Going To Court
Chabad of Michigan sues Bais Chabad Torah Center over title to its building.
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.”
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
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