Public Court Battle Erupts Over Possession of Torahs

Rita Pauker wants her Torah scrolls back. After years of asking and begging, she has resorted to the courts to reclaim ownership of four Torah scrolls she says were owned by her husband. She wants to bequeath them to their nephews, who are Orthodox pulpit rabbis.

Rabbi Samuel Ohana says the Torah scrolls are not hers to take back — they belong to his small North Hollywood synagogue, which has used them regularly since Rabbi Norman Pauker, Rita’s late husband, turned them over to him more than 10 years ago.

In January, a Los Angeles beit din (rabbinic tribunal) ruled in favor of Pauker, saying the Torah scrolls belong to Pauker and that Ohana should turn them over to her within 30 days. Ohana has not complied with the order — which both parties signed as legally binding arbitration — so on Feb. 19, Pauker’s attorney, Baruch Cohen, filed a petition with the Superior Court of California to confirm the arbitration and enforce the ruling.

Ohana and his pro bono attorney, G. Scott Sobel, say the decision rendered by the panel of three rabbis of the Rabbinical Council of California is “inadequate and mistaken.” Ohana had appealed the ruling to the Beit Din Hagadol — the supreme rabbinical court in Jerusalem — on Feb. 16, and on March 2 asked the Superior Court to undo the arbitration award and stay the petition, pending a response from the Jerusalem beit din.

The matter will be heard in Judge Zaven V. Sinanian’s downtown court on April 3.

The feud has elevated, in an unusually public and rancorous way, with accusations of misconduct, sharply worded e-mails and demands for apologies. Some of the most respected rabbis in Los Angeles have been accused of incompetence.

“I would mortgage my house if I had to to get those Torahs back,” Pauker said in her North Hollywood home. “It’s like watching someone steal your car out of your driveway and you’re locked in the house screaming, ‘They’re stealing my car!’”

For his part, Ohana disputes the very notion that the scrolls belong to Pauker, questioning whether they ever were family scrolls. Besides, he said, Torahs are owned by a community, not by a rabbi, a donor or anyone else.

“Sifrei Torah are not like money to change hands — with Sifrei Torah you have to know where they are going,” said Ohana, standing near the tapestry-covered central bima where the Torahs are read every Shabbat in his Sephardic Orthodox synagogue. About 30 people attend weekly services at the small Burbank Boulevard storefront, which is wedged in a shallow strip mall next to a doughnut shop and legal services office. Ohana, 73, is not paid for his work.

A Right to Appeal?

The four scrolls, hand-inked on vellum — one of which is pasul, or unkosher for use — are valued at around $100,000, but both parties say it is not a matter of money.

Pauker’s attorney says the beit din’s decision is legally binding, and the arbitration agreement leaves no room for appeal, either to a rabbinic court or a secular court.

Sobel argues that the language in the beit din contract does not preclude an appeal and that appeals are an inherent component of Jewish law, dating back to Moses’ legal system of higher and lower courts in the desert.

Jewish legal scholars, however, say that system was abandoned two millennia ago with the Temple’s destruction. Since then, no beit din has jurisdiction over another beit din’s ruling.

“There is no appeals process in Jewish law,” said Rabbi Michael Broyde, academic director of the law and religion program at Emory University and a judge on the Beth Din of America. Individual batei din can include within their procedures systems for appeal, he says, but absent that, there is no presumption of a right to appeal.

Rabbi Avrohom Union, executive director of the RCC beit din, confirms that the only appeal it allows is to ask the RCC itself to reconsider — which Sobel did and the RCC declined. Union and the other rabbis involved declined further comment on the unresolved case.

In addition, Broyde — who has no knowledge of this case but was commenting on legal and halachic procedures in general — said appeal is very rarely an option in American law for decisions rendered in binding arbitration.

Broyde says secular courts annul arbitration only when gross misconduct is involved — bribery, blatant bias or if the arbitrator is closely related to a litigant. In addition, a secular court cannot determine whether a Jewish court violated Jewish law and procedure, which is what Sobel claims in his brief.

Sobel is pushing forward, saying the beit din ignored crucial evidence and that beit din judge Rabbi Nachum Sauer, one of the top Orthodox decisors in Los Angeles, should have recused himself from the case because he was quoted in a 2007 Daily News article about the dispute — an article Ohana says he didn’t know about.

Cohen counters that the article was attached to a brief Cohen sent to Ohana two weeks before the case went to the beit din. By signing the arbitration agreement, Cohen says, Ohana agreed to Sauer’s participation.

Whose Torahs Are They?

