Torah Center Wins — After 4 Years
Chabad of Michigan’s final appeal rejected by U.S. Supreme Court.
Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan’s four-year secular court case against the Bais Chabad Torah Center has ended.
On May 23, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up Chabad of Michigan’s appeal, thus granting victory to the Torah Center.
Elimelech Silberberg, rabbi of the Torah Center congregation in West Bloomfield, was relieved that the case was finally over.
“We’re thrilled we can now devote all our efforts and resources to studying Torah and doing mitzvos, and carrying our message to the Jewish world of Detroit,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.
“What happened before, we have to put behind us and just focus our attention on what we’re here for. Our goal now is to draw attention to the future and to our mission. Our goal is to look forward.”
Todd Mendel, attorney for the Torah Center, said, “The shul, the congregation and the people really stuck behind the rabbi. It shows a strong, solid community of good Jews who had to put up with the frustration, the cost and the difficulties.
“It also shows a lot about their character, the quality of the people and congregants. It’s fully a credit to Rabbi Silberberg for having built it up.”
An interesting aspect of the lawsuit is that it was dismissed just months after it was filed four years ago because the judge ruled Chabad began it too late — beyond the time limits mandated by Michigan’s statutes of limitations.
The next three-and-a-half years, however, were spent in the appellate courts,as the parties argued whether the quick dismissal of the case was correct.
Long Legal Battle
The litigation began on April 17, 2012, when Oak Park-based Chabad of Michigan, which oversees Chabad-affiliated congregations in the state and is led by Rabbi Berel Shemtov, filed suit in Oakland County Circuit Court in Pontiac.
It sought the deed to the Torah Center, claiming it had hierarchal control over the Torah Center — which Chabad alleged was an uncooperative subordinate congregation. Chabad was seeking to enforce the judgment of a bet din (rabbincal court) against Rabbi Silberberg. The Torah Center board refused to turn over its deed, and Chabad sought relief in the civil courts.
Mendel, of the Detroit law firm Barris Sott Denn & Driker, argued in defense of the Torah Center that the bet din’s ruling was against only the rabbi, an employee of the synagogue — so Chabad had no legal basis to enforce the ruling against the synagogue itself, which holds the deed to the property, nor its board of directors, who run the synagogue.
Mendel sought to throw the case out of court, claiming Chabad waited too long to file suit, and he prevailed in Oakland County Circuit Court.
Chabad, however, led by Detroit attorney Norman Ankers of Honigman Miller Schwartz & Cohen, and assisted by specialized constitutional law attorneys from Washington, D.C., and Colorado, won reversal of the decision in the Michigan Court of Appeals. Chabad argued, among other points, that the lawsuit was filed on time because the statutes of limitations were suspended pending the outcome of years of proceedings in religious tribunals.
On May 22, 2014, the state Court of Appeals agreed with Chabad and ordered the case to be sent back to Oakland County to be litigated. But the Torah Center appealed that decision to the Michigan Supreme Court and, on May 20, 2015, won, reinstating the dismissal of the case. In its short ruling, the court did not explain the reasoning for its reversal.
Then, on Nov. 24, 2015, Chabad asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule the Michigan high court, claiming a First Amendment issue. Chabad argued that to enforce civil statutes of limitations while religious proceedings were unfinished violated the constitutional right of freedom of religion. In support of this argument, three friend of the court briefs were submitted by several religious organizations, Christian and Jewish.
The U.S. Supreme Court, without explanation, simply “denied” Chabad’s request to consider the case.
Norman Ankers, attorney for Chabad, said, “Obviously, Chabad is disappointed in the result, not only for itself but also for anyone who participates in the mandatory bet din procedures and, therefore, exposes itself to having its claim barred by the secular statutes of limitations.
“The legal result does not change what Chabad of Michigan views as the continuing and clear moral obligation of the congregation and the rabbi to honor the clear directives of the bet dins, and Chabad continues to hope and expect that the rabbi and congregation will do so.”
When asked if his client will pursue any further legal action against the Torah Center, Ankers said, “This legal action is clearly over.”
When asked if there were other legal avenues to consider, Ankers said, “We believe there is a moral obligation — an obligation that we hope the rabbi and the congregation take seriously. I haven’t really thought through whether there might be other legal avenues of relief.”
Torah Center Looks Ahead
“I am glad this is over,” said Neil Craft, the Torah Center president who was also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
“I really want our shul to be able to concentrate on its mission of serving its congregation and the community at large through our many outreach programs — whether they are community-wide events like our Chanukah Wonderland and Matzah Factory or one-on-one interactions such as when Rabbi Shneur Silberberg meets with young kids on campus.
“We very much hope that Rabbi Shemtov will cease his pursuits that have been a distraction to our efforts and a drain on our resources,” Craft said. “This lawsuit has created a negative perception in the community that we will continue to have to work very hard to overcome. People have heard our shul has been involved in controversy, and many don’t know the details.
“At our annual dinner on May 26, we paid tribute to the Holocaust survivors that were among our initial founders,” Craft said. “They were the ones, along with others in West Bloomfield, who donated their time, talent and treasure to building our shul and bringing Orthodox Judaism to West Bloomfield. The dinner highlighted the continuing support by our congregants and friends to keep this shul running.”
By David Sachs, Senior Copy Editor