Chabad Rabbis Fight Over Michigan Shul

Legal Case Asks: Who Controls Chabad's Emissaries?

Shul Fight: A battle over this modest suburban Detroit shul is proving to be a fierce fight over who controls the movement’s synagogues.
Shul Fight: A battle over this modest suburban Detroit shul is proving to be a fierce fight over who controls the movement’s synagogues.

By Paul Berger

Published August 29, 2012, issue of September 07, 2012.
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In a 1984 letter, Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson stressed the importance of the autonomy of the rapidly growing number of Chabad Houses and synagogues around the world.

“It is well known that the various Chabad institutions are financially completely independent of our central office,” Schneerson wrote. “This is also an obvious necessity in view of the fact that there are hundreds of such institutions the world over, and it would be impossible to direct them all from headquarters.”

Today, Chabad has 4,000 emissaries around the world, about half of them in the United States, and as the movement has grown, some have wanted it to become more hierarchical and centralized. That is why many are watching with interest the denouement of a decades-long battle by a powerful Chabad rabbi, Berel Shemtov, to take over the deed to a 150-family synagogue in an affluent suburb of Detroit.

As Yosef Rabinowtiz, a correspondent for Chabad.info, wrote in an August 27 article: “A victory for Shemtov would spell disaster for the thousands of independent Shluchim [emissaries] in the USA, who would have to fear their Chabad Houses being taken away from them just because the so-called “Head” Shliach [emissary] feels a need to dispose of them, disregarding the tens of years they invested in building up their Mosdos [institutions].”

Chabad.info is not affiliated with official Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn. A spokesman from Chabad declined to comment on the record.

Shemtov’s fight has largely taken place behind the scenes, in a series of rabbinic court hearings. But it burst out into the open in April, when his organization, Chabad of Michigan, took its case to Oakland County District Court. At the heart of the tug of war is ownership of the Sara and Morris Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center, a modest brick building set back from a main road, amid the rolling hills of West Bloomfield.

Lawyers acting for Chabad of Michigan and for the Torah Center filed reams of evidence, including dueling definitions of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, affidavits from Chabad rabbis and writings of the rebbe himself. Shemtov has run Chabad of Michigan for almost 55 years. His lawyers claim that Chabad-Lubavitch is a hierarchical organization that owns every property built by a Chabad emissary or his congregation — even if Chabad’s name is not on the deed.

In an April court filing, they argued that the Torah Center “is a subordinate component” of Chabad and therefore “subject to the authority and control of the hierarchy.”

Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov, Berel Shemtov’s son, said in an affidavit: “It is a commonly understood principle that property obtained by a shliach [Chabad emissary] or his congregation for the purpose of building or hosting religious activities as part of his mission ultimately belongs to the Chabad-Lubavitch organization.


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