The beit din’s terse decision in favor of Pauker does not elucidate how it arrived at its conclusions. The hearing was not recorded, but interviews with Pauker, Ohana, their attorneys and other parties paint a picture of the case and its history.

The late Rabbi Pauker, who was previously a rabbi in Brooklyn and at Temple Judea in Los Angeles, purchased a shul from Rabbi Max Leader, opening Valley Congregation Mishkan Israel around 1975. The Orthodox congregation had a small Shabbat minyan — about 40 or so regulars — in a rented location in North Hollywood. Pauker’s High Holy Days services attracted about 400 people and were held at the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center until he retired in 1996.

Rabbi Pauker’s Sherman Oaks accountant, Stuart Zimmerman, said that the rabbi had an arrangement where any revenue that came in would go to run the shul and the remainder would be his salary. Pauker brought four Torah scrolls to the congregation.

Rita Pauker says the scrolls had been donated by the rabbi’s father to a synagogue in the Bronx, and when the neighborhood changed and the shul closed, the Torahs went to the son. Zimmerman said he had the same recollection for the origin of some, if not all, of the scrolls.

Ohana, who appeared before the beit din without an attorney, argued that at least some of the Torahs did not come from the Bronx. He showed the beit din photos of the wooden staves upon which the Torah is rolled. A Hebrew calligraphied inscription encircles one handle, saying the Torah was dedicated in Los Angeles in the 1950s by the Bender family in memory of their daughter.

Ohana and his attorney believe the case can set a dangerous precedent about the ownership of Torah scrolls, which they say are not owned by a rabbi but by a community.

“The rabbi is questioning whether he has the right to turn them over to Mrs. Pauker,” Sobel said. “He represents the community, and he believes the community owns the Sifrei Torah.”

‘Shul for Sale’

When Pauker was ready to retire in the mid-1990s, he tried to sell the congregation — the name, the membership list, some assets — but didn’t find a buyer. Ohana, who worked in business at the time, co-led High Holy Days services with Pauker in 1994, and in 1995 he took over the services, at the same time he ran a Sephardic minyan in another room he rented at the Jewish center. That arrangement fizzled by the next year, because Ohana wanted only separate gender seating, and Pauker had allowed both separate and mixed seating.

The nature of the relationship between Ohana and Rabbi Pauker is unclear. Ohana claims to have been a member of Pauker’s shul and to have served as an unpaid assistant rabbi there for 25 years, stepping in when Pauker was away or ill.

But Rita Pauker says Ohana was never an assistant rabbi and didn’t regularly attend Mishkan Israel. She says the two were professional acquaintances.

“So help me God, this man had nothing to do with our synagogue,” Pauker said.

Two people who were members of Mishkan Israel starting in the mid-1980s — one of them the High Holy Days cantor, who worked closely with Rabbi Pauker — confirmed Rita Pauker’s account, saying Ohana neither attended nor led the shul.

Pauker says that Ohana also missed her husband’s funeral, at which he was supposed to play a role. At the beit din hearing, Ohana said he would have given the Torahs back to Rabbi Pauker, because he was a mensch, but not to Rita Pauker, according to Cohen’s brief. Ohana later said he meant that if Rabbi Pauker had asked for the Torah scrolls to use for his own services, he would surely have complied.

A hard-to-decipher document handwritten by Rabbi Pauker from around 1994 (it is not dated) is headed, “Shul for Sale,” and has the name “Rabbi Gabbai” on the top. It lists the assets of Pauker’s shul, and on one page says, “Torahs for two years 1995 & 1996, insured by Samuel Ohana.” The document has on it Ohana’s signature.

Rita Pauker says this means the Torahs were on loan for two years.

Ohana says the document was Pauker’s personal memo. He says the only agreement he made about the Torahs was to insure them through his business for the two years while he led Pauker’s services at the Jewish center. He claims his signature was pasted onto Pauker’s memo from the one he signed regarding the insurance.

Unable to sell his congregation, Pauker gave Ohana all of his prayer books, his prayer shawls and some furniture. Ohana opened his congregation in July 1997, and he called it Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel in honor of Rabbi Pauker, he says. But the two shuls did not merge, nor was Mishkan Israel turned over to Ohana. Valley Congregation Mishkan Israel is still listed with the IRS as a nonprofit institution.

Ohana says the Torahs went back to Pauker’s garage — after the two years they were used at the Jewish center — until 1998, when Pauker asked Ohana to take them, because, Ohana says, Pauker told him he felt guilty “they were collecting dust” in his garage.

Rita Pauker says Ohana had the Torahs the whole time.

