Keepers, Pillars, Poets and Baking Soda: Alleged Fraud and Unholy Restoration at a Harlem Landmark

By Jacob Weis on Dec 26th, 2012

Synagogue in Harlem

Mansion, turned city sanitorium, turned Black Hebrew synagogue, turned mansion. (Photo by Jacob Weis)

On an overcast late summer day, six men in white robes and hats raised rams’ horns to their lips.  It was Sept. 17, the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah, and services by the East River had just begun.

“We are marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion,” the small gathering sang; then the shofars trumpeted in unison over the water.

Black Hebrews have worshipped annually at Harlem’s rivers for nearly a century.  According to tradition, the running waters sweep away the previous year’s sins, cleansing the congregation.

This year, though, one of Harlem’s most resilient—and longest named—congregations, The Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of the Living God Pillar & Ground of Truth, may itself drift away, weakened by a generations-old fissure and the contentious sale and resale of its landmark synagogue.

Synagogues were once commonplace in Harlem.  In the 1920s, an estimated 178,000 Jews occupied the area, more than the number of African Americans in Harlem today.   But by the 1930s, an influx of black Americans fleeing the social and economic repression of the South coincided with the migration of much of Harlem’s Jewish population to other parts of the city.

But the Commandment congregation stayed.  Rabbi Wentworth Matthew founded the sect, one of America’s oldest black Hebrew groups, in 1919, preaching that Ethiopians comprise one of the lost tribes of Israel, descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Under Matthew’s leadership the congregation swelled to a 600-member peak in 1937, attracting prominent Harlemites like Arnold Ford, a lieutenant to Marcus Garvey, said Marty Shore, who leads a Jewish Harlem tour for Manhattan Walks.

Much of the Commandment congregation’s decline since then involved its synagogue, a Mount Morris Park Historic District landmark on the corner of West 123rd Street and Mt. Morris Park West.

John Dwight, the Arm & Hammer baking soda mogul, commissioned the neo-Renaissance 10,000-square-foot mansion in 1890 as a private residence.  After the Dwight family moved out, the building became a sanatorium.  Matthew acquired the building from the City of New York for $50 in 1972 and remodeled it into a synagogue.

Now the Commandment congregation is homeless, its synagogue bought by poet James Fenton and writer Darryl Pinckney, who are renovating the building.

The transition from temple to home has been anything but smooth.

“Thinking about what happened to the congregation is like watching an explosion in slow motion,” wrote Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy on the International Israelite Board of Rabbis website, shortly after the Commandment congregation fell apart.  Levy, the son of one of Matthew’s students, is spiritual leader of Beth Elohim in St. Albans, Queens, another African American congregation.

After Matthew’s death in 1973, the Commandment congregation split between two feuding leaders, Rabbi David Doré, the 17-year-old grandson of the late rabbi, and Rabbi Willie White, a member the synagogue board elected to helm the group.

Membership declined through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s as the two leaders butted heads, alternately hosting events at the synagogue, locking each other out of the building, even casting the opposing followers’ Torah scrolls into the street.

Soon only eight litigious members were left.  Lawsuits flew from 2004 through 2007 between Doré, by then an attorney, and the diminished synagogue board headed by Julian Wormley, White’s son-in-law. Both sought control over the congregation’s assets—primarily, the synagogue itself.

To Doré, Wormley was a usurper from outside the true congregation, the establisher of a “fake congregation with a fake name” (Commandment Keepers), according to court documents.  Doré alleged that Wormley and his Keepers weren’t original congregants at all, that they’d committed fraud—“identity theft”—representing themselves as congregants to steal the synagogue and sell it for a large sum.  In a 2007 summons, Doré further accused Wormley and his partners of “reckless, selfish, malicious, vicious, vindictive” acts, such as destroying religious artifacts and stained glass windows Matthew himself had created decades ago.

Despite Doré’s charges, Wormley and the board won in court.  But the board feared its victory would be short-lived.  Most members were between 70 and 80 years old; when they died, Doré might seize control.  So the board sold the synagogue to a real estate developer for $1.6 million in 2007.

The court ordered Wormley and the board to place the money from the sale in escrow, to be used only for a new synagogue.  But no new synagogue has yet been found.

Doré did not respond to requests for comment from The Uptowner.  White and Wormley could not be reached.

