Infighting at Anshey Sfard results in two court cases

The former rabbi of San Francisco's Orthodox Congregation Anshey Sfard and a handful of past and potential members are embroiled in superior court lawsuits challenging the actions of the synagogue's board.

Last month Rabbi Michael Ben-Shloosh, aka Makouf Ben-Chlouch, sued the synagogue and its board of directors in San Francisco County Superior Court for breach of contract, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress and slander after he was fired.

In a separate action, eight former and prospective Anshey Sfard members petitioned the court for a temporary restraining order and a permanent injunction against the Richmond District congregation's board from entering into any contracts or agreements on the synagogue's behalf.

It isn't the first time representatives of this small Sephardic synagogue have landed in court. Previous disputes brewed from July 1989 to January 1990, when an internal power struggle sparked a fist fight and a restrictive injunction against then-president Samuel Bitton. At the time, Chabad Rabbi Ahron Hecht was dismissed from his duties for allegedly focusing too much on Chabad outreach instead of on the synagogue.

Then, in July 1994, the temple hired the Moroccan-born, Israeli-raised Ben-Shloosh. He seemed a good match for a congregation comprised not only of Ashkenazic but also of many Sephardic Jews from Israel, Iran and Morocco. Ben-Shloosh came to Anshey Sfard via Israel's Sephardic chief rabbinate, which often serves as a matchmaking service between rabbis and congregations.

But Anshey Sfard's board terminated the rabbi's contract on December 13, 1994, although it was signed for a period to end not before June 30, 1995.

In his lawsuit, Ben-Shloosh claims he has not been paid since February of this year and is suing the board for $26,250 in lost wages plus damages and costs of the suit.

He also alleges that the synagogue leadership misrepresented itself by claiming the congregation had 120 members when it hired him, when in fact there were only "about 20" active members, his lawyer, Daniel Berko said.

The rabbi also claims temple president Meyer Bitton embarrassed him in front of congregants, threatening Ben-Shloosh and his family and telling members Ben-Shloosh was unqualified to be a rabbi.

"He feels he was treated unfairly," Berko said of his client, noting that the rabbi was employed by a Las Vegas synagogue when "Anshey Sfard induced him to come build membership and teach classes.

"He did all he thought he was supposed to do. He thought he'd have a position for years, and in fact it lasted less than six months."

Anshey Sfard's attorney, Leslie Jensen, would not comment on the case or say why the synagogue dropped the rabbi.

In a separate lawsuit, eight former and prospective members of the synagogue won a restraining order against the board from acting in behalf of the congregation. A hearing on the restraint is set for Sept. 8 in superior court.

Meanwhile, Berko said negotiations between the board and former members regarding the restraining order are "underway and appear promising." Jensen declined to comment.

The plaintiffs contend that the synagogue board, which they say was not elected in accordance with synagogue bylaws, is not acting in the congregation's best interests.

Besides allegedly wrongfully firing Ben-Shloosh, the board discriminated against prospective members on the basis of national origin and ethnicity and withheld books, records and minutes from members' review, the eight members say.

As of Friday of last week, no settlement had emerged from the disputes. Meanwhile, all the warring parties are debating why they did not bring their disputes to a Beit Din (religious court) instead of a civil court.

Berko said the Anshey Sfard board rejected the idea of taking the matter to a Beit Din. Jensen refuted the statement but would not comment further.

Despite the troubles, Ben-Shloosh told his lawyer he would "like to go back [to Anshey Sfard] and teach, build up the synagogue and the community," as he was hired to do.