Chabad of Michigan sues Bais Chabad Torah Center over title to its building.

The Sara and Morris Bais Chabad Torah Center of West Bloomfield

Members of the Lubavitch movement are admonished not to air grievances against each other in public — but after 17 years of disagreements between Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan and the Sara and Morris Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center of West Bloomfield, it has gone that far.

On April 17, Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan (“Chabad of Michigan”), the Oak Park-based central organization of the Chasidic sect in this state led for 54 years by Rabbi Berel Shemtov, filed a 35-page complaint in Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac.

Chabad of Michigan wants the court to order the Sara and Morris Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center (“Torah Center”), its board of directors and its 37-year spiritual leader, Rabbi Elimelech Silberberg, to turn over title to its synagogue building at 5595 W. Maple, east of Orchard Lake Road.

By filing its lawsuit, Chabad of Michigan seeks to rein in a “subordinate” congregation that it says has acted independently and challenged the hierarchal authority it describes as the essence of the Brooklyn-based Lubavitch movement that dispatches emissaries around the world to set up synagogues and Chabad centers. Rabbi Shemtov is the Chabad movement’s regional director for the state of Michigan.

Last Sunday, May 20, Rabbi Silberberg’s congregation celebrated the 30th anniversary of its West Bloomfield building at its annual fundraising dinner at the Sheraton Novi Hotel. In a written statement to the Jewish News, Torah Center President Dr. Dov Schuchman expressed dismay at the Chabad of Michigan lawsuit — disputing its basis and expressing confidence his congregation will prevail in court.

According to Chabad of Michigan’s complaint filed by lead counsel Norman Ankers of the Detroit-based law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn, the Torah Center in West Bloomfield was formed by Chabad of Michigan in 1974, a year before it assigned Rabbi Silberberg to serve there. (The current synagogue building at issue was built in 1982.) From the beginning, the complaint alleges, the West Bloomfield congregation’s Articles of Incorporation bound itself to obey “the discipline, rules and usage [as] authorized and declared by the Lubavitch Organization.”

Rabbi Berel Shemtov

The complaint states that it provided all or part of Rabbi Silberberg’s salary for about the first two years and the congregation used Chabad of Michigan facilities for years before acquiring its own building. Chabad of Michigan also claims that the Torah Center raised money to purchase and improve the property in part because of its public identification as a member of the Chabad organization. “Indeed, at times, the congregation received money directly from the global organization,” the complaint states.

The complaint contends that disputes with Rabbi Silberberg began in the mid-1990s when he initiated rabbinical proceedings against Chabad of Michigan “to enforce certain Chabad Lubavitch rules that Rabbi Silberberg perceived as benefiting him.

“Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan counterclaimed to confirm its right to control the real property occupied by the West Bloomfield Bais Chabad,” the complaint states.

“This led to more than a decade of rabbinic judicial proceedings, each of which affirmed Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan’s ownership of the disputed property.”

Although it received the main rabbinic ruling it is suing over in 2005, Chabad of Michigan says it tried for years to reach a compromise with Rabbi Silberberg and it now, reluctantly, has filed suit.

“These rabbinical tribunals have been involved at least since 1995, and there have been rulings of four separate rabbinic tribunals,” said attorney Ankers. “Even after those rulings, there have been efforts to work quietly to reach a resolution without court action, but those efforts have, unfortunately, been unavailing.”

Because of the sect’s reluctance to use the secular courts, Chabad of Michigan says it obtained written approval on Dec. 24, 2009, to file a lawsuit from the Agudas HaRabonim, an Orthodox organization based in the United States and Canada, which stated, “since it is permissible resorting to secular courts in order to get a rabbinical court ruling validated, there is clearly no place here for concern about [this causing] desecration of the Divine Name, G-d forbid.”

In a letter to West Bloomfield Torah Center members, Chabad of Michigan wrote, “It is with heavy hearts that today, we filed a complaint in Oakland County Circuit Court to finally put an end to an injustice that has lasted for far too long.

