Two well-known D.C. rabbis squared off in civil court this week, resulting in the loser being virtually barred from George Washington University’s campus.
“You can call up the president of the university and wish him Happy New Year,” was all Superior Court Judge Neal E. Kravitz said that Rabbi Yehuda Steiner, affectionately called “Yudi” by students, could do.
At first glance, the case appears to be a garden-variety breach-of-contract claim. But what makes the case so unusual is the nature of the parties themselves.
American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), et al. v. Yehuda Steiner, et al. pits Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president and director of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), one of the most recognizable and politically connected Jewish leaders in the country, against Steiner and his wife, Rivky Steiner, the couple Shemtov appointed in 2008 as shlichim, or emissaries, to coordinate Chabad’s presence on George Washington University’s campus.
By 2011, the employment relationship and operation of Chabad GW was strained, according to Shemtov’s complaint, by the Steiners’ wish for “operational independence” from Shemtov. That June, the parties went before a beit din, a Jewish court, whereupon they were ordered to continue working under the terms of a new contract they were to negotiate — and sign — with each other.
In August 2012, the parties did exactly that. Under the terms of the new contract they negotiated, a copy of which was obtained by Washington Jewish Week, the Steiners agreed that Shemtov was the sole religious and executive Chabad-Lubavitch authority in D.C., with control over political, communal and university life, and that they were to report directly to him.
The contract mandated that all religious programming at GWU had to be preapproved by Shemtov and that, in exchange for $4,200 in monthly salary, a three-bedroom apartment near campus, health insurance and other benefits, the Steiners were obligated to turn over any proceeds they raised for Chabad GW directly to American Friends of Lubavitch. The Steiners agreed not seek independence from Shemtov, with the contract going so far as to bar them from even broaching the topic for discussion.
In addition, the contract listed five offenses for which the Steiners could be immediately fired, among them failure to keep accounts of their fundraising activities on campus; failure to turn over financial contributions to Shemtov in a reasonable amount of time; opening any organizational bank accounts or new legal entities without Shemtov’s permission; and failure to turn over any other data requested by Shemtov.
In the event of their termination, the Steiners agreed to “peacefully transition” out of their employment within 30 days and cease doing anything that would confuse students or the public about who leads Chabad activities at GWU. A non-compete clause barred them from operating a rival Chabad-Lubavitch campus organization in the District, Maryland or Virginia.
Finally, the parties agreed that in the event that Shemtov wished to fire the Steiners for any one of these enumerated offenses, he could do so only after panel of three other shlichim independently verified such a continuous and intentional breach of the contract. Shemtov could select one such fact finder, the Steiners could select one, and a third would be jointly appointed.
In July of this year, Shemtov said, he determined that the Steiners had failed to provide data requested by him and had failed to turn over two contributions to Chabad GW totaling a little more than $1,000. He moved to fire them. A panel of shlichim from Florida, Toronto and Oslo was empaneled to investigate. On Aug. 6, they issued their findings: The Steiners, they said, had breached the employment agreement by failing to turn over data and funds. The panel concluded that Shemtov was entitled to terminate the Steiners’ employment without further delay or appeal.
The next day, Shemtov fired the Steiners in an email, a copy of which has been obtained by WJW, and requested that they cease all operations at GWU, turn over credit cards and the lease to the Chabad lounge on campus to him. The Steiners, according to Shemtov’s complaint, failed to acknowledge their termination, continued to solicit donations for their activities on campus and advertised themselves on the Internet and through social media as being associated with Chabad GW. As of press time, a Facebook page (facebook.com/jewishgw) showed dozens of photos of Steiner involved in student activities on the D.C. campus.
On Oct. 7, Shemtov filed suit in D.C. Superior Court, bringing one count of breach of contract against the Steiners. In his prayer for relief, Shemtov sought a judicial declaration that the Steiners violated their employment agreement, an injunction preventing them from continuing their activities on campus and whatever additional relief the court found necessary and appropriate.
What makes this case “very rare,” according to Nathan Lewin, a former deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice who teaches Supreme Court advocacy at Columbia Law School, is that a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi chose to seek relief in a civil court as opposed to a beit din.
He has seen – and even litigated – other cases like this, however, including one pending before the Michigan Supreme Court right now involving Shemtov’s own uncle, Rabbi Berel Shemtov. “In that case, it took a number of times going to internal Chabad courts, in which they strongly urged and directed the rabbi who was claiming independence not to do what he is doing, before they got authorization to go to the civil courts. It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth visit [that] they got [permission].”