A Decision, Spurned

Soon after Pauker died in 2002, his widow asked Ohana for the Torahs — a development Ohana says surprised him. Pauker says Ohana kept assuring her he would give the Torahs back — he made arrangements then canceled them, told her he was going to Israel to get other Torahs, set deadlines then let them pass. At one point, she says, Ohana offered to give her a monthly stipend in exchange for the Torahs, which she refused.

Pauker tried reporting Ohana to the police, who advised her to get an attorney to pursue it as a civil matter. Pauker sought assistance from attorney Jeffrey Bohrer, one of Mishkan Israel’s members, who helped her but was reluctant to go to court, since it was a matter suited for a beit din.

Last June, Pauker retained Cohen, who has experience before both civil and religious courts.

In June 2008, Rabbis Sauer, Union and Gershon Bess heard the case.

Both parties signed a contract agreeing to abide by the outcome of the binding arbitration. On Jan. 19, the rabbis issued their ruling: Ohana was to return the Torahs to Pauker within 30 days.

Soon after, Ohana retained Sobel. Sobel and Cohen exchanged and rejected settlement offers and several sharply worded letters. Sobel helped Ohana draft a letter to the assistant to the chief rabbi in Israel, asking for an appeal on the matter, based in part on Sauer’s alleged bias (the appeal does not mention that Ohana also claims that Sauer offered him a verbal opinion on the matter, allegedly saying the scrolls were Ohana’s).

The appeal, written in Hebrew, enumerates allegations of how the RCC beit din ignored crucial evidence — the donor’s inscription indicating the Torah’s Los Angeles origins, the allegedly tampered documents and the fact that Ohana’s shul is a successor to Pauker’s and entitled to its assets. Ohana also claims that because he used the Torahs for so long, he holds a chazakah — a halachic concept that gives default ownership to one who has retained possession of a disputed object for a length of time.

Legal scholar Broyde says that the concept of chazakah does not apply here — long-term use does not transfer ownership for a borrowed item.

But whether or when the Jerusalem court will hear these arguments — and if it does, whether its jurisdiction will be recognized — remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, as the attorneys fight this out in court, both Ohana and Pauker are suffering the emotional consequences.

“It’s been hammered out; it’s been dealt with for six months,” Pauker said in exasperation. “This man is a fiction writer — he has no side. He really doesn’t. I have nothing to gain from this — nothing to gain, except stopping a robbery.”

And Ohana says he would rather be tending to his congregation, or to his own bet din, where he deals with conversions and other issues. “I take care of weddings and funerals — that should be my devotion,” Ohana said. “Why are they coming with this? Why does it bother her to have these [Torahs] in my congregation?” l


Sixteen years ago, Mark Borovitz was in prison for the second time. A Cleveland native, he began selling stolen goods for the Cleveland mob out of his high school locker, then graduated to con games and hustles. In prison, he came under the influence of Rabbi Mel Silverman and began a return to faith that culminated, after his release, in his earning a rabbinical degree. Today, Borovitz is rabbi of Beit T’Shuvah in Culver City, the first Jewish residential recovery center that uses Torah, the 12 steps and psychotherapy.Following are a series of excerpts from “The Holy Thief” by Borovitz and Alan Eisenstock (Morrow, 2004).

This book is my t’shuvah. It is my return.

For 30 years, I lived a life of illusion. I was a magician of sorts. I specialized in cheap tricks, quick hits and sleight of hand, especially when it came to writing checks.

I got my audience’s attention, then lured them into wanting to hand me their trust. I got them to believe in small miracles, if just for a moment, which was all I needed. And then I struck.

I know I cannot give everything back to everyone I have harmed. Even if I could, I know it would never be enough, because I have stolen a part of people’s souls. I know also that I cannot undo what I have done. I stand humbly here before you, any of you who have been my victims, and offer you a piece of my soul to take as your own.

In the end, there is no amount of money, no degree of apology, no amount of prayer that can repair the damage I have done to those souls. I can only attempt to repair my own soul, fill in the holes that have pierced my being and return my refurbished soul into the world as evidence of the value and power of t’shuvah, of repentance.

Forgive me, oh Lord, for I have sinned. And sinned. And sinned … I am redemption’s son….

I was a thief. Every thief uses a weapon, usually a gun or a knife. My weapon of choice was a checkbook.

Someone once told me that as long as you have a check, you’ll never go broke. It’s true. I discovered this early on, when I first forged my mother’s signature on a check and watched the bank teller count out five crisp $10 bills right in front of me. I smiled, she smiled, and I walked away.

Forging checks was a lot easier and more lucrative than stealing a wad of ones from my mother’s purse.