“This lawsuit was filed as a last resort to enforce rabbinic judicial proceedings that repeatedly ruled the Bais Chabad of West Bloomfield is a part of Lubavitch of Michigan. This is an organizational dispute that we have the responsibility to resolve in the best interest of our mission-driven organization, the future of our community and the future of the Lubavitch movement.”

Torah Center Responds

Rabbi Elimelech Silbergerg

The West Bloomfield congregation, its rabbi and directors are consulting with attorneys to formulate an answer to the specifics of the complaint by June 11 or later if there is a further extension of time.

But in Dr. Schuchman’s statement to the Jewish News, the Torah Center president asserted a distinct level of independence from the Chabad of Michigan organization and contested the premises of the lawsuit:

“The Sara and Morris Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center (‘Torah Center’) is profoundly disturbed that it and others have been sued by Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan.

“Many years ago, the Torah Center’s board formed a corporate entity that bought land, raised its own money and built a building. The Torah Center has since thrived as a strong, vibrant congregation devoted to Torah, mitzvos and Jewish religious observance.

“The fact that the Torah Center has an affiliation with Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan does not mean that the congregation and its land and building are or should be owned by Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan.

“The Torah Center is disappointed that its ownership of its own land and building is now being challenged in court after so many years of successful operation. The Torah Center is confident that it is correct in its position, and it will defend itself in court, so that it can maintain its status as a model Jewish institution in this community.

“Bais Chabad Torah Center is in the right legally, spiritually, operationally and religiously.”

Pressing Its Case
In its letter to Torah Center members, Chabad of Michigan provides an email address and telephone number to respond to questions and concerns.

“We hope that you can appreciate the fact that an organization like Chabad Lubavitch has a moral and fiduciary obligation to assert the proper authority within the guidelines established by the Rebbe of blessed memory, ” the letter states.

“It is our hope that after this situation is resolved with the authority of Chabad Lubavitch of Michigan rightfully established, that Bais Chabad will continue to grow as a place of Torah and chasidus [Chasidism] in the community. Chabad Lubavitch of Michigan will not, G-d forbid, interfere and will indeed be willing to help in facilitating the growth of the congregation.”

As well as local counsel, Chabad of Michigan has retained Nathan Lewin, a constitutional lawyer in Washington, D.C., who has represented Chabad nationwide in the past. It has also engaged the Farmington Hills-based public relations firm Tanner Friedman to help communicate its message.

When asked if Chabad of Michigan holds title to the other area Chabad synagogues, attorney Ankers said, “I’m not specifically aware of what the title ownership is with respect to various congregations, but I do know that as far back as 1995, there were general regulations that were promulgated and agreed to by schluchim [Chabad emissaries] throughout the state that made clear that when property was acquired it should be titled in the name of Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan, and that is consistent with the hierarchal nature of the organization.”

Ankers said that in addition to seeking title to the property, he also wants a “determination by the court that the West Bloomfield Bais Chabad is a subordinate congregation to the authority of Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan.”

The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Rae Lee Chabot, who has handled a prominent case involving the Jewish community in the past. In 2005, she ruled that the Michigan High School Athletic Association had to adjust its playoff schedule so that the basketball team from the Frankel Jewish Academy of West Bloomfield would not miss out on playoffs that had been scheduled on Shabbat.

By David Sachs, Senior Copy Editor

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  1. Thou Shall Not Covet Your Neighbor’s House, Wife, and Property!