No longer, said Lewin, “is there a question as to whether a panel of rabbis can be considered an arbitration panel,” as the three appointed shlichim functioned in this case. “If both parties agreed to go to arbitration, including rabbinic arbitration, it is binding like any arbitration panel’s decision,” except, he said, in circumstances where an arbitrator’s decision is challenged on procedural grounds. Case law has made it clear, Lewin said, “that it is not a violation of the Constitution to leave this kind of decision to rabbis.”
In an interview, Shemtov stressed that his decision to take his dispute to the D.C. Superior Court is supported by Jewish law, not an affront to it. Even the judges who sat on the original beit din, he said, have since confirmed in writing that he was entitled to ask the civil courts to enforce his award from the shlichim panel and to fire the Steiners.
Judge Kravitz on Monday agreed, ruling in front of a gallery packed with lawyers, law students and a half-dozen solemn-looking Jewish men clad in dark hats and suits that Shemtov had negotiated in good faith and at arms’ length with the Steiners; that the Steiners were no more than Shemtov’s agents, working for him; that the employment contract was enforceable except for the geographical boundaries contained in the non-complete clause; that Shemtov would suffer immediate and irreparable harm without the issuance of an injunction; and that he was likely to prevail on the merits of his underlying breach-of-contract case if it went to trial.
Noting on the record that “GWU students will miss him [Steiner],” Kravitz said that “ultimately, I believe the students will show resilience and the ability to adjust to a new leader on campus.” Whatever harm the Jewish community at GWU will suffer from the firings of Steiner and his wife, said the judge, is outweighed by “the public’s interest in the enforcement of contracts.”
The judge then ordered the Steiners to comply with Shemtov’s requests and enjoined them from leading further Chabad activities at GWU. Kravitz did prop open one door to the Steiners, however. Kravitz reformed the non-compete clause in the contract to permit the Steiners to move their operations to nearby Georgetown University, a move that “would not threaten the plaintiffs’ legitimate interests.” A wider ban “is unnecessary,” he ruled.
Moments after the judge had ruled against him Monday, Steiner was huddled in a second-floor hallway with his team of lawyers from the D.C. firm of White & Case. He followed up on an earlier written statement to WJW that “my primary interest is simply that I be able to continue my work providing religious instruction and outreach to students in the D.C. area,” by saying that “I know the students want to work with me” and vowing to continue doing so.
Asked for clarification as to whether he meant that he would move his operations to Georgetown University or try to remain at GWU, Steiner said only, “I will leave it up to the lawyers.”
Reached for comment, Shemtov said on Tuesday, “I trust that Rabbi and Mrs. Steiner will comply with the law, honor their contract and peacefully conclude their work at GW, as we mutually agreed they would do in this instance.”
Pressed further for how he would respond if the Steiners do not leave GWU, Shemtov said: “The reason we are in court is because he wouldn’t comply with the halachic ruling. If he doesn’t comply with this court order, we’ll have to explore what other remedies we have.
“I intend to seek relief and justice,” he continued. “Too high a price has been paid by his refusal to abide by his very clear commitments made in the presence of a beit din, many a handshake agreement and ultimately the power of his signature.”
As for the needs of the students, Shemtov said that they will be “robustly addressed” and that American Friends of Lubavitch intends “to continue growing our programs on this campus. I trust, given our goodwill and reputation, we will surely be able to do that now that this problem seems resolved.”
On campus, word had quickly spread of the dispute and its aftermath.
“When I heard of the legal issues that Rabbi Yudi and Rivky Steiner were facing I was shocked and distraught,” said Jewish GWU student Moshe Pasternak in an email. “The Steiners have transformed Chabad GW from a fledgling startup to a paradigm of what Chabad on Campus can and should be.
“One of the earliest programs that helped me realize these opportunities was a weekly Pizza and Parsha class taught by Rabbi Yudi,” added the sophomore political science major from New Jersey. Learning “Gemarah and even bits of Halacha and Tanya with Rabbi Yudi have helped strengthen my Jewish identity dramatically. Through learning I felt a connection to the past and the Jewish people as a whole, but I also began to feel a personal connection with Rabbi Yudi. Here was someone who always took the time out of his life to learn with me just because I asked.”
He concluded: “Rabbi Yudi and Rivky have left a permanent mark on [me] and dozens of others, but their work is not finished. Denying them the opportunity to do what they love and help students grow would be a grave mistake that would leave many without a place to turn.”
Another Jewish GWU student, who spoke on condition of anonymity, wasn’t willing to go quite that far.
“I think it will be hard,” said the student. “If Rabbi Steiner does leave, I think it can’t be in the middle of the year. I hope [it’s] in May, not any time earlier or later. Over the summer … is a perfect time.”
Political reporter Dmitriy Shapiro contributed to this report.