HAMILTON -- For 68 years, the Beth Israel Synagogue has been a house of worship, but now it's a house divided.
The controversial departure of its rabbi has split the temple and spurred a lawsuit by those who believe he was unfairly forced to leave.
The center of the dispute is Rabbi Bruce Adler, who had served the synagogue at Sixth Street and Butler Avenue for 14 years.
Rabbi Adler resigned effective Feb. 15, two months after the synagogue's board of trustees notified him in a letter that his contract would not be renewed.
Some synagogue members who wanted Rabbi Adler to stay objected to the board's action and demanded a congregation vote on the matter. The board refused.
On April 16, Carl Morgenstern, a Hamilton attorney and a 45-year member of the congregation, filed a lawsuit in Butler County Common Pleas Court against the trustees on behalf of 18 members.
"Rabbi Adler is really well-loved, and they treated him so shabbily," Mr. Morgenstern said. "It's outside the precepts of our religion."
The lawsuit asks the court to stop the board from searching for a new rabbi and arrange for the congregation to vote on whether to renew Rabbi Adler's contract. Mr. Morgenstern said the congregation's constitution gives it the right to vote on a rabbi's dismissal. "We want them to conform to the constitution," Mr. Morgenstern said. "They have no right to run rampage over everybody. It's not right."
A visiting judge will handle the case because of the personal associations the sitting judges have with some of the individuals involved in the case.
John Hust, attorney for the synagogue, said the constitution allows the trustees to decide whether to terminate a rabbi's contract.
"We consider their argument about what the constitution says to be moot because (Rabbi Adler) voluntarily resigned," Mr. Hust said. "He was represented by an attorney and negotiated a severance package."
But Mr. Morgenstern said the trustees forced the rabbi to resign. "They put a gun to his head," he said. "What was he going to do?"
The rabbi, who lives in Butler County's Union Township, was given a severance package worth about $26,500, according to a copy of the release agreement obtained by the Enquirer.
The Feb. 15 letter from Board President Dennis Zimmerman informing Rabbi Adler that his contract was not being renewed failed to detail the reasons.
"The Beth Israel Synagogue Board of Trustees feels that it is time for a change," the letter says.
A fact-finding committee appointed Jan. 4 by the trustees to investigate allegations against Rabbi Adler concluded a week later that the allegations did not merit termination, the lawsuit says.
Barbara Krumbein, Mr. Morgenstern's daughter and a synagogue member, said the allegations involved small administrative issues that were not Rabbi Adler's fault.
"They were administrative problems that the board wasn't handling," said Ms. Krumbein, a Wyoming resident. "We feel it's a renegade board that's acting outside of its powers."
Through a synagogue staff member, Mr. Zimmerman told the Enquirer he did not wish to comment.
Rabbi Adler also declined to comment. Terms of the resignation agreement prohibit him from publicly talking about the matter. The rabbi's lawyer, Elliott Polaniecki, and Mr. Hust said they did not want to talk about the reasons for non-renewal.
"The rabbi and the board have made their peace, and I just want to leave it that way," Mr. Hust said. "It was a mutual decision of "We're not happy and he's not happy. Let's go our separate ways.' " In a Feb. 6 letter to the congregation signed by Rabbi Adler and Mr. Zimmerman, the rabbi tried to quell the angry feelings of his supporters.
"No one wants our family to fall apart," the letter says. "Mistakes have been made. The sad thing is that everything that everybody has done is out of love for Beth Israel. Out of that love, we have made some mutual decisions.
"It is time for me to move on, and therefore, I am resigning as your rabbi. You need to know that this is my final decision."
The Beth Israel Synagogue's congregation is composed primarily of Butler County residents, but it also has members who live in Hamilton and Warren counties.
The congregation, which has about 100 members, was founded in 1901. Its existing synagogue, a red-brick building, with stained-glass windows, was constructed in 1930 in a neighborhood east of downtown Hamilton.
Zevi Miller, who is part of the group that filed the lawsuit, said membership has been stable during the 10 years he's been there. He said the dispute over Rabbi Adler has been difficult for the congregation, but that it shouldn't cause permanent divisions. "There may be some hard feelings around, but I think we're being civil with each other," said Mr. Miller, a Miami University math professor who lives in Oxford.
Mr. Morgenstern said he filed the lawsuit with great reluctance. He had served as the synagogue's unpaid attorney for 40 years. But he stepped down late last year because of his disagreement with the trustees over Rabbi Adler.