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Jewish Journal

Chabad Case Closed, With Enmity

by Gaby Wenig

January 9, 2003 | 7:00 pm

The Los Angeles Superior Court confirmed on Wednesday a controversial beit din (Jewish court of law) arbitration award that ruled that properties controlled by the Living Judaism Center (LJC) should be taken over by Chabad of California.

The conflict between the two institutions began in January 2002, when Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch, fired Rabbi Shmulik Naparstek, leader of what was then Chabad of the Marina, but subsequently changed to the Living Judaism Center. The case quickly went to civil court, which ordered both parties in July to settle the case in a beit din.

The beit din ruling, which was issued in Florida on Nov. 27, was heavily contested by two of the five rabbis serving on the beit din, who claimed that a prior ruling had been issued in October, which had conditionally awarded the property to the LJC. (According to the laws of the beit din, once a ruling has been issued, it cannot be changed.)

But Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Ann Murphy ratified the November ruling, rejecting the earlier October documents because they were not signed or notarized. "This doesn't even come close to being an award," Murphy said about the October document.

While the court decision puts to rest, for now, the ongoing legal battle between Chabad of California and the LJC, the yearlong, public affair has aroused enmity in the larger Chabad community. Four prominent local Chabad rabbis intervened last month, entreating the two sides to withdraw the case from the secular courts because, "The honor of Chabad Lubavitch and our eternal leader have been bought down to the dust, in such a fashion that has never occurred before," the rabbis wrote in a letter. Moreover, a group of Chabad emissaries also wrote that the case had undermined their confidence in the emissary process.

Pitched emotions marked the Jan. 8 hearing downtown. One LJC supporter told the defendants, "You should be ashamed to be Jewish!" -- and she was asked to leave the courthouse. The discussions focused on the validity of the various beit din decisions, as well as the technicalities of whether Marina del Rey properties had ever been transferred over from Chabad to the LJC.

The court ruled that LJC must evacuate within 30 days the $2 million properties, which includes the Washington Boulevard LJC and The Toibb Gan Israel Preschool in Playa del Rey, which has 50 students, age 2-5.

The plaintiffs would not comment on their plans for the future of their congregation.

Some members said that despite the fact that the center would return to Chabad of California, the members would not follow.

"We are never going to accept Rabbi Cunin in our community," said Alon Kaynan, a member of LJC. "Not only me, but the whole community is going to follow Rabbi Shmulik Naparstek," he said. "He is our rabbi, and that is the community, not the buildings and not the name Chabad of the Marina or Chabad of California. They may confiscate the property, but they will never confiscate the community."

Kaynan also said that he and many other parents would withdraw their children from the Toibb Preschool in Marina del Rey if it is taken over by Chabad of California.

Chabad of California representatives declined to comment on the case, except to say that "the ruling speaks for itself," attorney Marshall Grossman said.

Cunin was sent to California in 1965 by the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, and has since opened more than 100 Chabad outreach centers and 28 other schools and institutions throughout California and Nevada. Just this week, following their international convention, Cunin announced that they planned to open 20 new centers in Southern California.

The current case with the LJC has a few Chabad rabbis voicing private criticism of Chabad and the ruling. Prior to the case's submission in the Superior Court, there was a concerted effort within the Chabad community in California and New York to have both parties withdraw the case from the court and re-submit it to a beit din.

On Dec. 18 2002, four prominent members of the Chabad community in Los Angeles -- Rabbi Shimon Raichik of Congregation Levi Yitzchak in Fairfax; Rabbi Yosef Shusterman of Chabad of Beverly Hills; Rabbi Ezra Schochet, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad; and Rabbi Avrohom Levitansky of Bais Chabad of Simcha (Santa) Monica -- sent a letter to the "Honorable Leadership of Agudas Chassidei Chabad" (the central Chabad office in New York), asking the rabbis there to prevail upon both Chabad of California and the LJC to withdraw their claims from the civil court and have the matter once again adjudicated in a beit din.

The letter stated: "The honor of the rabbis, the honor of the beit din ... has no value among our anash [members of the Chabad community], and it is worth 'the shell of a garlic' [a Talmudic expression meaning that something is completely worthless].... Therefore, we turn to you ... to stop this great shame so that this does not become a disaster for generations, and to instruct the two sides to remove the judgments from the secular courts, and that this matter should be adjudicated by rabbis according to the law of our holy Torah."

Some California shluchim (Chabad emissaries) also wrote a letter to the rabbis of the Chabad community in California, prevailing upon them to use their authority to stop the case going to civil court. While the signatures on the shluchim's letter were kept confidential, it was reportedly signed by "scores of shluchim throughout California."

The shluchim's letter stated that "The shluchim are deeply distressed and disgusted by the destruction of shem Lubavitch [the name/reputation of Chabad] taking place throughout this community." The letter stated that the "shluchim are afraid that they can be fired arbitrarily, have their mosdos [institutions] and years of hard work seized from under them -- without any avenue for recourse, for a fair hearing, or for an appeal process that is effective and just."

In response to the letter, on Dec. 24 the executive committee of Agudas Chassidei Chabad, the central Chabad oversight office, wrote a letter to the five rabbis who sat on the beit din, and asked for a halt to the proceedings in civil court "for the time being." The letter also stated that Agudas Chassidei Chabad would "investigate the problem with clarity -- in all of its detail -- with the intention of G-d willing, finding a resolution."

But the requests were to no avail, and "Living Judaism Center vs. Chabad of California" proceeded to the Los Angeles Superior Court for a final ruling on Jan. 8. Agudas Chassidei Chabad declined to comment on whether there will be a further investigation.

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