Los Angeles, CA - Court Confirmes Bais Din Ruling: Widow of Rabbi Gets 4 Torahs
Los Angeles, CA - The widow of a North Hollywood rabbi who has fought for years to regain four Torahs that once belonged to her late husband won another battle when a civil court ruled in her favor.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge confirmed an earlier ruling by a rabbinic court that Rita Pauker should get back four Torahs that had been in her husband’s family for decades, but are now being used for prayers at a Sherman Oaks synagogue.
But with appeals planned, the four sacred texts won’t be exchanging hands anytime soon.
The late Rabbi Norman Pauker had given the Torahs - valued at anywhere from $29,000 to $80,000 but priceless in sentimental value - to Rabbi Samuel Ohana, now of Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel, in the late 1990s after closing his own temple.
But whether that act was intended as a loan or a permanent gift remains at the center of a bitter dispute between Rita Pauker and Ohana.
“I’m emotionally exhausted,” Rita Pauker said. “Considering I’ve been chasing them for seven years, it’s about time.”
Rabbi Pauker died in 2002, years after he closed his own synagogue and gave the Torahs to Ohana. Although Ohana has been using the Torahs for prayers at Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel in Sherman Oaks, Pauker believes the scrolls were on loan and wants to reclaim them to give to her nephews, who are rabbis in Long Beach, New York and Florida.
Ohana, who was Rabbi Pauker’s assistant, said his former colleague
gifted the scrolls to his congregation and called Pauker’s claims “ridiculous.”
“It’s unheard of,” Ohana said. “The Torah are always donated either in the memory of loved ones or in honor of somebody else. Therefore, when the rabbi closed the synagogue and he died, these Torah were not the property of the rabbi so he could bequeath them to his wife or his children. It goes from one congregation to another.
“What’s the purpose to fight and give it to another chabad?” Ohana said. “This is the congregation where her husband used to come and gave to in memory of his loved ones.”
Pauker maintains that her late husband only meant to lend the texts to Ohana for two years, as evidenced by a handwritten contract signed by Ohana. But the agreement was only meant for insurance purposes, according to Ohana.
Ohana already plans to appeal the judgment, which will require the Torahs be returned to the Paukers’ organization, the Valley Mishkan Israel Congregation.
“It’s not a shock,” Pauker said. “If it doesn’t work this time, they’re going to do it again.”
Tuesday’s hearing marked the third time that a court has ruled in Pauker’s favor.
“The court got it right,” said Baruch Cohen, Pauker’s lawyer in previous trials in the case. “The courts ruled, enough is enough, return the Torahs.”
The appeal is based on the fact that the beit din - rabbinic court - awarded the scrolls to the Paukers’ congregation and not directly to Pauker, said G. Scott Sobel, Ohana’s attorney.
“Under the law, when party A sues party B, no arbitrator, judge or jury has the right to declare that party C is the winner,” Sobel said.
The hand-inked Torahs were donated decades ago by Rabbi Pauker’s sister to a Bronx synagogue, and were given to the rabbi when it closed. Pauker has estimated their total value to be $80,000 while a defense expert valued them at about $29,000.
One of the Torahs survived the Holocaust and was later found in a Nazi warehouse in Germany.
Two of the texts were originally owned by families in Los Angeles, according to engravings on the wooden scrolls, while a third is on permanent loan to Jewish communities worldwide from Manchester, England.
When Rabbi Pauker retired in 1994, most of his synagogue’s assets were given to Ohana, including prayer shawls, religious books and an ark
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