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Torah ownership dispute goes to Superior Court in Los Angeles

Duke Helfand
Posted: March 9, 2009.

Los Angeles Times

A rancorous legal fight over the rightful ownership of four Torahs has spilled from religious to civil courts in Los Angeles, with the widow of one Orthodox rabbi accusing another of stealing scrolls lent to him by her deceased husband.

Once confined to an obscure Jewish legal system, the case of Pauker vs. Ohana is scheduled to go before a Superior Court judge next month, complete with accusations of legal misconduct, forgery and sheer chutzpah.

As the largely private struggle over the sacred scrolls turns into a public brawl, one attorney is trying to disqualify his opposing counsel for allegedly violating professional rules of conduct. The parties also are squabbling over whether the civil case should proceed while a religious court in Israel considers an appeal filed after a Jewish court in Los Angeles ruled in the case.

Jewish legal scholars called the public airing of the case highly unusual, noting the strict confidentiality observed by the religious courts. “Most parties comply with the order of a [rabbinical court] without bothering to have it confirmed,” said Rabbi Michael Broyde, an Emory University law professor and a judge with the largest U.S. rabbinical court.

The tug-of-war over the Torahs, now in its seventh year, pits the widow of Norman Pauker, an Orthodox rabbi from North Hollywood who once owned the scrolls, against his former assistant, Rabbi Samuel Ohana.

Rita Pauker insists that a handwritten agreement between her husband and Ohana proves that the Torahs—parchment scrolls containing the first five books of the Bible—were lent to Ohana for just two years.

Pauker has been seeking the return of the Torahs since her husband died in 2002. Last year, she took the matter to the religious court in Los Angeles, known in Hebrew as a beis din, or house of judgment. Both sides signed an agreement in English to abide by the court’s decision.

In January, the judges ruled in Pauker’s favor, ordering the Torahs returned within 30 days. Ohana has yet to comply. Instead, he has appealed to the higher religious court in Jerusalem, sparking a dispute over that panel’s authority to rule on the matter.

And so Pauker’s attorney, Baruch Cohen, has turned to the U.S. civil system, asking a Superior Court judge to confirm the Jewish court’s judgment, a rare development in a religious legal system whose rulings are generally honored.

“I’ll fight to the end,” said Pauker, who wants to give the Torahs to her husband’s nephews, two of whom are Orthodox rabbis. “I want them to go where they belong.”

Ohana, 73, maintains that Rabbi Pauker gave the Torahs to his Sherman Oaks congregation in 1998 after Pauker’s own North Hollywood synagogue closed. The Torahs, Ohana said, had been sitting in Pauker’s garage. He said he was surprised when Rita Pauker began asking for the scrolls.

“When a person donates a . . . Torah to a synagogue, it belongs to the synagogue,” said Ohana, who also serves as a religious judge in the San Fernando Valley. “The [Torahs] never belonged to Mrs. Pauker.”

Ohana denied the validity of the handwritten agreement, saying a copy of his signature was pasted onto it. He is fighting Pauker’s effort in civil court. His attorney, G. Scott Sobel, faulted the religious court’s judgment as “inadequate and mistaken.”

Sobel argued in court paper’s that one of the religious judges, Rabbi Nachum Sauer, did not disclose comments he made to a newspaper—more than a year before the matter came before him—that seemed to show he believed the Torahs belonged to Pauker.

Sauer said that he was not speaking then to specifics of the Pauker case and that he would never judge a legal matter of which he had prior knowledge. He declined other comment on the case.

Rabbi Avrohom Union, the court’s administrator and one of its three judges, also said he could not comment on the case because it remains in dispute.

Sobel objected, meanwhile, to the issue being taken to civil court while it is under appeal in Jerusalem, calling the step premature.

Such a move, Sobel said in a sharply worded e-mail to Pauker’s attorney, is “a bit of chutzpah, to say the least!”

Nevertheless, an April 3 hearing has been scheduled before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Zaven V. Sinanian.

As it moves from religious to civil courts, the case offers a rare glimpse into a legal system that traces its roots to ancient times.

According to the Torah, the first Jewish court was established by Moses as he led the Children of Israel through the Sinai wilderness on their journey from Egypt to Israel. Jewish law in the Torah and Talmud guides its contemporary offshoots, with each panel working independently on cases brought by Jews and non-Jews alike over financial disputes, divorces, employment quarrels and other matters.

A number of Jewish courts function in the United States, primarily on the East Coast. Los Angeles has four such courts, including the Beis Din of the Rabbinical Council of California, which heard the Torahs dispute.

Last July, the judges conducted a two-hour hearing in the case in English.

Pauker, who is not observant, said she began her fight to reclaim the Torahs in religious court because it was more affordable than going to civil court.

Even so, she said, she has spent $8,700 so far on attorney’s fees and court costs.

Pauker said she was surprised by the relative informality of the religious courtroom and proceedings: Just the parties and judges seated around a conference table.

The court’s one-page judgment arrived five months later. “Based on the evidence and the law, the Beis Din determines that the [Torahs] must rightfully be returned to the plaintiff for said distribution,” the judges wrote without explaining their reasoning.

Ohana said the long-running legal battle has drained time from his work as the unpaid rabbi of Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel, a small congregation in a Burbank Boulevard strip mall that has just seven paying members.

Still, Ohana said he feels an obligation to protect the Torahs, considered the most sacred objects in Judaism, and has worried that they would be sold.

“I have better things to do—taking care of the community,” he said. “Why are they coming with this?”

After the religious court ruled in the case, Ohana and his attorney offered to resolve it if the court would oversee delivery of the Torahs to Pauker’s family members—though not to her—and order the widow not to publicize the matter.

Pauker refused, retorting: “He lost the case and he is giving me conditions?”

Ohana is now waiting to hear the outcome of his appeal to the Israeli court. But his strategy has been greeted with some skepticism.

Responding to a recent letter from Ohana’s attorney about his appeal, the rabbi in charge of the Los Angeles religious court said the court was confident its decision would stand, according to a document provided by Pauker’s attorney.

“We . . . urge you to spare your client further expense and embarrassment by urging him to comply with the judgment post haste,” the rabbi wrote.

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