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Elmora Hebrew Center Inc. v. Fishman

Decided: July 29, 1991.


On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 239 N.J. Super. 229 (1990).

For affirmance -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. For reversal -- None. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Handler, J.


[125 NJ Page 408] This case presents the question of when a civil court's power to adjudicate actions involving religious parties or issues may be limited by the strictures of the constitutional separation of church and state. It arises from a dispute over a synagogue's employment of a rabbi. In its efforts to terminate the rabbi's employment, the synagogue filed this action in Superior Court, Chancery Division. The trial court, after determining that the dispute involved questions of religious doctrine, referred the parties to a religious tribunal for adjudication of those questions. The synagogue contested the selection of the particular religious tribunal because it represented a different religious

sect or denomination; and there was some controversy about the scope of the religious tribunal's jurisdiction. Nonetheless, both parties continued their participation before the religious tribunal until, following lengthy hearings, that tribunal determined all matters in dispute. The Chancery Division then entered a judgment reflecting the religious tribunal's resolution. The synagogue now asserts that the trial court's adoption of the judgment of a religious body is an unconstitutional establishment of a particular sect, or violates the synagogue's free-exercise rights by subjecting it to the authority of a religious body that it does not recognize.


In 1983, defendant Yale M. Fishman was hired as a rabbi by the plaintiff, Elmora Hebrew Center, Inc. (EHC), a synagogue located in Elizabeth. Fishman is an ordained orthodox rabbi. The synagogue apparently does not align itself with all tenets of orthodox Judaism, but adheres to some aspects of orthodox observance. When Fishman was hired, Fishman and the EHC, by the Chairman of its Board of Trustees, signed an employment contract that provided for a two-year term with an automatic two-year renewal unless either party gave notice not to extend the term; the contract required Fishman to "perform all normal rabbinical duties incumbent upon a Rabbi of a traditional Jewish Congregation." The EHC was to provide Fishman with living quarters "or the house provided for the Rabbi, if and when it becomes available."

Sometime after Fishman's first year as rabbi, disputes began to arise between Fishman and some members of the congregation and of the Board of Trustees. Fishman's opponents asserted that he was not fulfilling his duties as rabbi and that he had improperly dealt with some of the congregation's funds. On the other hand, Fishman and his supporters maintained that the controversies arose due to improper attempts by some members of the congregation to gain control of the house that the

synagogue owned as a residence for its rabbi. The disputes apparently led to the development of opposing factions within the congregation and to ambiguous dealings with Fishman, with conflicting efforts to terminate or extend his employment, depending upon which faction was acting on behalf of the EHC at a given time. For example, some members at one point elected a new president of the congregation, who later signed an agreement to submit the controversy to a rabbinical court; however, other members denied the validity of that election, and pursued their remedies against Fishman in the civil court.

In February 1985, despite the history of disagreements, a majority of the Board of Trustees voted to renew Fishman's contract for a three-year term. However, the renewal contract was not signed until the fall of that year; and the renewal certainly did not resolve the disputes. Sometime during 1985, some members of the synagogue learned that Fishman had been attending law school full-time; they felt that he had concealed this from the congregation and that his status as a law student had exacerbated his perceived dereliction of his rabbinical duties. In the fall of 1985, some members of the congregation became convinced that Fishman had fraudulently altered his renewal contract to reflect terms more favorable to him than those the Board had approved earlier that year. Fishman was also accused of diverting grant moneys and synagogue revenues for his own use. The disputes grew more serious, until on February 2, 1986, the Board of Trustees voted to remove Fishman. Fishman did not accept the dismissal. In September 1986, the congregation hired a new rabbi; however, Fishman continued to claim the dismissal was invalid and refused to vacate the house owned by the synagogue. According to the members of the congregation who wished to oust Fishman, he disrupted services conducted by the new rabbi, and organized invalid meetings of the congregation to secure actions in support of his position.

In March 1986, the EHC filed this action alleging, inter alia, that Fishman had disrupted religious services and the orderly

transaction of the congregation's business, had prevented other rabbis from serving the congregation, had diverted contributions and grant moneys, and had refused to surrender possession of the synagogue's residence. The complaint requested damages and an accounting of the EHC's funds allegedly wrongfully appropriated, and sought to enjoin Fishman from interfering in the affairs of the EHC. Fishman took the position that the dispute was entirely religious, because the status of an orthodox rabbi vis-a-vis his congregation is determined solely by the doctrines of Jewish orthodoxy. In April 1986, the trial court determined that some of the questions underlying the dispute were religious and could not be adjudicated by a civil court; by order dated April 23, 1986, that court directed the EHC to submit the dispute to a Beth Din, or rabbinical court, for the resolution of "its allegations that [Fishman] has failed to perform his spiritual functions as Rabbi." The court did not determine that the entire controversy was religious. It reserved for civil adjudication any contract or civil issues remaining for resolution after the Beth Din's determination. The tribunal selected by the court was the Beth Din of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, a representative of orthodox Judaism. The EHC took an interlocutory appeal, asserting that the referral violated EHC's free-exercise rights because the dispute was contractual in nature, not religious; and further asserting that the orthodox Beth Din had no authority over it. However, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court's order. 215 N.J. Super. 589, 522 A.2d 497 (1987). That court concluded that "religious questions permeate all of the issues in this case," and did not question the designation of the orthodox Beth Din. Id. at 596, 522 A.2d 497. The EHC at that point did not petition for further review of the Appellate Division's decision on the interlocutory appeal.

During the hearings before the Beth Din in 1986 and 1987, the EHC initially objected that the procedures of that tribunal, and especially its ...

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