I began to devise more elaborate scams. The simplest, of course, was writing a check from my account and bouncing it. Sometimes I’d make it good, sometimes I wouldn’t.

I meant to make it good. I just wouldn’t get around to it, or I’d forget about it, or I’d be too drunk to move or too pissed off to bother.

Other times, I’d open an account in a bank in another city or even another state and a second account in a bank in Cleveland. I’d put a $100 in each account. Then I’d write a check for a large amount, say $2,500, from the out-of-town account and deposit it in the city account. The next day, I’d write a check for cash out of the city account for $2,000.

Back then, it took two weeks for a check to clear from an out-of-city bank. I’d get to know the people at the banks in Cleveland, get them to recognize me. I’d —— — with the guy tellers about sports and flirt with the female tellers.

They never checked picture IDs; never wrote down license numbers; and they had no problem cashing my $2,000 check. This was called a float. Also known as check-kiting or splitting. All fancy names for stealing.

I was living a dream. Nothing was real. I was a character in my own life, a gangster, a high roller with a bulging billfold. Nothing made sense, so I’d drink to shut out the real world.

I didn’t want to have to deal with reality. Even when reality reared its ugly head at me time and time again. Like when I’d get fired from job after job, because I was drinking, coming in late, —— — off. Or when I’d beat someone in my family.

I didn’t care. One time the mail came, and there was a credit card addressed to my brother, Neal, who was away at college. I took the credit card, activated it and started banging out cash. I didn’t care if I was running up a mountain of debt and that my mother was the one who would get stuck. Did not care.

I wasn’t the good Jewish boy she thought I was. That was a myth. That was her dream, not mine.

I couldn’t stand the thought of winding up stuck in a Jewish suburb with a dead-end job, a nagging wife who belonged to the synagogue sisterhood and a house full of screaming little kids. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t going to end up being an ice cream maven like my cousin, even though he invited me to be his partner. Ben, Jerry and Mark? Never.

My mother found out about my drinking the hard way. One New Year’s Eve, when I was drunk out of my head, I borrowed my aunt Nettie’s car and drove it into a tree. I walked away with a couple of bruises and scratches. The car was totaled, and my mother was beside herself.

She found out about my check-writing a few weeks later, when the bank called her and told her that her account was overdrawn by several hundred dollars. She didn’t understand.

My mother balanced her checkbook meticulously every month. She knew what she had to the penny.

Her hands quivering on the steering wheel, she drove to the bank. A bank officer sat her down in his office and pulled out a stack of checks, all of them made out to cash, all bad, all forged by me.

My mother recognized my handwriting. She lowered her head and in the bank officer’s cubicle, she began to cry. He lowered the blinds.

Eventually, I paid her back. My mother didn’t know how to react to me. When she saw me, she turned cold. She couldn’t help herself. She felt pummeled with emotion.

What I had done was beyond the scope of her imagination. It was as if I was a stranger living in her house. She did not recognize the man I had become. She did not know who I was.

I can understand that.

I didn’t know who I was either.

I knew that I couldn’t climb out of the pit alone. I needed somebody who would help me up, who would wrestle with me, who would wrestle with my soul. Someone who would force me to face the lies I was telling myself.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that one of the great passions of human beings is our ability to deceive ourselves.

I was a master at deceiving myself. I had a gift for it. I could deny the obvious even when it was shoved right in my face.

Mel Silverman was the one who made me wrestle my own soul, and he made me wrestle with him. He made me confront all the — — in my life, and he made me see that my life wasn’t all —-. He was a master wrestler himself because he was tenacious and he was kind, and once he saw that this time I wasn’t going to give up, he never let me go.

I know there were guys in prison, inmates, who were suspicious of me. I can understand their doubts. There are a lot of con men in prison. Lot of guys trying to figure ways to get plum assignments.

They saw being a religious newborn as a way out. I heard rumblings that I wasn’t for real. They called it hiding behind God’s cloak. "Borovitz is using this religion thing. It’s just another one of his hustles."

I couldn’t do anything about what they were thinking. I found myself more and more alone. I did my job, hung out with the Jewish guys, tried to keep my focus. I got very charged, very energized. I wanted to learn.

That became my action and my fight. I fought to replace my self-deception with self-discovery. That’s what it was all about for me. Hearing the music of my soul. Hearing the music.

I could hear God speaking to me. I’m serious. Dead serious. In the Torah, God speaks. How do we know? We just know.

So there I was in prison doing my time for crimes I had committed, and I knew that this was not a moral problem. It was a spiritual problem. I knew that this was deep in my soul, not in my psyche, in my soul.

