Motions Fly In Chabad Lawsuit

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Each side seeks to end the dispute with an early victory.

The Bais Chabad Ccenter of West Bloomfield (Photo by David Sachs)

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.

Rabbi Berel Shemtov

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.

Defendants’ Motion
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.

Rabbi Elimelech Silberberg

“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.”

Todd Mendel

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.

Norman Ankers

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.

By David Sachs, Senior Copyeditor
Scott Neuman
Scott Neuman 06.21.2012

The old saying, "Who Died and Left You Boss" has an appropriate ring in the Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan's effort to steal Bais Chabad from its rightful owners, its members. After the Rebbe died, apparently, the leader of the Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan decided that financially the Foundation owned anything and everyone that followed the Rebbe's teaching within the borders of Michigan. Anyone that disagreed would be punished and steamrolled. Hence, the present "million dollar" lawsuit. The Foundation's position is, at best, absurd and totally antithetical to the teachings of our Sages in general, and the Rebbe in particular. As an example, Chassidus tells the story of a Rabbi that was told by his wife that their house was just burglarized and he should do something. The Rabbi immediately chased after the thief shouting you forgot this item!
It is an undeniable fact that the leader of the Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan never received the Rebbe's approval to take over the property owned by the members of Bais Chabad. The deed to Bais Chabad was drafted in the 1980s and the Rebbe past away in June of 1994. For the Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan to now claim that they were not aware of the ownership issue in the 1980s is at best,, "difficult to swallow." This grasp for material wealth, power, revenge and control is contrary to the Rebbe's teachings. The lawsuit only serves to create animosity. It is a Shanda that must stop. I call on the Leader of the Lubavitch Foundation of Michigan to ask himself the following question, Would the Rebbe, if he were alive today, sanction this lawsuit." The objective answer is no, so do what is right, dismiss this lawsuit without delay.

Arbitrator
Arbitrator 06.26.2012

Let b"d be the arbitrators and decide!

Jewish Princess
Jewish Princess 06.26.2012

I am an “insider” who has watched Berel Shemtov systematically destroy the potential of what could–and should–have been a thriving Lubavitch community. Over the years he has mounted successive purges that have caused his best and brightest shluchim (emissaries) to move on to greener pastures. Most of the shluchim remaining are “yes” men who depend on him for their meager salaries and who have been dummied-down into passivity. Good men who mean to do well but are following orders.
Berel is paradoxically the epitome of both a Communist and a ruthless capitalist: his “hierarchy” excludes individual initiative and independent thought and action; while his thirst for power and hegemony ranks of capitalism gone amok. Very strange for a man who lives a frugal life in modest circumstances. His control is absolute, his will is command. Who can fathom what drives such a person? One thing is for sure, he is a dangerous man who doesn’t tolerate any dissent.
Although he sees himself and his ilk as carrying out the truest directives of the beloved Lubavitcher Rebbe and the teachings of Chabad Chassidus, his behavior is antithetical to the Chabad movement, which is founded on love of every fellow Jew. Berel’s inner circle is based on allegiance to their own gentrified pedigree, to a self-serving elitism that opens the hand for money from other Jews while at the same time looking down at them. Sadly, he could have been a true leader to this great community, but instead choose a deviated path and shunned progress. Although the Lubavitch movement is known for outreach to fellow Jews, to expose and bring them to greater love of Judaism and the mitzvos, Berel and his crew have recruited few adherents to Torah, mainly serving the narrow and insular interests of their own constituency.
On the other hand, Rabbi Silberberg has established a true Torah Center and has built a community that warmly embraces all who enter. The influence he has had on the lives of countless individuals and families is hard to describe. From the already-observant to the uninitiated, he and his outstanding family have been there for others at every turn of the road. The Shemtov-ites are stricken with envy over the profound accomplishments of Rabbi Silberberg in this community, and they are determined to take over what he and his family have labored to achieve. This is a grave injustice. To Berel he is a threat to his absolute rule and as such, must be eliminated and sent “packing,” G-d forbid.
I have “been here and done that” for many years in the local Chabad community. I am a lover of the Rebbe and continue to be nourished by the teachings of Chassidus. I have witnessed the systematic destruction of hopes and dreams for children in this community who were not of the Lubavitch elite. I truly believe that Rabbi Silberberg and his congregation will prevail, for G-d is just. I instinctively am aware that this time, Berel Shemtov has gone too far. This outrage will not be tolerated. I only hope and pray that other Jews will not be distanced by the tremendous “chillul Hashem,” desecration of G-d’s name, that is taking place now.

forthegood
forthegood 06.26.2012

With all the arguing of Chabad and their true intentions, secular legal language aside, the plaintiff should be outright shammed for taking public action that publicly desecrates the Rebbe's name.

