A rabbi in Los Angeles has apparently stolen four Torah scrolls from a widow. The LA Daily News reports:
…[F]or the past decade, Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel in Sherman Oaks has been "praying on stolen Torahs," said Rita Pauker, whose late husband, Rabbi Norman Pauker, lent the Orthodox synagogue four Torahs in the late 1990s.
Since her husband died in 2002, Pauker has repeatedly implored Rabbi Samuel Ohana to return the Torahs so she can give them to two nephews, rabbis in Florida and New York.
Ohana has refused, saying the scrolls belong to the congregation. In a brief phone interview Monday, he said Rabbi Pauker gifted the Torahs years after he closed his North Hollywood synagogue, similarly named Congregation Mishkan Israel, in 1994.
"He called me in front of his wife and he said, `Rabbi, I cannot bear having these Torahs gathering dust in my garage. Take them. Please,"' he said.
Ohana said he would return the Torahs if Pauker's widow could prove she was going to give them to another synagogue and not sell them. Three of them are likely worth about $10,000 to $20,000 each.
The dispute, deadlocked for the past two years, seems ripe for civil court. But it likely won't go there.
The only attorney Pauker can afford is Jeffrey Bohrer, a longtime member of her husband's synagogue (and coincidentally a former yeshiva student of Ohana's). But Jewish law prohibits Bohrer from bringing a lawsuit regarding a religious article in secular court.
Pauker could take the case to beis din, a rabbinical court, but neither she nor Bohrer has faith in the tribunal process.
"It has been my experience that the beis din is more interested in compromise than in the word of Jewish law," Bohrer said. "... The truth is the beis din probably is going to split the baby. Rabbi Ohana has no claim to these, and Rita has all claim. So it is unfair for Rita to settle for half."…
Rabbi Pauker's Torahs were originally donated decades ago by his sister to Young Israel of the Bronx. When the organization closed, the scrolls were given to Pauker.…
When he retired in 1994 and closed his synagogue, Pauker transferred ownership of most of the assets to Ohana, including the ark, prayer shawls and religious books.
But the Torahs, according to a handwritten contract between Pauker and Ohana, were to be loaned for two years. At the bottom of the page is Ohana's signature.
However, Ohana said the contract was for insurance purposes, and five years later Pauker asked him to take the Torahs and put them to good use.
"He is disrespecting everything Jewish," was Rita Pauker's response. "He is operating on a lie. It's all a lie."
Rabbi Ohana's son Ephraim has been put in cherem (excommunicated) by the Baltimore Va'ad HaRabbonim because he has refused to give his wife a get (Jewish divorce).
Rabbi Ohana himself was involved in a shady scheme to allow the son of David Batzri, a leading Sefardic rabbi and kabbalist (the man who blamed Hurricane Katrina on America's support for Disengagement), to remarry without giving his first wife a Jewish divorce:
…At the end of November, Luna suddenly received two summonses from another beit din in Los Angeles, one that is headed by Rabbi Samuel Ohana. She explains that it is a Sephardi beit din, in which it is easier to receive a permit to marry a second wife, because it is not subject to the ostracism regulation against polygyny enacted by Rabbeinu Gershom (960-1028 C.E.). This applies only to Ashkenazi communities, and so absolving Hagay Batzri from having to obtain the "consent of 100 rabbis" to approve a second marriage. Luna replied, in writing, that the beit din was not recognized in Israel and therefore had no jurisdiction to rule on the get.
Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, the director general of the rabbinical court system in Israel, confirms that Rabbi Ohana received authorization to serve as a dayan only two months ago. In effect, the marriage between Hagay and Luna Batzri was dissolved on behalf of the beit din by Rabbi Moshe Ben-Zaken, who is not even a dayan.
Three weeks ago, Luna learned from posters adorning the walls of synagogues in Los Angeles that her husband Hagay was about to marry a second wife. It is easy to imagine the shock felt by the 36-year-old religious woman, who is of sound body and mental state, at the sight of the posters. She says she happened to meet Rabbi Ben-Zaken, whom she knows, at a restaurant close to her home. "Who gave him permission to marry a second wife?" she asked him. "I did," said the rabbi.…
Here is coverage of the Batzri case from the LA Jewish Journal.
UPDATE 2/21/07 – The Associated Press adds:
[Rita] Pauker said she wants to give [the Torah scrolls] to her nephews, who are rabbis in Florida and New York.