New York Times Archive
The question of who owns a valuable Jewish library of more than 40,000 books and manuscripts was decided yesterday when a Federal District judge in Brooklyn rejected the claims of a grandson of a Hasidic rabbi and awarded the library instead to the Lubavitch community that the rabbi once headed.
In a decision peppered with Hebrew and Yiddish phrases that includes a short course on Lubavitch history, Judge Charles P. Sifton of the Eastern District declared that his findings were ”inescapable.”
”The conclusion is inescapable that the library was not held by the Sixth Rebbe at his death as his personal property, but had been delivered to plaintiff to be held in trust for the benefit of the religious community of Chabad Chasidism,” he said.
The ruling was received with joy on the streets in front of the headquarters of the plaintiff, the Lubavitch movement, at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. Hasidic men in traditional black garb danced in circles to the music of a klezmer band.
A lawyer for the defendant, Barry S. Gourary, said he planned to appeal the decision.
The ruling capped an emotional legal battle that divided the family of the seventh and current Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, an uncle of Mr. Gourary, and opened the inner workings of the Hasidic movement to the public.
In a three-week trial in December 1985, the case was argued by prominent lawyers, including Nathan Lewin of Washington and Alvin K. Hellerstein of New York. Non-Hasidic experts in Hasidism were called, including Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate, Dr. Louis Jacobs of London and Rabbi Arthur Green of Philadelphia.
Mr. Gourary, a 63-year-old management consultant from Montclair, N.J., claimed that the library was the private property of his grandfather, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneerson, and was passed down – via his widow and his two daughters – to him. #400 Books Removed The Lubavitch went into court to establish its claim of ownership after Mr. Gourary removed 400 of the books from the library, at the Crown Heights headquarters, and began selling them to rare-book dealers in Europe. He made $186,000 before he was enjoined by the courts from proceeding with the sales.
Judge Sifton, who was married to the daughter of the late Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, uses the language of the Lubavitchers throughout his 41-page decision. He writes of ksovim (manuscripts), seforim (books), ma’amad (dues), pidyon (redemption) and haas v’sholom! (God forbid!). The judge also prefered the Hebrew-sounding ”Chasid’ to the Anglicized ‘Hasid’ and often refers to the Lubavitchers by their communal name, Chabad.
To a large extent, the decision turns on what the judge calls ”one extraordinary letter” from Rabbi Joseph Schneerson, the sixth rebbe, to an American scholar, Dr. Alexander Marks, the former head of the library at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The letter was written in 1946 as part of the rabbi’s effort to get the library out of Poland. Leaving the books behind, the rabbi had fled the Nazis six years earlier and set up a new Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn.
”I turn to you with a great request,” Dr. Schneerson wrote, ”that as a renowned authority on the subject, you should please write a letter to the State Department to testify on the great value of these manuscripts and books for the Jewish people in general and particularly for the Jewish community of the United States to whom this great possession belongs.”
Lawyers for Mr. Gourary characterized the letter as ”duplicitous and of a piece with the wartime letters in German intended to be read by the Nazi censor,” according to the judge.
But Judge Sifton rejected the argument. ”Not only does the letter, even in translation, ring with feeling and sincerity,” he wrote, ”it does not make much sense that a man of the character of the Sixth Rebbe would, in the circumstances, mean something different than what he says, that the library was to be delivered to plaintiff for the benefit of the community.”