    I was a member of both “The Shul” and Beit Chabad of West Bloomfield when the lawsuit was filed. After discussing the matter with Rabbi Silberberg of Beit Chabad and Rabbi Kazriel Shem Tov of “The Shul”, I examined both sides of the argument. I came to the conclusion that I had no choice but to cease my family’s membership with “The Shul”. This was a difficult decision because I specifically moved to a house near “The Shul” so I could be in walking distance to an orthodox synagogue. I did consider myself orthodox but rather traditional. When asked, I normally respond that I am an observant Jew, meaning that I observe how Jews behave.
    I did not call my many friends at “The Shul” of my decision. I believed that it was a private matter. Until this day I have not voiced my opinion unless I was specifically asked. However, after reading the article I feel it is important that I publicly express my opinion.
    I concluded that regardless of the allegations, suing in the Oakland County Circuit Court is a “Shanda”, and a “Chilul Ashem”. Three rabbis, forming a Beit Din, a rabbinical court, can rule what is their opinion of Shanda or not a Shanda, but cannot rule specifically on an issue when all parties are not represented. It is my understanding that all parties were not represented. Moreover, the motivations of the “Lubavitch Foundation” appears to be anything but ethical. As your article suggests, the probable real motivation is that of “payback” against Rabbi Silberberg for allegedly making an issue of “The Shul”, concerning the use of the parking lot and driving on Shabbat to “The Shul”.
    I have read the 2005 ruling, mentioned in your article, and the subsequent rulings, and I interpret it to read that the main rabbinical ruling mentioned in the article doesn’t bind the “Board” of Beis Chabad, but only rules that Rabbi Silberberg should try to influence the “Board to changing the status of the “Board”. The Rabbi tried, but his effort was not accepted by the “Board”. To the best of my knowledge the Lubavitch Foundation has never brought , the “Board” before a properly constituted rabbinical court.
    I heard that the “Lubavitch Foundation” is willing to spend up to a million dollars to litigate this matter. If this is true, where did this money come from? Did the “Lubavitch Foundation” take up a legal collection fund to pursue this matter or are they paying for the silk stocking law firm, the Washington constitutional lawyer, and the PR firm out of their general charity money? My guess is there was never such a fund collected. If they didn’t, I must conclude, that I cannot be a member of “The Shul” that is owned by the “Lubavitch Foundation”. My contributions are only for charitable purposes and not for paying lawyers to force a small synagogue to defend itself from a legal attack that consists of a “35 page complaint”! It is my opinion, the “35 page complaint” was not filed with a heavy heart by the “Lubavitch Foundation”, but was filed for all the wrong moral reasons. As a Jew and a Lawyer, I have read the assertions made by the “Lubavitch Foundation” and am not impressed with both the Jewish ethical arguments or the secular legal arguments. To me, this is clear violation of the Tenth Commandment” that one should not covet your neighbor’s house (Beis Chabad), wife (Rabbi Silberberg’s success in leading a vibrant Torah observant congregation, and property (donors that have a great loyalty to Rabbi Silberberg and all that he has accomplished). I call on the “Lubavitch Foundation”, to dismiss the case with prejudice and move on to use the money donated to them for good works only and not for personal vendettas.
    In the event that the lawsuit is dismissed I would gladly return to “The Shul” and once again be an active member.

  2. I find it quite interesting, ironic and rather sad that Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan (under the direction of Rabbi B. Shemtov) has the funds to mount this attack with one of the largest law firms in Michigan, a famous costitutional professor as well as a well known public relations firm. Mounting this legal and psychological attack on the Sara Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center is embarressing to us Jews. Is this to say that if in the past the funds I have donated to Rabbi Shemtovs organization are now being used for this issue? Jew against Jew? Rabbi against Rabbi? Shameful! Rabbi Silberbergs organization in it own rights has done and continues to help many of our people to be exposed to and grow spiritually in Judiasm. This is all occurring as the employees of Rabbi Shemtov work for minimal if not minimum wages that make it difficult to for these Rabbis to put challah on their tables and support their families or drive a reliable car. Not to mention no vacation time or savings for the future. I guess the Lubavitch foundation of Michigan sees it fit for the monies donated by hard working donors to go to lawyers and PR firms rather than to their own employees. My advice to Rabbi Shemtov and the Lubavitch foundation- As Lubavitchers have done world wide in the past—Do the right thing and drop the suit today and turn a bad into a good! Spread more light into this dark world and do not use this as a way to capitalize on a successful caring and wonderful organization such as Bais Chabad Sara Tugman Torah Center.

