Dan Hust | Democrat
THIS SYNAGOGUE ON Schultz Rd. in White Lake has caused divisions in Bethel.
Shul divides community
By Dan Hust
WHITE LAKE The battle over the occupancy of a synagogue on Schultz Road in White Lake was partly resolved on Friday, with the fight now turning internal at Bethel’s town hall.
Sullivan County Court Judge Frank LaBuda took a personal tour of the 6,900-square-foot shul on Friday, subsequently ruling that it could be partially occupied temporarily, for the next six weeks, while the rest of the rooms and parking lot are brought into code compliance.
But deep division remains between Town Supervisor Dan Sturm and Building Inspector Tim Dexter, and the town board is expected to discuss the matter today at 2 p.m. at the town hall in White Lake (most of it likely to be in executive session).
“I am not happy with the decision made on Friday,” Sturm confirmed yesterday, adding that the town may appeal.
The supervisor did not mention Dexter by name but made it clear he was also unhappy with the information gathered and released by the building department.
Sturm said he needs “accurate, honest and reliable” info from fellow town officials.
“That may not have been the case [in this situation], and we [the town board] are reviewing that,” he remarked. “The file is woefully inadequate in regards to this site.”
Though bolstered by LaBuda’s decision, Dexter indicated he is not sensing similar support from Sturm and others.
“I feel the building permit was issued properly,” he said yesterday. “I feel everything I’ve done is right.… The building is substantially complete and safe to be used.”
Dexter remarked that he hopes no anti-Semitism is at play here, but he can’t get over the fact that “as soon as the lights went on in the synagogue, the whole situation with it changed.”
Up till then, he said Sturm and the United Talmudical Academy (UTA), which owns the tax-exempt facility and the bungalow colony that surrounds it, were on the same page during construction in the spring, and a certificate of occupancy was forthcoming.
“All along, the supervisor was aware of what was going on there,” Dexter related.
Then, according to UTA attorney Henri Shawn, Sturm allegedly told Dexter to “find a reason not to give” UTA a certificate of occupancy, and at the last minute, one was not issued.
“That wording is absolutely false,” Sturm replied when told about the comment yesterday.
The supervisor said he was alerted to potential issues when fellow board members and local residents expressed concerns to him. After looking at the building department’s records on the shul, he told Dexter to not issue a certificate of occupancy “pending further review of the project site and file.”
Shawn, like Dexter, stopped short of accusing anyone specific of anti-Semitism, though the attorney did say he felt people external of town government were selfishly pressuring officials to stop the shul’s construction and operation.
“I think the town was caught in the middle,” Shawn said.
Nevertheless, he said the UTA is continuing to open up the lines of communication with the township.
“We’re going to make an extra effort to work with the town,” he explained.
That includes Dexter in particular.
“He really impressed me as an honest, standup guy who knew his job was on the line,” Shawn said of the building inspector, who testified on his client’s behalf in front of LaBuda.
Dexter hopes the matter will be resolved amicably between both parties and that he’ll still have a job.
“I thank everybody who supported my position,” he said yesterday. “I have to do what I think is right.”
Sturm said he and the town board are trying to do the same thing.
“The town’s main concern is to verify the safety of that structure,” he explained.