Torah scrolls are the centerpieces of Jewish religious services. The written word of God, they are kept in arks like the tablets Moses brought down from Mount Sinai and are revered above all Jewish symbols.
But for the past decade, Beth Midrash Mishkan Israel in Sherman Oaks has been "praying on stolen Torahs," said Rita Pauker, whose late husband, Rabbi Norman Pauker, lent the Orthodox synagogue four Torahs in the late 1990s.
Since her husband died in 2002, Pauker has repeatedly implored Rabbi Samuel Ohana to return the Torahs so she can give them to two nephews, rabbis in Florida and New York.
Ohana has refused, saying the scrolls belong to the congregation. In a brief phone interview Monday, he said Rabbi Pauker gifted the Torahs years after he closed his North Hollywood synagogue, similarly named Congregation Mishkan Israel, in 1994.
"He called me in front of his wife and he said, `Rabbi, I cannot bear having these Torahs gathering dust in my garage. Take them. Please,"' he said.
Ohana said he would return the Torahs if Pauker's widow could prove she was going to give them to another synagogue and not sell them. Three of them are likely worth about $10,000 to $20,000 each.
The dispute, deadlocked for the past two years, seems ripe for civil court. But it likely won't go there.
The only attorney Pauker can afford is Jeffrey Bohrer, a longtime member of her husband's synagogue (and coincidentally a former yeshiva student of Ohana's). But Jewish law prohibits Bohrer from bringing a lawsuit regarding a religious article in secular court.
Pauker could take the case to beis din, a rabbinical court, but neither she nor Bohrer has faith in the tribunal process.
"It has been my experience that the beis din is more interested in compromise than in the word of Jewish law," Bohrer said. "... The truth is the beis din probably is going to split the baby. Rabbi Ohana has no claim to these, and Rita has all claim. So it is unfair for Rita to settle for half."
Lending a Torah to a synagogue is a common way Jews fulfill a mitzvah, or a good deed, said Rabbi Nachum Sauer, who teaches Torah studies at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles. "It is on long-term loan to their synagogue, but he still owns it," Sauer said.
"It would be the same as lending any property to anybody else," added David Olivestone, spokesman for the Orthodox Union. "It would be like lending a book to a synagogue. If I wanted it back, it would still be mine. Or if I lent a chair. There is no real difference."
Except Torahs are worth much more, literally and physically, than common books.
When a scroll is damaged and can't be restored, it must be buried. The focal point architecturally and liturgically of Jewish services, said Elliot Wolfson, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, "the Torah is described in rabbinic literature as the Princess of God."
New Torahs take nine months to a year to ink and cost from the high $20,000s to high $40,000s, said Avrom Fox, owner of AllTorahScrolls.com, an online retailer. Containing 304,805 letters and 245 columns of God's word on roughly 60 sections of parchment, Torahs are made with varying degrees of decoration and aesthetics.
Rabbi Pauker's Torahs were originally donated decades ago by his sister to Young Israel of the Bronx. When the organization closed, the scrolls were given to Pauker.
Toward the end of his career, his congregation began to shrink. At least once, it joined with Ohana's for High Holy Days services at Valley Cities Jewish Community Center near Valley College.
When he retired in 1994 and closed his synagogue, Pauker transferred ownership of most of the assets to Ohana, including the ark, prayer shawls and religious books.
But the Torahs, according to a handwritten contract between Pauker and Ohana, were to be loaned for two years. At the bottom of the page is Ohana's signature.
However, Ohana said the contract was for insurance purposes, and five years later Pauker asked him to take the Torahs and put them to good use.
"He is disrespecting everything Jewish," was Rita Pauker's response. "He is operating on a lie. It's all a lie."