Charity told to repay rabbi £322k

A North London rabbi has won a High Court claim to be repaid more than £322,000 by a strictly Orthodox charity which he says was intended as a loan, not a gift.

Rabbi Moshe Meisels, from Stamford Hill, had sued supporters of the anti-Zionist Satmar Chasidic sect who raised funds for a charity, the Yetev Lev Jerusalem Trust.

On Wednesday, Mr Justice Blake hoped “that the bitter controversy this claim has created within the synagogues of Stamford Hill will now abate”.

Rabbi Meisels, who himself attends a Satmar synagogue in Stamford Hill and is a businessman with 50 UK properties, issued his writ against Menachem Lichtman, currently a trustee of Yetev Lev, and Berish Berger and Solomon Weiss, who were fellow trustees at the time of the transaction.

The dispute came after Rabbi Meisels transferred £322,000 to Yetev Lev in two instalments in December 2004. The transaction was recorded in what the judge called a “hastily written document” in Hebrew drawn up between Rabbi Meisels and Mr Lichtman. The absence of the word for “gift”, matana, was “striking”, the judge said.

A year later, Rabbi Meisels — described by the judge as “a reserved man who would avoid conflict and social turmoil if he could”— approached an American rabbinic court to recover his money, but Mr Lichtman argued that the case should have been heard in a British Beth Din.

Mr Lichtman claimed that the money had been an “outright donation”, but he should have been aware that it was repayable, the judge said.

Between September 2004 and March 2005, the charity’s books showed receipt of £6 million in donations, but by June 2006 its fundraising activities appeared to have wound down, leaving a number of creditors.

Mr Justice Blake said that the fact that the charity had transferred the funds from Rabbi Meisels to Israel “does not make it unjust” that the defendants should have to repay them. “There is no reason, now that its legal obligations have been made clear, that it cannot revive its fundraising activities to meet them,” he remarked.

Although Mr Berger and Mr Weiss were not directly party to the agreement, the judge said, they had relied on Mr Lichtman’s “efforts as fundraiser and director for the trust when it was active, and they must take its failures along with the successes, the rough with the smooth. I imagine that there is an apposite Yiddish phrase.”

    Last updated: 11:12am, July 8 2009