  3. Shemtov is known to be a power freak, he has bad relations with almost every Lubavitch institution in Michigan outside his family. It’s about time Chabad cental put an end to his ruthless rule.

  4. that will not happen because he has been here for 54 years and merkos in ny respects him too much wish it were otherwise but at least he is close to 80 so hopefully he will move to florida where he already goes to get people to write to lubavitch foundation right before they die

  5. Lubavitch in Michigan has much to be proud of. Reps from both sides should sit down and negotiate a deal acceptable to all. Spending $$$$$ in legal fees may lead to a ruling that this disagreement should be resolved in the Rabbinate.
    Try it now before the legal experts send you all to the poor house.

  6. There is an internal humorous joke within the Chabad – Lubavitch community:
    After the Rebbe, Rabbi Schneerson, Rabbi Berel Shemtov of Detroit is credited with sending the most shluchim…..

    For those not familiar with ‘Lubavitch hierarchy’ the underlying nepotism and corruption of this group is mind boggling.

    The official uber-alles organization (not universally accepted by all and upon whom Rabbi Shemtov’s lawyers base their property claim) ‘Agudas Chasidei Chabad’ is headed no less than by ……. Rabbi Abraham Shmetov. Berel’s brother. The rest of this group is stacked with cousins (i.e. Rabbi Lazaroff – himself a victim of Berel’s purges in the early ‘70s) and relatives.

    Rabbi Silberberg and the board don’t stand a chance against these well polished and funded politicians.

    Another adage quotes the wife of the 6th Rebbe saying that if you place a Shemtov in a forest he will pick a fight with the trees….

  7. When I first became ba’al teshuva, I could not imagine that a Rebbe’s shaliach (emissary) can be anything but a holy and wonderful human being. Then I started hearing rumors about Beryl Shemtov and for a long time I refused to believe them. I was sure that if I ever meet him and talk to him face to face I would find a true tzadik (a righteous man) and those rumors would be untrue. Well, let me tell you what I learned in my years of dealing with him.
    First, let me tell you how most Chabad world operates (or how it should in the Rebbe’s ideal):
    1. All Jews are equally important and should be encouraged to come back to Torah life
    2. Education of All Jewish children is equally important
    3. In Chabad, education is of paramount importance
    And here come my question, how come after over 50 years of building Chabad in Michigan there is no Chabad educational infrastructure here at all? The only Chabad educational institutions in Detroit area are geared to the children of the emissaries. Those schools teach no secular curriculum and are taught in Yiddish thus excluding all children of the ba’al teshuvas.
    There were schools here that were thriving and serving the Chabad community at large, but they were systematically and rather ruthlessly eliminated by one Berel Shemtov a good while ago. Bais Menachem K -8 closed for lack of funds (!) around 10 years ago and a fantastic girl’s High School Bais Chaya Mushka that was in Detroit for more than a dozen years closed around eight years ago because R. Shemtov withdrew his support and announced that he is opening his own High School, thus forcing Rabbi Chaim Dovid Kagan to move to Monsey and re-open his high school on a friendlier territory where it now thrives. Now I will explain why it happened and it will make the law suit clear as well, I hope.
    These are Berel Shemtov’s priorities:
    1. His family
    2. His family
    3. His family

