Rabbi's widow, LA shul fight over Torah scrolls

"He is operating on a lie. It's all a lie. He is disrespecting everything Jewish."

A rabbi's widow is at odds with a San Fernando Valley synagogue over who her late husband's Torahs rightly belong to. Rabbi Norman Pauker lent Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel four Torah scrolls after his own North Hollywood synagogue closed in 1994. His widow, Rita Pauker, has been asking for the return of the scrolls since his death in 2002, but Rabbi Samuel Ohana insists that what was at first a loan to his neighboring Sherman Oaks synagogue later became a gift. "He called me in front of his wife and he said, 'Rabbi I cannot bear having these Torahs gathering dust in my garage," Ohana said. "Take them, please.'" According to a handwritten contract between the two rabbis that has Ohana's signature at the bottom, the Torahs were to be borrowed for two years. Ohana said that contract was for insurance purposes, and that Pauker asked him to take the scrolls permanently five years later, an assertion Pauker's widow disputes. She accused Ohana's orthodox synagogue of "praying on stolen Torahs." "He is operating on a lie. It's all a lie," Pauker said. "He is disrespecting everything Jewish." Pauker said she doesn't want to sue for the Torahs because Jewish law forbids bringing disputes over religious items to secular court. But if she goes before a rabbinical court or "beis din" she fears she will be asked to compromise. "The truth is the beis din probably is going to split the baby," said Jeffrey Bohner, an attorney representing Pauker who attended her husband's synagogue and once studied under Ohana. "Rabbi Ohana has no claim to these, and Rita has all claim. So it is unfair for Rita to settle for half." Torah scrolls can take as long as a year to ink, must be destroyed when damaged and are generally worth several thousand dollars. Lending the scrolls is a common Mitzvah, or good deed, for those who own them. Ohana said he would return the Torahs if he could be assured Pauker would give them to another synagogue and not sell them. Pauker said she wants to give them to her nephews, who are rabbis in Florida and New York.