Fluent in French, Hebrew, Yiddish and English, Rabbi Samuel Ohana has lived in Los Angeles since 1972.
He is 75 years old. He runs the storefront synagogue Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel (13312 Burbank Boulevard, Sherman Oaks, CA 91401 (818) 901-1598) and operates his own Beit Din, which does conversions, divorces and the normal stuff of Jewish law courts.
Rabbi Ohana studied under many prestigious East European rabbis at yeshiva in London from 1951-1957 and his students include many top rabbis, including R. Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Rabbi Ohana’s conversions and divorces are universally accepted (including in Israel).
We talk Sunday afternoon.
Luke: “Why do you want to keep the four Torah scrolls?”
Rabbi: “Very simple. I was assistant rabbi to Rabbi [Norman] Pauker for 18 years. On the high holidays, I used to replace him when he took a large minyan in the Jewish Community Center on Burbank Blvd. In 1994, he became sick. He decided to close the synagogue [Mishkan Israel]. He gave the machzorim (High Holiday prayer books) to Rabbi First. The sifre Torah (four Torah scrolls), he put them in his garage.
“Since he was a close friend, I kept visiting him regularly in his home. He normally wouldn’t venture out.
“After about one year, he told me, ‘Rabbi, I have a guilty feeling about the sifrei Torah sitting in my garage gathering dust. Take them to your synagogue.
“I had opened my Sephardic synagogue. He had made a request when I opened, ‘I want the name Mishkan Israel to survive but I am keeping the name Mishkan Israel for me in case people want to donate something for my maintenance, they can get a tax deduction.’ He had no more income.
“That’s why I added the name ‘Beth Midrash’ to Mishkan Israel.
“He told me to take the sifrei Torah to my synagogue. I said, I’m not buying them. He said, ‘Take them. Use them in your synagogue. It is assur (forbidden) to have them gathering dust.’
“The sifrei Torah were taken from his home in the presence of Rita Pauker. I took them one by one to my car and she was standing there holding the door for me.
“For the next four years, Rabbi Pauker would come to daven in my shul on the yartzheit of his parents.
“After he passed away, I ran into Mrs. Pauker. She asked if the sifrei Torah were taken care of. Were they insured? I said, absolutely.
“A few weeks later, she says, I want the sifrei Torah. I said, ‘Mrs. Pauker, what do you need them for?’
“She said, ‘I want to sell them. They can bring $18,000 a piece.’
“I said, ‘Mam, the sifrei Torah are not mine. They were not Rabbi Pauker’s. They were donated with the intention of being used in a shul.’
“She said, ‘No, no, no. These are for my retirement.’
“I had never heard of that, that a rabbi would own sifrei Torah.
“Since she was a widow, I wanted to help her. I asked the congregation and the congregation agreed to give her $12,000. I proposed that to her and she refused.
“I had an inconvenience. Why would I hold these sifrei Torah? I called Rabbi Nachum Sauer. Two times. Finally, Rabbi Sauer was adamant — do not return the sifrei Torah to her.
“She went to the police and said I stole them. After the police investigated her and me, the investigator found out that the sifrei Torah were taken by permission. So the investigator told her, lady, there is no theft here. It is simply a dispute of ownership. Let it go to the courts.
“She called the television. She called the Daily News. And she called me a thief. I didn’t want to pay attention. It was not to my level to dispute with her.
“Finally, she found an attorney, Baruch Cohen, who she paid a lot of money. They asked me to go the RCC (Rabbinical Council of California). I went. I showed them (rabbis Avrohom Union, Gershon Bess and Nachum Sauer) the rings on the wooden Torah scrolls which showed who donated them. One was donated by parents in Los Angeles in memory of their son who died in their lifetime. The second one was donated by a Mrs. Walter in memory of her husband who died in California. The third one doesn’t say who donated it but it says Los Angeles. The fourth one came from the Westminster synagogue in London, England, from sifrei Torah left from the Holocaust.
“I told Rabbi Sauer, ‘What are you doing here, rabbi? You already paskened.’ He didn’t stare me in the eyes. He said, ‘I don’t remember.’
“For me, it was so obvious that the court would decide the sifrei Torah have to stay where they are that I didn’t bother.
“Six months later, Rabbi Avrohom Union notified her in advance that she had won the case. Then he sent me the psak (ruling) that I had to return the sifrei Torah to her.
“Shabbat. I come to my synagogue and I found pasted to all the windows the psak of the RCC. The night before when I davened, there was nothing. So somebody hung them on Shabbat.
“I called Rabbi Union. I said to him, I have no objection to returning the sifrei Torah, even though I disagree with your psak. With one condition. You take them and do with them what you want. But I won’t give it to her to sell. I don’t have that right.
“His answer was no. You give them to her and you obey our psak or it will cost you aggravation and money.