    He separates Jews in three distinct categories:
    1. His family
    2. Rebbe’s shluhim (emissaries)
    3. The rest
    He does not think that Jews who go out and work for the living (read: “people who he asks to donate money to him”) are of the same quality spiritually as him, his family or other emissaries and their children. He does not believe that they should mix or go to the same school or be friends (G-d forbid). He made sure to close Bais Chaya Mushka just when his granddaughters turned of age to go there. The high school for girls that he operates now is not advertised for the Chabad community at large. R. Shemtov is perfectly content for people who donate to his cause to continue to drive on Shabbos, send their children to Hillel or public schools, as long as they feel good about their Yiddishkeit and keep giving him and his family money.
    That is what it is all about for Berel Shemtov. But Rabbi Silberberg’s Bais Chabad did not follow his rules: people who go there are actually frum, they care about education of their children and they care about their Rabbi, and most of all, they do not belong to R. Shemtov. So he wants their building, well, with all his millions he may just get it G-d forbid, but he will never get us.

  8. it’s interesting that attorney Nat Lewin, agreed to represent Rabbi Shemtov, cause “Lewin” is the lead attorney on the Rubashkin case and Rabii Silbergerg eldest son is married to a Rubashkin and his doughter just got married to a Chitrik who’s father is the main backer behind the Rubashkin case.

  9. The only way to get the attention of egocentric bully dictators to to hit them in their wallets. There needs to be a focused and concentrated effort to reach out to all Chabad of Michigan donors, encouraging them to stop all future contributions and put the breaks on any monies already committed. This includes donations made to Cheder, The Shul, and even Friendship Circle. The Zekelman’s should be asked to pause funding of the new school construction project in Oak Park.

  10. Rabbi Shemtov is simply trying to insure that he has what to leave over to his kids. As things stand now, no one of any stature is accepting Kasriel or Levi as the next head shliach.

  11. When one reads the New York Times and there is an article about Israel, ALL of the reader feedback is ALWAYS anti-Israel. There is room to conclude that all the readership of the New York Times is anti-Israel and, since that is one of the foremost newspapers in the country, the country itself is largely anti-Israel.

    But we know this not to be the case. The Senate and House are always strongly pro-Israel. There is just a cabal of pro-Arab letter-writers (paid, some say) who do little other than barrage the online news sites with their version of the facts. Which brings us to this topic. Not one single pro-ShemTov letter? None? Should we conclude that there is no objective view favoring his side of this?

    Having heard what everyone said and agreeing that having a public dispute is bad for Jews everywhere, I remain stuck with a question or two for the Board of Sara Tugman: What did your members think they were contributing to? Surely in the purchase of the building, no one thought they could get their money back or take an equity loan to pay for college for the kids. Everyone always knew that they were building an edifice to Lubavitch, which has sustained Sara Tugman’s members’ spirituality through the years. I have attended services there more than once; I do not think anyone is claiming that Rabbi Silberberg, Sr. or Jr., is advancing one brand of Lubavitch over another. It is all standard Lubavitch: The Rebbe, the Moshiach, the stories, the history of Chasidos, the songs, the Baal Shem Tov, etc. I don’t mean to minimize any of this by putting it in a list this way but these are the Lubavitch standards. The hat. The kapota, The gartel. So, what is the difference? What, exactly, is Sara Tugman’s board resisting? If Rabbi Silberberg returned from a Bet Din and informed his board that they have to turn over the title to the shul, why did they object? Why not let Lubavitch of Michigan have the building? That the building belongs to “Lubavitch” goes without saying. What is the underlying difference, in the Board’s eyes, between this Lubavitch and that Lubavitch? How does this justify gathering to say Tehilim? Again – jews need no excuse to say Tehilim but there is an unspoken bogeyman here and I wish someone would identify it.

    Is it a concern for Rabbi Silberberg’s job? No one would argue with his success and I do not think anyone would be foolish enough to expect his congregants to follow someone else right now, especially under these circumstances.

    So, a previous poster could explain why any of this makes a difference and why this can’t be put away quickly and quietly with Sara Tugman deeding over the title as requested, please respond. I am not taking a side as to who is right and who is wrong — I think it would be foolish to do that without knowing all the facts. I would just like to know why it matters so much…

  12. So you think we should just deed over the building to R Shemtov? Will you be making the mortgage payments once R Shemtov takes out all the equity? He has no interest in the building, only the value.

