April 16, 2009
Widow to Appeal Ruling on Torah Scrolls Ownership
North Hollywood widow Rita Pauker plans to appeal a recent L.A. Superior Court decision that would bar her from reclaiming a set of Torah scrolls her late husband, Rabbi Norman Pauker, left in the care of his former colleague, Rabbi Samuel Ohana, when Pauker retired in the mid-1990s.
The move would be the latest chapter in a heated public saga pitting Rita Pauker against Ohana, who says the four sifrei Torah belong to his Sephardic Orthodox synagogue, Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel in Sherman Oaks. Pauker maintains the scrolls were merely on loan. Since her husband died in 2002, she has fought to have them returned to her in an increasingly bitter battle that spilled into the civil court system this year.
In an April 3 ruling, Superior Court Judge Zaven Sinanian reversed a January decision by a Los Angeles beit din, or rabbinic court, that awarded Pauker the scrolls. Sinanian agreed with Ohana’s claim that one of the three beit din rabbis should have been disqualified from hearing the case because of statements he made in a 2007 Los Angeles Daily News article about the dispute.
Long in advance of the hearing, Rabbi Nachum Sauer, a top L.A. Orthodox arbiter, told then-Daily News reporter Brad A. Greenberg (now a senior writer for The Jewish Journal) that lending a Torah to a synagogue is a common mitzvah performed by Jews. “It is on long-term loan to their synagogue, but he still owns it,” Sauer was quoted as saying.
Ohana and his attorney, G. Scott Sobel, successfully argued to the Superior Court that the beit din’s ruling should be thrown out because Sauer failed to disclose that statement as a possible threat to his neutrality in the case.
Sinanian agreed in his ruling, saying, “Rabbi Sauer’s above-cited quotation could create a strong impression in the mind of a reasonable person that the matter had been prejudged by him.”
Sauer had told the court that the comment used in the article was “in response to a general inquiry, and not based on the facts of the instant dispute.”
Pauker and attorney Baruch Cohen plan to challenge the judge’s ruling, saying the court lacked evidence that Sauer’s statement represented a bias. “By saying this, you are making a leap. The court should base its decisions on evidence and fact, not leaps,” Cohen said.
Cohen said he circulated a copy of the Daily News article to Ohana before the beit din hearing, and questioned why Ohana had not objected to Sauer’s presence on the panel before signing a legally binding arbitration agreement.
Ohana said in an interview this week that he did not know about Sauer’s quote until Sobel brought it to his attention in February.
“The whole thing is a very unfortunate situation. I feel very bad for the beit din. This is not something that gives the community honor,” Ohana said.
But Pauker and Cohen counter that Ohana’s decision not to comply with the beit din’s arbitration dishonors Jewish communal law.
“It’s a dark day for Jews when an Orthodox rabbi refuses in a public forum to adhere to Jewish law,” Cohen said. “It’s a blight on the community. How will this rabbi expect anyone to comply with the beit din if he doesn’t?”
The beit din in a Jan. 19 ruling ordered Ohana to return the Torahs to Pauker within 30 days. Ohana appealed the decision on Feb. 16, writing to the highest rabbinical court in Jerusalem that the panel’s ruling was not in compliance with halacha, or Jewish law. Pauker, when the 30 days were up, took the issue to the Los Angeles Superior Court seeking enforcement of the ruling.
Pauker said she is “overwhelmed” by the court ruling. “All I know is the Torahs belong with me and should be going to my husband’s family,” she said by phone.
Ohana said he would continue to defend his synagogue’s ownership of the scrolls if Pauker appealed the Superior Court decision.
“I am sorry for Mrs. Pauker,” he said. “But the sifrei Torah are where her husband intended them to be.” l