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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“This is true regardless of the name listed on the actual deed for the property, or of the source of the money used to purchase property.”

Elimelech Silberberg, a Chabad rabbi whom Berel Shemtov brought to Michigan during the mid 1970s, leads services at the Torah Center.

Chabad of Michigan paid part of Silberberg’s salary during his first couple of years in the state. The organization also allowed Silberberg’s congregation to pray in a Chabad of Michigan property, rent free, for almost a decade, and it made several donations toward the Torah Center, which was built in 1982.

Shemtov’s lawyers claim that some of the money raised for building the synagogue was acquired “in part because of [the Torah Center’s] public identification as a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch organization.” By the 1990s, Silberberg and Shemtov were increasingly at odds with each other, and from the mid-1990s they were locked in a series of rabbinical tribunals.

In one such case, Shemtov said he was alarmed that the Torah Center considered itself independent of Chabad. A panel of three rabbis ordered Silberberg to persuade his synagogue’s board to transfer the deed to their building to Chabad.

Two of those rabbis, Yehuda Leib Schapiro and Sholom Dovber Levitin, wrote in a May 2005 letter that they were concerned about the spiritual direction in which the Torah Center might move. Because the board was elected and subject to change, they feared that the board could “turn the congregation around to operate according to their own outlook, not the Chabad outlook, or even worse, might possibly change it to become Conservative, may the Merciful One save us.”

But the board refused to transfer the deed. So this past April, after years of recriminations, Chabad of Michigan launched its lawsuit asking a county court judge to enforce the rabbinic ruling.

The court battle, first reported in the Detroit Jewish News, has hit the 150-family congregation hard, costing $100,000 in legal fees so far. “Money which could be used to help spread light of Torah and Hassidus [teachings of the Hasidic movement] and so many good causes has to be spent on lawyers,” Silberberg said. “It’s a terrible disgrace.”


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