Each side seeks to end the dispute with an early victory.
The local Chabad dispute has each side asking Judge Rae Lee Chabot to immediately declare it the victor.
Such motions are often brought at the onset of a lawsuit, and they don’t necessarily mean that either side will prevail this early in the legal process.
On one side is the plaintiff, Chasidic Orthodox sect, Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan, led by its Oak Park-based regional director Rabbi Berel Shemtov.
On April 17, Chabad of Michigan filed suit in Oakland County Circuit Court seeking a declaration that it has controlling authority over the Sara and Morris Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center of West Bloomfield (Torah Center).
The lawsuit alleged that several rabbinical tribunals have ruled that under the hierarchal system of the Chabad movement, title to the Torah Center’s real property should be held by its supervisory entity, Chabad of Michigan.
On the other side of the lawsuit are the defendants: the Torah Center, its Rabbi Elimelech Silberberg and its board of directors (in their official capacities only).
Instead of immediately answering these allegations, however, the defendants, by their attorney Todd R. Mendel of the Detroit law firm of Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker PLLC, filed a Motion for Summary Disposition seeking to halt the lawsuit on several grounds.
In response, the Chabad of Michigan, through its attorney Norman C. Ankers of Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP of Detroit, filed a similar motion, also asking that the judge immediately decide the case in its favor.
In their motion, the Torah Center defendants challenged the plaintiff’s position that the Chabad movement is “hierarchal” — meaning that the West Bloomfield synagogue is under the control of Chabad’s Crown Heights headquarters in Brooklyn and its Michigan unit. The congregation refuses to turn over title to its building to Chabad of Michigan.
“My clients feel that the Torah Center bought, built and maintained a piece of property,” said defense attorney Mendel. “They’ve always been completely financially independent from the plaintiff and they do not see any legal, halachic [Jewish law] or any other obligation to transfer their property to the plaintiff or anyone.”
In support of their motion, the Torah Center defendants included a 1984 letter written by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson that stated in part, “it is well known that the various Chabad institutions are financially completely independent of our central office. This is also an obvious necessity, in view of the fact that there are hundreds of such institutions the world over, and it would be impossible to direct them all from headquarters.”
But Chabad’s Motion for Summary Disposition reiterates that preservation of its hierarchal structure is essential to the movement.
“This case is not about land, nor is it about some sort of conflict between rabbis,” Chabad of Michigan said in a June 18 statement to the Jewish News.
“We want members of Bais Chabad to continue to worship there, as they have. This is about asking a state of Michigan court to uphold and enforce rulings of multiple rabbinical courts that decided over a span of years in favor of the Chabad system of hierarchy.”
Chabad’s Green Light
Both sides also disagree on whether Chabad of Michigan has rabbinical approval to take the matter to civil court.
Chabad of Michigan said it has the go-ahead from the Vaad HaRabonim of the United States and Canada, which wrote:
“Since it is permitted for you to resort to the civil courts [in your case] against Rabbi Elimelech Yosef Hakohen Silberberg, and the institution Bais Chabad Torah Center of West Bloomfield and the members of its board in their function at the institution, in order to get a rabbinical court ruling validated, there is clearly no place here for concern about [this causing] any desecration of the Divine Name, G-d forbid.”
The defendants counter with a letter from the Brooklyn-based Office of the Executive Committee of the Central Committee of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis in the United States and Canada that stated plainly that Chabad of Michigan has no authority to sue the members of the Torah Center board in civil court because they were not party to the rabbinical proceedings:
“If the rabbinical court will decide to permit Rabbi Shemtov to begin secular court proceedings, this permission is only granted concerning his demands and arguments against Rabbi Silberberg exclusively.”
The letter added, “In general, as in any case where one Jew as a dispute with another Jew whom he feels has grieved him, the two parties (the members of the Board and Rabbi Shemtov), can summon each other to a rabbinical court of their choice.”
Thus, said attorney Mendel, Chabad of Michigan is defying its own hierarchal superior in filing a civil suit against the Torah Center board.
“Their argument is that there is a hierarchy that has to be followed. Even if you assume there is a hierarchy, look at what the hierarchy said — and it specifically said you cannot sue the board or the Torah Center, and yet they did. That’s a big problem from a Jewish standpoint.”
Chabad attorney Ankers responded, “I think that that is a mischaracterization, and there are a number of bodies in the hierarchal authority which can convey a right to sue, and we have, in fact, received that.”
Tribunal Or Arbitration?
The Torah Center also denies that the rabbinic proceedings that Chabad of Michigan seeks to enforce were final judicial rulings, but rather an incomplete arbitration.
“They picked three arbitrators, they had an arbitration contract signed as part of the hierarchical process and the arbitration then proceeded and essentially never finished,” said Mendel. “And now, it can’t finish because one of the three arbitrators passed away and one withdrew. They never got done with the process.”
Ankers disagrees with the contention that Michigan law regarding arbitrations should apply to the rabbinical court. “This was an ecclesiastical tribunal that is established pursuant to certain rules and everyone is bound by those rules,” he said.
“The defendants call it an arbitration — I guess you can do it colloquially — but the case law that they cite that refers to arbitration is clearly referring to civil authorities constituting civil litigation disputes, and that’s not what this is.”
Role Of The Board
“One of the issues that you see from the exhibits of the complaint is that these arbitration panels realized that they only had Rabbi Silberberg there and they did not have the owner of the property,” said Mendel.
“So, the end result of these arbitrations that never actually ended is they said, ‘Rabbi Silberberg, you’ve got to make an effort to go to your board of the Torah Center and see if they are willing to transfer the property.’ Which he did and they were not.
“An invitation was made to the Chabad of Michigan to come and make a presentation to the board and they declined,” said Mendel. “So the board was willing to discuss it. They were willing to put an end to it to make certain changes in their bylaws — not the ones that the arbitrators wanted, not all the ones that the plaintiff wanted — but enough to assure people that the Torah Center would remain Chabad in the way of customs, liturgy, those sorts of things. It was not taken up by the plaintiff.
But Chabad of Michigan said in its statement: “We believe we have a responsibility to protect the Lubavitch movement by respecting its system. In order for Lubavitch to pursue its mission, this must continue to be a high priority.
“If the defendants would like this issue to move out of court, rather than distract the community with technical legal arguments, they should do what they know is right and comply with the decisions of the Rabbinical Courts.”
Both parties have until July 18 to respond to each other’s motions and another week to file a rebuttal. Oral argument is scheduled for Aug. 15 before Judge Chabot at the county courthouse in Pontiac.