To Levy, the transfer of the original synagogue brought “a degree of sadness that is worse than had the building burned down.”  The board preferred that the synagogue no longer exist than be owned by Doré, indicative of the “spite and hate” between members that “really destroy a congregation,” Levy wrote.

Even after the sale to the developer, Doré persisted.  He and his followers maintained that the greater—“true”—congregation never approved the sale, and sought to overturn the deal in New York State Supreme Court in 2008.  A judge ruled again in the board’s favor.

Doré appealed that second ruling in 2010, submitting oral arguments in New York State Appellate Court.  But it was too late: Pinckney and Fenton had closed on the building a week before, paying the developer $1.85 million.

Now Doré and his followers—self-dubbed the Commandment Pillars—are contesting the Fenton-Pinckney sale.

“It’s long from over,” said a lifelong congregant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to discuss the controversy.  She and another Pillar routinely pass by the old synagogue and “check up on it.”

“They’ve done a wicked and ungodly thing,” said the second woman about the new owners.  “They picked a modest people to attack; they didn’t think we’d fight like this.”   She, too, asked that her name be withheld because she lacked authority to discuss the issue.

The two Commandment Pillars said they and other congregants sporadically picket and pray on the sidewalk outside Pinckney and Fenton’s home.  Such protests will continue, the congregants added, until the new owners stop employing “delay tactics” and meet the Pillars in court.

But Fenton has no idea what the Commandment Pillars are talking about.  “There is no court case,” he said. “We did our research before buying the house from the developer.”

Pierre Debbas, Fenton’s attorney through the 2010 deal, confirmed that Mount Morris Park, LLC served as a legitimate—“bona fide”—seller with “free and clear titles” to the property, that Fenton was delivered those titles, and that neither Debbas nor Fenton have ever been summoned to court to defend the purchase.

And according to court documents, Doré and his followers have taken no action against Fenton and Pinckney.   So far, Doré’s sparring partner in court has been 31 Mount Morris Park, LLC, a company named for the synagogue’s alternate address and formed by Colleen Taylor, a title insurance notary, to facilitate Wormley’s initial sale of the property in 2007.

Over the last five years, Doré has filed 14 motions in State Supreme Court, including injunctions to cease construction, against Taylor’s 31 Mount Morris Park, LLC and Julian Wormley.   All motions have been dismissed.   The case remains still active, though; Doré is next scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 10.

Synagogue entranceway Harlem

Fenton and Pinckney’s entranceway, post-synagogue. (Photo by Jacob Weis)

Fenton said the building was empty and in disrepair when he and Pinckney first saw it.  Only after the purchase did the couple realize that they had “inherited the irritating situation” of the Commandment Pillars.

“The house was sold fair and square to us,” Fenton added.  “We did not go in a predatory fashion and nick anyone’s synagogue.”

Fenton and Pinckney want the controversy to end so they can explore their architectural prize in peace.   They uncover new features of the old mansion regularly, like an observatory on the roof installed by John Dwight over a century ago and forgotten for generations.

“Nowhere in Harlem is there such a fully documented house,” said Fenton.

Fenton and Pinckney have also recovered original blueprints and photos of the mansion from visiting descendants of the Dwight family. The couple looks forward to restoring the home to its pre-synagogue grandeur, a costly undertaking—and an uncomfortable one with the Commandment Pillars fuming outside.

Without a home base, the nearly century-old Commandment congregants—Pillars and Keepers included—are adrift, praying at various congregants’ homes, at the East River in Astoria with Levy’s Beth Elohim, or on the sidewalk in front of their old synagogue.

Others worship at the Old Broadway Synagogue, Harlem’s last active temple.  Paul Radensky, president of Old Broadway, called the Commandment congregation spillover “a blessing” and “a tremendous asset to our community.”

Back at 1 W. 123rd St., construction continues, audible through a door rarely answered.  On its right post, the faint outline of a mezuzah, a small scroll Jews affix to ward off unwanted spirits, guards what used to be a synagogue.  To the left, a tiny security camera watches, too.

Shore shows his tour groups photographs of the synagogue’s original façade, taken before its present owners replaced the building’s marble entranceway and Star of David with a steel door.

“It was very pretty,” said Shore, “but it’s gone now.”

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