    You think the building is an edifice to R Silberberg? You may have attended this synagogue a few times but you certainly don’t know the rabbi. R Silberberg is one of the most humble people I have ever met. To suggest that this building is an edifice is beyond insulting; it just plain ignorance by the writer. By the way, R Schneur is humble as well. The only edifice in W Bloomfield in the campus on Maple west of Drake; that is R Shemtov’s edifice.

    You want to know why it matters? Put it in more personal terms. If your house was nearly paid off would you want your tyrannical uncle to gain control and remortgage it; keep the money and give you the new payment book? I doubt it.

  13. I didn’t say the building is an edifice to R. Silberberg; I said it is an edifice to Lubavitch. The only way you could be offended by the term “edifice” is if you are without a dictionary. [The editors monitor these comments and would not allow a derogatory term, I assure you]. Edifice means large building; enough said about that.

    You have missed my point entirely; what if the building is paid off? You can’t have your contributions back — those went to Lubavitch. Why does it matter to you if it went to Rabbi Silberberg’s Lubavitch or Rabbi Shemtov’s? Are you saying they are separate? You all contributed to Lubavitch in general and not to Rabbi Silberberg in person. And if you thought you were contributing to something other than Lubavitch in general, maybe there is no response to Rabbi Shemtov’s allegations in his lawsuit. How do the comments claim on the one hand that Rabbi Shemtov is an evil billionaire and on the other than he needs to mortgage a building on Maple and Orchard Lake for a couple of hundred thousand dollars? Why would he?

    You have to get past all this emotion — I am sure you have read all the comments. There is alot of vitriol but not alot of reason. What is truly going on here? No one has said.

  14. I don’t understand what you are saying. Why in the world should anyone hand over any title to anyone.
    There are over 3000 chabad houses worldwide each one operating independently. This is a fact. Ask anyone who has a chabad house. This is a fact on the ground as well the way the Lubavitcher Rebbe wanted it to be. So what in the world does rabbi Shemtov want? and why?

  15. Rabbi Shneur has been with the Torah Center for three years and has acccomplished a great deal.If it would be up to Rabbi Shemtov Rabbi Shneur wouldn’t be here.He has done all in his power to block him from coming to the Torah Center .That’s just one example of many and that’s why the congregation can’t afford to have any change in ownership of the building.It’s a control issue.He who owns the building controls hiring and firing.

  16. Not one single pro-ShemTov letter? – a sad indictment after 54 years of “community service”. Or perhaps none of his alumni can defend him, since they don’t teach English in Cheder.
    Everyone always knew that they were building an edifice to Lubavitch. – huh? They thought they were building a shul to daven in. They didn’t realize that Chabad in Michigan is all about acquiring real estate (neither did I, until now).
    These are Lubavitch standards. The hat. The kapota, The gartel. – it is telling that the writer sticks to external dress standards, which has nothing to do with the real Lubavitch standards as a path to serving g-d. By the way, in Russia, no one wore a borsalino. Are blue shirts banned in Lubavitch now too?
    You all contributed to Lubavitch in general and not to Rabbi Silberberg in person.- many of the people who contributed to Lubavitch and not to Rabbi Shemtov in person would like some transparency in Lubavitch foundation to see where all the money went. At least Rabbi Silberberg has a Board not related or employed by him.

  17. As a son of a founding member, I can attest that none of the founders intended the shul to be Chabad at all, let alone belong to Chabad of Michigan.
    They did have loyalty to Rabbi Silberberg personally due to his commitment to them and his dedication and Torah.

    So Chabad of Michigan’s complaint has no basis in equity, and this should be attested to.

  18. Is that why the original phone number given in ads for the shul was Rabbi Shemtovs home number?

    Is that why Shemtov recruited and paid for the Rabbi for two years?

    Etc. etc.

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