“Before I knew it, he sued me in the Los Angeles Superior Court to force me to obey the RCC. Two nice attorneys, Scott Sobel and Steve Friedman, said they will represent me for free. They went to court and the judge said, Rabbi Sauer should not be there. Automatically, it is not a Beit Din according to the laws of Judaism. Therefore I can not force Rabbi Ohana to give back the sifrei Torah.
“Baruch Cohen insisted we go back to the RCC. I said fine. Rabbi Union proposed six rabbis to choose from for a Beit Din. I accepted two of them, including Rabbi Sholom Tendler. I said the third one, I have the right to bring one. I presented him with six Sephardic rabbis of high calibre. He said all six are no good. They are not qualified.
“We accepted Rabbi Sholom Tendler alone. I called an expert sofer (scribe), Rabbi [David] Rue, a Torah scholar.
“After many months, Rabbi Tendler came with his psak. I call it a kvetch.
“Rabbi Tendler says the sifrei Torah are not Mrs. Pauker’s. They belong to Mishkon Israel, which only exists as a tax deduction. Since she is the woman who controls Mishkon Israel, therefore the sifrei Torah should be given to her.
“My opinion is that Rabbi Avrohom Union wants to crush every competing Beit Din. He targets me because I have my Beit Din. I have my semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Ashkenazi rabbis (as well as Sephardic rabbis). I have a semicha from the Israeli Chief Rabbi as a dayan. He looks at me as competition.
“Rabbi Union took this case just to start crushing rabbis.
“She is not the heir of the sifrei Torah. Any sefer Torah in the shul, when the shul closes, the sefer Torah belongs to the rabbi. It is unheard of for the sifrei Torah being inherited by the wife or children. I’m disappointed in Rabbi Tendler, who I consider a talmud chacham (Torah sage). The same thing I thought about Rabbi Gershon Bess, who did not have the guts to stand up to the lowly opinions of Rabbi Union.”
Luke: “Are you still a member of the RCC?”
Rabb: “As far as I know, yes. I was thinking of resigning, but I don’t want Rabbi Union to be there at the top.
“I was a member of the RCC in 1972, before Rabbi Union came to this place. I started Adat Jeshurun. After one year, after I couldn’t make a living out of it, I went into business. I had six children.
“When I told them I was becoming active, Rabbi Baruch Kupfer and Rabbi Union told me no, we can not take you back. Why? Because you speak your mind. Rabbi Sugarman intervened. So they had to accept me. Maybe I am behind [in the dues] for a year or two.
“Why do the RCC attorneys call me names? They don’t hurt me. Why? Because I don’t live off of nobody. If I live off social security, it is money I have earned. If I do a wedding, it is money I have earned. Nobody feeds me. I speak my mind.
“My semicha comes from Ashkenazi rabbis and from Sephardic rabbis and I am at the level of anybody here.”
Luke: “Is it true that Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi in Israel, was your student?”
Rabbi: “Yes. For a short time. Some of the dayanim in Israel were my students, such as Rabbi Amram El Hadat (sp?). He was my student for three years. He left Morocco at age 17. His basic training in Talmud and halacha was from me. Rabbi Nissim Adabu (sp?), who was the dayan of Paris, he was three years in my classes. Rabbi Benyamin Abdahag (sp?), who was the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Argentina, was also my talmid.
“When it comes to knowledge of Talmud and halacha, I can sit with important people. I know my trade.
“All the time, Rabbi Union has been calling me directly and through Rabbi [Nissim] Davidi to give him any information, any disagreement said against Rabbi [Gavriel] Cohen [of the Beit Din of Beverly Hills] so that he will disqualify him more. I said no. You are a big organization. Do what you have to do. Don’t come to me.”
Luke: “Rabbi Union wants to crush all other Beit Dins in Southern California.”
Rabbi: “That is what he is doing.”
Luke: “I asked a rabbi, why does Rabbi Ohana want the tsures that comes with these Torah scrolls? And he said to me, if Rita Pauker were observant, it wouldn’t be an issue.”
Rabbi: “That is right.”
Luke: And if Rabbi Pauker were alive?
Rabbi: “I would give them to him.”
Luke: “Did the four Torah scrolls come from Congregation Judea?”
Rabbi: “No. I believe they belonged to Rabbi Leder. When Rabbi Pauker left Congregation Judea, he didn’t leave with any honor. He had to make a livelihood and get away from the city. Rabbi Leder had a shul. He wanted to go to Israel. I believe there was a transaction between him and Rabbi Leder. Rabbi Pauker is turning in his grave. He knows the sifrei Torah didn’t belong to him.
“I called Rabbi Mayer May. I said, I am ready to give the sifrei Torah to you. Rabbi May said, ‘No, I do not want to get involved.’
“All of them are scared of Rabbi Union. He’s a tyrant. Somebody has to stand up to him. After 13 years, he has to sit down.
“The only zechut (merit) I can think of for Rabbi [Sholom] Tendler is that he has started a yeshiva (Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok) and he doesn’t want Rabbi Union on his back.
“I don’t have the time to waste with this. I’m 75 years old.”