Rabbi returns to his synagogue in S.F. after suing it

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After suing his synagogue, Rabbi Michael Ben-Shloosh has returned to the bimah of Orthodox Congregation Anshey Sfard in San Francisco.

Ben-Shloosh filed suit July 15, 1995 in San Francisco's Superior Court a little over a year after he was hired. He cited a long list of grievances against the Richmond District synangogue.

Those grievances included alleged breach of contract, fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress and slander by the president of Anshey Sfard's board of directors, the vice president, treasurer and 20 to 30 unnamed members.

The strong emotions behind the allegations did not prevent an apparent settlement, however.

According to Ben-Shloosh, who used the name Makouf Ben-Chlouch in the suit, "We settled out of court between us, one year ago. Eight months ago, a new board was elected, with new president Jacques Amiel and new treasurer David Wohlmuth."

Amiel, who was the congregation's treasurer at the time of the suit, disputed Ben-Shloosh's statement that the suit had been settled. "The lawsuit has not been resolved," he said emphatically last month before refusing further comment.

Wohlmuth also declined to comment on the litigation.

Despite continued contention, Ben-Shloosh is again working at Anshey Sfard. But Marcelle Bitton, whose husband Meyer was named in the suit as synagogue president, claims that "Ben-Shloosh is just helping with Shabbat services."

Details of Ben-Shloosh's employment could not be confirmed — even by the rabbi, who skipped scheduled Bulletin interviews and did not return calls.

"I never wanted to sue," he had explained in a brief telephone interview earlier this summer. "I'm not the kind of rabbi to sue the congregation [but] there were some people on the board that did personal stuff to me."

The "personal stuff" Ben-Shloosh mentioned included allegedly failing to pay his wages from February through July 1995, and terminating his contract on Dec. 13, 1994 although the contract was signed for a period designated not to end before June 30, 1995.

In his suit, Ben-Shloosh also maintained that Meyer Bitton verbally abused him and his family in public, and threatened him physically.

He also claimed that Bitton told members Ben-Shloosh was unqualified to be a rabbi, and that the synagogue misrepresented itself by overstating its membership when hiring him.

At the time of the suit, Ben-Shloosh said he was told the synagogue had 120 members but membership was actually only 20 to 30.

In January 1996, Anshey Sfard's attorney, Leslie Jensen, removed herself from the case, citing a lack of cooperation and communication from the board of directors.

"When you have multiple defendants and multiple agendas, it's very hard to reach an accord for a strategy," she said.

Jensen added: "I know that [Ben-Shloosh's attorney] Daniel Berko felt the same way."

Later that month, Berko filed to settle out of court.

The out-of-court settlement is not the only one of Ben-Shloosh's assertions still in question. Marcelle Bitton, speaking for Meyer, whose hearing loss precluded an interview, said that "Ben-Shloosh was offered $20,000 to $25,000 when he was fired" as a severance fee.

Amiel, Wohlmuth and the rabbi would not reveal whether that money changed hands, however.

In the suit, Ben-Shloosh claimed he had no income during the final six months of his contract.

Marcelle Bitton admitted that "a Russian who could read Torah" was "the only one helping out" at Anshey Sfard during that time.

This was not the first time Anshey Sfard faced litigation from one of its rabbis.

Eight years ago, a conflict between supporters of then-president Samuel Bitton and supporters of Rabbi Ahron Hecht divided the congregation.

The rift, from late July 1989 until January 1990, resulted in physical injuries to Samuel Bitton and, eventually, the firing of Hecht for allegedly focusing more on Chabad outreach than on the needs of the synagogue.

Hecht currently leads the Richmond Torah Center of Chabad in San Francisco.

After Hecht, the synagogue hired the then-24-year-old Rabbi Abraham Sultan, who was quoted at the time as wanting to "bring up the congregation together."

Sultan stayed with Anshey Sfard until February 1994, when he left to become spiritual leader at San Francisco Congregation Chevra Thilim. After Sultan's contract was not renewed in 1996, Ben-Shloosh worked temporarily for Chevra Thilim.

One last contradiction appears in Superior Court documents. The judge referred to Anshey Sfard as being founded in 1900. Synagogue stationery, however, indicates it was founded in 1893.