The Chabad movement recently won a small but significant victory in an ongoing battle for a historic Jewish treasure, thanks to the efforts of a local legal team: Nathan Lewin and Alyza Lewin of Lewin & Lewin LLP and Steven Lieberman, Robert Parker, Jen Nock, Dan McCallum, and Nechama Potasnik of Rothwell, Figg, Ernst & Manbeck, PC.
In 1917, during the Russian revolution, Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, the fifth Chabad Rebbe, also known as the Rashab, put his extensive library into storage to weather what he hoped would be a passing Communist storm. When Communists found and confiscated the library of almost 12,000 sefarim (books), they went to the Lenin Library in Moscow, where they’ve sat imprisoned for decades.
The Chabad movement has worked tirelessly for the books’ release. “It is an affront to Hashem that these holy books, studied every day by our beloved Rabbis … should continue in captivity, and certainly it is a great mitzvah and tremendous merit for anyone who labors and strives to release them,” wrote the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (son of the Rashab) in 1932 to the man who would succeed him, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, now known as simply the Rebbe.
The letter placed the labor of retrieving the volumes squarely on young Rabbi Schneersohn’s shoulders. When the Soviet Union fell, the Russian Federation took custody of the collection. The Rebbe tasked Rabbi Baruch Cunin, currently director of West Coast Chabad-Lubavitch and based in Los Angeles, with the struggle to reclaim the library. Since then, the fight to retrieve them continues with his two sons, Rabbis Chaim and Yosef Cunin.
A sefer owned by the Rashab, once part of this vast and long-sought-after library, has now been returned.
In 2010, representing Chabad, Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin LLP in Washington, D.C., obtained an order from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that the entire collection belonged to his client. When Russia refused to return the collection, Lewin asked for and got the court to impose sanctions on the Russian Federation in the amount of $50,000 a day. Those sanctions have now accrued to over $83,000,000.
In October 2017, Chabad learned that a book of Talmud, Tractate Yavamot, had either been stolen from the facility in Russia where it was kept or sold off by Russian authorities “as a way of generating revenue, hurting Chabad, or thumbing their noses at the U.S. Courts,” said Steven Lieberman of the Washington, D.C., firm, Rothwell, Figg, Ernst & Manbeck, PC.
Chabad located the volume in Israel, where it was up for auction. “I was approached when I was in Jerusalem by one of the Cunins, who told me that this book was going up for auction,” said Nathan Lewin of Lewin & Lewin LLP. Lewin visited the auction house with Rabbi Yosef Aharonov, the head of Chabad in Israel, but the auction house refused to remove it. Their consignor told them that he obtained it legally.
“I told them that they were going to run into a battle with Chabad, which has an order from a Federal Judge that says that this book, which was part of the library of the fourth and fifth Rebbes, which was in Moscow … belongs to Chabad,” said Lewin. The auction house stood firm.
An emergency hearing was called on October 24, 2017 at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which ruled in favor of Chabad. Lieberman, along with Lewin (who participated remotely), argued on Chabad’s behalf before Judge Royce Lamberth.
“I told the auction house that now we have an order from a U.S. District Judge, and if you try to sell this book you will have to notify any buyer and put a notice in your catalogue or on the internet that anyone who buys the book will be subject to questioning pursuant to an order by a U.S. District Court,” said Lewin. They agreed to remove it from the auction, and on Oct. 30 the sefer was transferred to the U.S. embassy in Israel.
In November the book made its way to Chabad Headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. There it remains, awaiting a reunion with its imprisoned comrades.
“Throughout my time in Brooklyn, it was always a very special moment when a sefer came to us,” said Rabbi Sholom Deitsch of Chabad of Northern Virginia. “The Rebbe would be so excited about it and he would speak about it and he would elaborate on it in his lectures and he would make copies of it so that everyone could learn from it together.”
“We who continue the vision of the Rebbe know the joy that he would have felt at its return,” Rabbi Deitsch said.
By Dovid Nachshon Albright
Dovid Nachshon Albright is an active member of Chabad of Fairfax in Virginia. A volunteer Talmud teacher at his shul, Dovid is also the owner and founder of Albright IP, an intellectual property research and consulting firm.