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Rabbi plans to appeal court order to turn over Torah scrolls to widow

by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

September 2, 2010 | 4:55 pm

A superior court judge has given a Sherman Oaks rabbi 10 days to turn over four Torah scrolls to a widow, confirming a decision reached by a Los Angeles rabbinic court in May.
But an attorney for Rabbi Samuel Ohana says he will appeal the decision and Ohana will continue to use the scrolls at his synagogue, Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel, until the appeal has been decided.

Rita Pauker is the widow of Rabbi Norman Pauker, who ran a small storefront synagogue, Valley Mishkan Israel, from 1975 until he retired and closed the shul in 1996. Ohana says Rabbi Pauker gave him the scrolls when he retired, but Rita Pauker says her husband merely lent the scrolls to Ohana and they belong to the Pauker family. She wants them back to give to her nephews, who are pulpit rabbis in other cities. Pauker has been trying to get the scrolls back since her husband died in 2002.

The four scrolls, hand-inked on vellum, are valued at around $100,000.

In January 2009, the Rabbinical Council of California Beit Din —onto which both sides signed for arbitration—ordered Ohana to turn over the scrolls, but Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Zaven Sinanian vacated the beit din’s award in April, after Ohana’s lawyer successfully argued that Rabbi Nachum Sauer should be disqualified from that beit din because he was interviewed in a Daily News story about the case. Sauer said he had answered a general question about scroll ownership and didn’t know anything about the case.

Sinanian sent the case back to beit din, and the two sides agreed to a one-judge beit din, rather than the standard three.

Rabbi Shalom Tendler, dean of the boys high school Mesivta Birkas Yitzchak and a longtime judge on rabbinic courts, heard the case in January 2010 and on May 18 ruled that the scrolls belonged to the now defunct Valley Mishkan Israel Congregation. He ordered the scrolls returned to Rita Pauker as the agent of the synagogue.
When Ohana refused to turn the scrolls over, Pauker petitioned the superior court to confirm the beit din’s arbitration award.

G. Scott Sobel, Ohana’s attorney, argued before Sinanian that Tendler had no authority to find the scrolls belonged to a third party – Rabbi Pauker’s defunct synagogue – when it was Rita Pauker and Ohana contesting the scrolls’ ownership. He further argued the beit din violated his client’s rights because it did not allow a second attorney to be present at the beit din hearing.

The judge rejected Sobel’s arguments, and confirmed the beit din’s finding.

Sobel plans to file an appeal, arguing the judgment exceed the parties’ contractual agreement.

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