I began to work on my soul. I started the search for my essence. I had to learn to listen to my soul instead of listening to my mind and to the —— — I could sell myself.

I knew this was no overnight thing. I knew that I wasn’t going to just hear some truth and it would be "Abracadbra! Wow! I’m changed! I’m a new man!" I knew that nobody was going to slap me on the forehead and yell, "Heal!" and that would be that.

It doesn’t work like that. It is a life process. It began for me in prison, and it continues to this day and will continue all my days, a constant and messy and difficult wrestling. And I have to keep a constant awareness. I have to always be on high alert. We all do. Both internally, our unconscious or subconscious, and externally, our deeds….

I left prison for the last time on my birthday, Nov. 1, 1988. I was 37 years old. I had served almost two years of my four-years, four-months sentence….

It took me a while to find Beit T’Shuvah. A 45-minute bus ride deposited me downtown, and a short, meandering walk brought me to Lake Street.

There it was. In the middle of the block. A large house looming in front of me, partially hidden by an immense, swaying palm tree. A rickety air-conditioning unit protruded from the left side like a giant nose. The main entrance was off to the right, up a few stairs, at the back of a wide porch. Heavy metal — Metallica or Guns N’ Roses — roared out of an open second-floor window.

The house was a wreck. The roof was splotched, and shingles lay scattered over its peak like a bad toupee. The porch steps creaked as I climbed them. The screen in the front door was torn, and the paint on the walls was peeling away.

I walked in, and the first sound I heard was Harriet’s deep, melodic voice. I followed it down a hallway and found her in her office, talking on the phone. I waited until she finished her call, then I knocked on the open door. She turned to me, and her mouth dropped open like a puppet’s.

I said, "I’m here to help."

She looked at me blankly.

"Remember? You said I should come see you when I get out. I’m out."

She started to say something, stopped, tried again. "Nobody’s ever -"

And then I blurted out: "I need a job."

She hesitated. "Well, I could use someone to run the thrift shop. It’s a mess."

"I’ll take it."

"I can only pay you minimum wage. Five-sixty an hour."

"I’ll take it."

"I can’t afford to pay you full-time. It’ll have to be part-time for a while."

"I’ll take it."

She smiled. "You said that, didn’t you?"

I stepped all the way into her office. I looked out her window. Or tried to. It was entirely smudged in dirt. Looked as if it were smeared with chocolate.

"This place," I said, "is a dump."

"I know," Harriet said.

"I kind of like it…."

I began losing myself in the study of Torah. I read the English translations, commentaries, related books, anything I could get my hands on. I struggled to find meaning in the vastness of the text, in the textures of the story.

My study inspired and baffled me. Some of what I read spoke to my soul, and some of it infuriated me.

I wrote and called Mel Silverman. He did his best to teach me in his letters and over the phone. It was hard working with Mel this way, from a distance.

The study of Torah doesn’t work so well as a correspondence course. And the more I studied, the more questions, contradictions and insights burned inside me. I wanted more.

At the suggestion of a friend, Harriet and I went to Hillel at UCLA one morning to hear a teacher named Jonathan Omerman.

As soon as Jonathan spoke, I fell in love with him. He had a quiet, gentle manner. He was British and spoke with an intoxicating lilt. While his speech was soft, his thoughts were full of fire. He was dynamic, intelligent, and original. I was riveted.

I went over to Jonathan afterward, and I introduced myself. I briefly told him my story. I saw his eyes fill up with sympathy and interest.

I asked Jonathan if he would teach me, one-on-one. He agreed. We began meeting at his house. I would continue studying with Jonathan every week for the next five years.

Jonathan changed the way I looked at life. He made religion personal. All of my studying started to click.

I began to relate to God and Judaism in a way I had never envisioned. I saw my whole life – my past, my present, my losses, my loves, my failings, my successes, my sins, my good deeds, my rage, my empathy, all of it, all of me – as part of a whole. And I saw that all of these things, the good and the bad, were validated. As I worked with Jonathan, I felt an energy shift. An awakening.

One of Jonathan’s lessons that resonated with me concerned the difference between essential pain and voluntary suffering. When you stub your toe, you experience pain, real pain, and that pain lasts however long it lasts. Depending on who you are, the bitching about the pain lasts a lot longer. The bitching about it is voluntary suffering.

As long as we allow voluntary suffering to exist, we remain victims. We don’t allow ourselves to experience the essential pain in proper measure and then move on.

I certainly knew all about voluntary suffering. I’d been suffering that way since the day my father died. It was time now for me to let go. Time to take the next step. I was no longer going to be a victim….

Excerpted with permission.