After members of Oheb Zedek-Taylor Road Synagogue sued three of their own board members and the board of trustees at Oheb Zedek-Cedar Sinai Synagogue in November 2012, one of Cleveland’s beth din became involved.
A beth din is a court of Jewish religious law organized by a community with a sufficient number of Jews and a sufficient number of disputes to settle. The size of the community doesn’t matter. What does is that it determines there is a sufficient number of disputes to settle. A beth din is typically Orthodox.
The Oheb Zedek-Taylor Road members sued to keep the building at 1970 S. Taylor Road open and assume control of the shul’s assets, $600,000 to $700,000 depending on market value, according to Oheb Zedek-Taylor Road treasurer Steven Hirschfeld.
Hirschfeld, Oheb Zedek-Taylor Road President Jerry Schmelzer and board member Barbara Seltzer are the defendants listed on the suit. Schmelzer is on the Cleveland Jewish News Board of Directors.
Members also sought $400,000 that Oheb Zedek-Taylor Road gave Oheb Zedek-Cedar Sinai as part of a consolidation and contribution agreement between the two shuls July 1, 2012, said Fred Schwartz of Schwartz Law Firm in Cleveland Heights, one of two lawyers for the Oheb Zedek-Taylor Road members.
Schwartz, Eric Zagrans of The Zagrans Law Firm in Elyria and their clients wanted to settle the dispute with a Cleveland beth din, run by Rabbi Yehudah Blum of Congregation K’Hal Yereim in Cleveland Heights and Rabbi Yisroel Grumer of Congregation Shomre Shabbos in Cleveland Heights.
Under U.S. law, a beth din is an arbitration court, so all parties involved in a dispute must agree to the meeting. Hirschfeld, Schmelzer and Seltzer, represented by Harry Brown and Gregory Lucht of Benesch Attorneys at Law in Cleveland, declined to let Blum’s and Grumer’s beth din hear the case, as did Oheb Zedek–Cedar Sinai’s board, represented by David Schaefer and Charles Royer of McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal and Liffman in Cleveland.
Blum’s and Grumer’s beth din deals with issues like “money matters, divorce matters, or conversions,” said Rabbi David Zlatin, a beth din administrator for the Cleveland regional branch for the Rabbinical Council of America and a rabbi at Beachwood Kehilla. (The kehilla is spinoff from Taylor Road Synagogue.) “They represent one aspect of the Orthodox community.”
Zlatin’s beth din, which includes Green Road Synagogue’s Rabbi Binyamin Blau and Rabbi Emeritus Melvin Granatstein, deals only with conversion matters, Zlatin said.
“There are subspecialties of what each court handles,” Zlatin said, citing one run by Rabbi Napthali Burnstein of Young Israel of Greater Cleveland in Beachwood that deals mostly with Jewish divorce matters. Zlatin suggested there are numerous beth dins in Cleveland, each handling its own field, though there can be crossover.
While the parties in the Oheb Zedek-Taylor Road suit couldn’t agree on the proper local beth din to hear the case, they did agree to let the Beth Din of America in New York settle the matter. Before they chose the New York court, however, they held a pre-trial in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court during which Judge Richard McMonagle said he felt “a more neutral judiciary” than a Cleveland beth din should handle the case.
“A contemporary beth din performs a whole bunch of services,” said Rabbi Shlomo Weissmann, director of the Beth Din of America. “They range from status determination, meaning investigating the Jewish identity and status of individuals for people who need to know that from the perspective of Jewish law, to arranging Jewish divorces, mediating disputes between people and arbitrating disputes between people.”
Weissmann’s beth din will settle the Oheb Zedek-Taylor Road dispute following an arbitration hearing. He couldn’t reveal whether the case has reached his organization.
“We convene with what’s essentially an arbitration proceeding in front of three ‘dayanim,’” Weissmann said. “Dayanim are people who sit in on the case, collect evidence and testimony and hear the presentation from each side. … Some dayanim are experts in Jewish law but (they are) also business people and secular practicing lawyers.”
Weissmann said his beth din uses 12 to 15 people in such disputes.
The length of each varies according to the complexity of the issue, Weissmann said.
“Some very simple disputes can be solved in one- to three-hour sessions,” he said. “Your typical case gets resolved in a session or two or three.”
“The reason (decisions) are binding in court is because all parties sign an arbitration agreement,” Weissmann said. “We issue our decisions consistent with the authority that’s given to us in the arbitration agreement.”
The Beth Din of America hears about 600 cases a year of which 100 are mediation and arbitration disputes, Weissmann estimated. Not all 100 are resolved.
Weissman said he wasn’t sure how many cases his beth din has heard from Cleveland. “The number’s not 150,” he said. “It might be a handful.”