A Russian Jew
A Russian Jew 06.26.2012

May I express some thoughts:
Chabad House consists of:
1. People who are members of the shul, who have collected money, purchased the land, built the shul, and pay monthly bills.
2. Land which belongs to those people who purchased it.
3. Building which belongs to those who paid the construction bill.

Misuse of American judicial system under umbrella of claim for "preservation of Chabad hierarchal structure" raises several questions:
1. Since when taking away somebody's property is called "real property should be held" instead of clear definition: Stealing, period?
2. Since when stealing has become a G-dly matter?
3. Since when a little dictators have a right to tell FREE people what to do? This is pure "stalinism under the black "kapota".

i'm a Russian Jew. I have an obligation to the rest of my life to act in such way, that nobody could regret that his or her income tax money were used to pay for my airline ticket to the US. I ask if the Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan regional director Rabbi Berel Shemtov still remember himself asking for entrance to the US?

Jay
Jay 06.26.2012

The obvious fraud in this whole lawsuit is that the Chabad “hierarchy” that Rabbi Berel Shemtov of the Lubavitch Foundation of MI is referring to in his lawsuit as being the one in control of all of Chabad’s institution’s, is currently headed by Rabbi Berel Shemtov of MI brother from Philadelphia Rabbi Avrohom Shemtov. And many of the members of that “hierarchy” are Rabbi Berel Shemtov’s close relatives.

And so Rabbi Berel Shemtov of the Lubavitch Foundation of MI obviously has great personal interest and gain by claiming that Chabad is run by the current central “hierarchy“ which is headed by his brother and run by his relatives and close friends.

Is this what Chabad has become after the Rebbe’s passing? It’s a real Shanda!

It is also my understanding that the majority of Chabad center in the USA aren’t owned by the regional Chabad representative’s organization, just as the regional Chabad representative’s organization’s properties aren’t owned by the Chabad “hierarchy” organization in Brooklyn NY. Why should Rabbi Silberberg’s Chabad center be any different then the majority of Chabad centers all over?

Former Member Of The Shul
Former Member Of The Shul 06.27.2012

I regret ever being a member at The Shul. It was better not to even start that Shul, if all what they wanted was donation's. in order to stop this problem people should leave The Shul and stop giving donation's. People should also get rid of their Donor's, as i said before since when did it become THE SHUL!

MoshiachNow
MoshiachNow 06.27.2012

After checking the property records of various Chabads throughout Michigan via public records websites, virtually none of them are titled through "Chabad of Michigan". Like the West Bloomfield center, they are all titled as their own independent organizations. The central question is why is the Plaintiff solely targeting this Chabad and what are their intentions should he win? Is it to uproot their leader and force the community to accept another? What has this Center done that is so wrong compared to all the other ones in Michigan? Are they upset with the fact that this Center has been very successful, has independently built a vibrant community over the last few dozen years and has engaged many individuals and families in Judaism? Why does anybody need to infringe on that? Why is this civil suit being filled over 30 years after the establishment of the center? Surely the rabbinical court cases pertaining to this matter don't go back that far or this would have been in civil court dozens of years ago. I believe it is very clear that the organizers of this are promoting conflict within the Jewish community, shamming Chabad and the Rebbe in the process, which stands against everything the Lubavitcher Rebbe and virtually every rabbi promotes. The best outcome for the greater Michigan Jewish Community would be if everybody simply left each other alone and focused on building their own programs and practice humility rather than fight and use much needed charitable resources to instigate lawsuits to take over other's.

a regular Jew
a regular Jew 06.27.2012

“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.” - (Statement from rabbinical ruling above in article)

I would argue that rabbinical court was corrupted in Shemtov's favor since OBVIOUSLY by taking this to public court, the rabbinic court and Shemtov knew press would follow and cause a significant part of Michigan's Jewish community to gossip about an orthodox organization fighting another, which is a great desecration of the Divine Name.