Chabad of Michigan sues Bais Chabad
Torah Center over title to its building.
Senior Copy Editor
embers of the Lubavitch move-
ment are admonished not to
air grievances against each
other in public — but after 17 years of
disagreements between Chabad-Lubavitch
of Michigan and the Sara and Morris
Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center of West
Bloomfield, it has gone that far.
On April 17, Chabad-Lubavitch of
Michigan ("Chabad of
Michigan"), the Oak Park-
based central organization
of the Chasidic sect in this
state led for 54 years by
Rabbi Berel Shemtov, filed
a 35-page complaint in
Oakland County Circuit
Court in Pontiac.
Chabad of Michigan
wants the court to order
the Sara and Morris
Tugman Bais Chabad
Torah Center ("Torah
Center"), its board of direc-
tors and its 37-year spiritu-
al leader, Rabbi Elimelech
Silberberg, to turn over title
to its synagogue building
at 5595 W. Maple, east of
Orchard Lake Road.
By filing its lawsuit,
Chabad of Michigan seeks to rein in a "sub-
ordinate" congregation that it says has acted
independently and challenged the hierarchal
authority it describes as the essence of the
Brooklyn-based Lubavitch movement that
dispatches emissaries around the world to
set up synagogues and Chabad centers.
Rabbi Shemtov is the Chabad movement's
regional director for the state of Michigan.
Last Sunday, May 20, Rabbi Silberberg's
congregation celebrated the 30th anniver-
sary of its West Bloomfield building at its
annual fundraising dinner at the Sheraton
Novi Hotel. In a written statement to the
Jewish News, Torah Center President Dr.
Dov Schuchman expressed dismay at the
Chabad of Michigan lawsuit — disputing
its basis and expressing confidence his con-
gregation will prevail in court.
According to Chabad of Michigan's com-
plaint filed by lead counsel Norman Ankers
of the Detroit-based law firm Honigman
Miller Schwartz and Cohn, the Torah
May 24 • 2012
Center in West Bloomfield was formed by
Chabad of Michigan in 1974, a year before
it assigned Rabbi Silberberg to serve there.
(The current synagogue building at issue
was built in 1982.) From the beginning,
the complaint alleges, the West Bloomfield
congregation's Articles of Incorporation
bound itself to obey "the discipline, rules
and usage [as] authorized and declared by
the Lubavitch Organization:'
The complaint states that it provided all
or part of Rabbi Silberberg's salary for about
the first two years and the congregation
used Chabad of Michigan facilities for years
before acquiring its own building. Chabad of
Michigan also claims that the Torah Center
raised money to purchase and improve the
property in part because of its public iden-
tification as a member of the Chabad orga-
nization."Indeed, at times, the congregation
received money directly from the global
organization:' the complaint states.
The complaint contends that disputes
with Rabbi Silberberg began in the mid-
1990s when he initiated rabbinical proceed-
ings against Chabad of Michigan "to enforce
certain Chabad Lubavitch rules that Rabbi
Silberberg perceived as benefiting him.
"Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan counter-
claimed to confirm its right to control the real
property occupied by the West Bloomfield
Bais Chabad," the complaint states.
"This led to more than a decade of rab-
binic judicial proceedings, each of which
affirmed Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan's
ownership of the disputed property:'
Although it received the main rabbinic
ruling it is suing over in 2005, Chabad of
Michigan says it tried for years to reach a
compromise with Rabbi Silberberg and it
now, reluctantly, has filed suit.
"These rabbinical tribunals have been
involved at least since 1995, and there have
been rulings of four separate rabbinic tri-
bunals," said attorney Ankers. "Even after
those rulings, there have been efforts to
work quietly to reach a resolution without
court action, but those efforts have, unfor
tunately, been unavailing."
Because of the sect's reluctance to use
the secular courts, Chabad of Michigan
says it obtained written approval on Dec.
