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The Torah Center’s lawyer, Todd Mendel, argued in court papers that Silberberg, as a Torah Center employee, had no power to force the board to transfer the deed of the building.
“Rabbi Silberberg has no more ability to transfer ownership of the Torah Center than he has the ability to transfer ownership of the Mackinac Bridge,” Mendel said.
He also said that because the board was not a party to the rabbinic court proceedings, it could not be bound by its rulings. And he produced evidence that Chabad’s spiritual leader, Schneerson, who died in 1994, wanted Chabad congregations to be independent.
In addition to Schneerson’s 1984 letter, the Torah Center’s legal team dug up directives from 1951 and 1952 in which Schneerson said he wanted Chabad Houses to be autonomous. Mendel also produced affidavits from three Chabad rabbis in Michigan who stated that Shemtov asked them to incorporate their synagogues independently to avoid legal and financial responsibility.
On July 24, after both sides filed motions to dismiss each other’s lawsuit, the chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the umbrella organization for the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement, sent the Torah Center board members a letter, urging them to transfer title of their land “as soon as possible to Chabad-Lubavitch or to an organization designated by Chabad-Lubavitch of Michigan.”
The board’s chairman, Abraham Shemtov, is Berel Shemtov’s brother.
But the board dug in its heels, and in an August 15 decision, Judge Rae Lee Chabot dismissed Chabad of Michigan’s claims.
Chabot ruled that a religious court decision in 2004 had started the clock on Michigan’s six-year statute of limitations for common-law arbitration claims and that Chabad of Michigan had run out of time. She also ruled that the synagogue board could not be sued because it was not a party to the religious tribunals.
Chabad.info hailed the ruling under the headline “USA Shluchim Breathe a Sigh of Relief,”, noting that emissaries need no longer fear that their properties could be under threat. But that relief may be short-lived.
Chabad of Michigan appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals on August 24. Its lawyer, Norman Ankers, said the process could take about 18 months and that whichever party lost could turn to the Michigan Supreme Court. Ankers is a partner at the top Michigan law firm Honigman, Miller, Schwartz and Cohn. Nathan Lewin, a leading constitutional law expert, is assisting him.
Mendel said he hoped Chabad of Michigan would drop the case.
“The Torah Center… is being singled out by Chabad,” Mendel said. “I’m not sure why, but it’s not very good for the community, it’s not good for Chabad and it’s not good for Torah institutions here in Detroit.”