on the synagogue's premises at least three Friday nights while alone with a 16-year-old boy who'd joined him for the Sabbath. The document also cites an ad in a local Jewish publication that accuses Geller of being a molester.

Geller has not been charged with any criminal conduct and vehemently denies the allegations.

In 2015, he was elected to the synagogue's board as trustee and became second vice president. He insists he's still in good standing. The affidavit from Needelman claims Geller told the congregation he wanted "to construct facilities for his youth programs" - including a dorm.

"Geller's plans were of incredible concern to the Congregation, considering the unrefuted claims that he is a child molester - not to mention the potential liability arising therefrom," Needelman stated.

Even though the board voted against building the youth center, Geller allegedly took steps toward creating one, the synagogue claims.

Geller's lawyer, Baruch Gottesman, rejected the accusations of inappropriate conduct with boys as "completely bogus." He told The News Needelman was using them to "discredit the case that (Geller) brought against them."

Needelman, meanwhile, voiced suspicions of Geller's motives.

"He has no life, he's desperate," Needelman said. "The whole thing is crazy. It's a completely baseless case."

Gottesman insists his client is still a member in good standing.

The heart of Geller's lawsuit is religious - namely, he believes the synagogue lost its way after the longtime rabbi's retirement, Gottesman said.

"That's what the lawsuit is about, that he wants it to be run as an Orthodox congregation," Gottesman said.

Synagogue lawyer Leopold Gross says the suit isn't about religion at all.

"Geller is attempting a hostile takeover of a synagogue," he said. "He now hopes to achieve this result through the courts."

Both sides are expected back in court on Friday.