Here’s my Feb. 23, 2009 report on this dispute over four Torah scrolls.
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.”
In Rabbi Ohana’s June 29 filing, it says in note one: "It should be noted that the RCC Beit Din is composed of the same three above-named rabbis [Avrohom Union, Nachum Sauer, Gershon Bess] in virtually all cases…"
The Los Angeles Superior Court case number is BS119163. Most if not all of the documents in this case are available for purchase through LASuperiorCourt.org. Just register, give them your credit card information, and then enter the case number above.
G. Scott Sobel is the attorney for Rabbi Ohana. Here is his July 14, 2009 submission. It contains a transcript of the July 8, 2009 hearing before Judge Sinanian.
Scott Sobel blasts the RCC as being prejudiced against his client. "We cannot stomach going back to that body [RCC] and asking that body to select three — obviously not independent, because they are dependent. They are part of the RCC. Rabbi Pauker himself is a member of the RCC, has been for many years, but he is not comfortable to put any decision-making process into the hands of the body which we believe we have amply demonstrated has shown prejudice, has violated the rules, has violated ex-parte rules, disclosure rules, and created the entire mess we’re in."
"…I am personally aware of at least two, if not three, cases previously where it’s my understanding that Rabbi Union authorized the plastering of such posters.
"Now, it’s commonly done in Jerusalem in such cases, but this is…a different place and a different situation, and this is not somebody who is going out and saying, the law does not apply to me."
"…And I believe we have shown there has been actual prejudice that Rabbi Union has made a veiled threat in writing; that Rabbi Union has said in a letter that my client brings embarrassment upon himself if he pursues the original case in which the court upheld Rabbi…"
"Rabbi Ohana said, I am in direct competition with Rabbi Union and the RCC. I have a Beit Din in the Valley…that is authorized by the Chief Rabbinic Court, Beit Din of Israel from Jerusalem. He’s been operating for a number of years. He conducts conversions under the auspices of his Beit Din in the Valley. He grants divorces…"
"And Rabbi Union’s made it very clear that his desire is that there only be one Beit Din in Southern California and it be the RCC Beit Din. And all others should cease and desist their work."
After this, the judge ruled that Rabbi Ohana must go back to the RCC for arbitration of this dispute.