24, 2009, to file a lawsuit from the Agudas
HaRabonim, an Orthodox organization
based in the United States and Canada,
which stated, "since it is permissible resort-
ing to secular courts in order to get a rabbin-
The Sara and Morris Bais Chabad Torah Center of West Bloomfield
ical court ruling validated, there is dearly no
place here for concern about [this causing]
desecration of the Divine Name, G-d forbid."
In a letter to West Bloomfield Torah
Center members, Chabad of Michigan
wrote, "It is with heavy hearts that today,
we filed a complaint in Oakland County
Circuit Court to finally put an end to an
injustice that has lasted for far too long.
. "This lawsuit was filed as a last resort
to enforce rabbinic judicial proceedings
that repeatedly ruled the Bais Chabad of
West Bloomfield is a part of Lubavitch of
Michigan. This is an organizational dispute
that we have the responsibility to resolve
in the best interest of our mission-driven
organization, the future of our community
and the future of the Lubavitch movement."
Torah Center Responds
The West Bloomfield congregation, its
rabbi and directors are consulting with
attorneys to formulate an answer to the
specifics of the complaint by June 11 or
later if there is a further extension of time.
But in Dr. Schuchman's statement to the
Jewish News, the Torah Center president
asserted a distinct level of independence
from the Chabad of Michigan organization
and contested the premises of the lawsuit:
"The Sara and Morris Tugman Bais
Chabad Torah Center (`Torah Center') is
profoundly disturbed that it and others have
been sued by Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan.
"Many years ago, the Torah Center's
board formed a corporate entity that
bought land, raised its own money and
built a building. The Torah Center has
since thrived as a strong, vibrant con-
gregation devoted to Torah, mitzvos and
Jewish religious observance.
"The fact that the Torah Center has
an affiliation with Chabad-Lubavitch of
Michigan does not mean that the congrega-
tion and its land and building are or should
be owned by Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan.
"The Torah Center is disappointed that
its ownership of its own land and building
is now being challenged in court after so
many years of successful operation. The
Torah Center is confident that it is correct
in its position, and it will defend itself in
court, so that it can maintain its status as a
model Jewish institution in this community.
"Bais Chabad Torah Center is in the
right legally, spiritually, operationally
Pressing Its Case
In its letter to Torah Center members,
Chabad of Michigan provides an email
address and telephone number to respond
to questions and concerns.
"We hope that you can appreciate the fact
that an organization like Chabad Lubavitch
has a moral and fiduciary obligation to
assert the proper authority within the guide-
lines established by the Rebbe of blessed
memory," the letter states.
"It is our hope that after this situation
is resolved with the authority of Chabad
Lubavitch of Michigan rightfully established,
that Bais Chabad will continue to grow as
a place of Torah and chasidus [Chasidism]
in the community. Chabad Lubavitch of
Michigan will not, G-d forbid, interfere and
will indeed be willing to help in facilitating
the growth of the congregation."
As well as local counsel, Chabad of
Michigan has retained Nathan Lewin, a
constitutional lawyer in Washington, D.C.,
who has represented Chabad nationwide in
the past. It has also engaged the Farmington
Hills-based public relations firm Tanner
Friedman to help communicate its message.
When asked if Chabad of Michigan
holds title to the other area Chabad syna-
gogues, attorney Ankers said, "I'm not spe-
cifically aware of what the title ownership
is with respect to various congregations,
but I do know that as far back as 1995,
there were general regulations that were
promulgated and agreed to by schluchim
[Chabad emissaries] throughout the state
that made dear that when property was
acquired it should be titled in the name of
Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan, and that
is consistent with the hierarchal nature of
Ankers said that in addition to seek-
ing title to the property, he also wants a
"determination by the court that the West
Bloomfield Bais Chabad is a subordinate
congregation to the authority of Chabad-
Lubavitch of Michigan."
The case has been assigned to Circuit
Judge Rae Lee Chabot, who has handled
a prominent case involving the Jewish
community in the past. In 2005, she ruled
that the Michigan High School Athletic
Association had to adjust its playoff
schedule so that the basketball team
from the Frankel Jewish Academy of West
Bloomfield would not miss out on playoffs
that had been scheduled on Shabbat.