By George Altshuler
The Central Committee of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbis has declared that the movement’s activities in Washington, D.C., fall entirely under the authority of Rabbi Levi Shemtov, settling a longstanding feud between the District of Columbia rabbi and Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, who oversees Chabad programs in Maryland.
In its decision, the three-person beit din, or rabbinical court, ruled completely against the Baltimore-based Kaplan, who initiated the suit to seek authority for himself or his subordinates to operate on Washington’s college campuses, with Jewish young professionals and in downtown Washington.
Shemtov “is considered the regional director of the city, and every activity that is done in Washington must be with his agreement and confirmed consent,” the ruling said in Hebrew. Both Shemtov and Kaplan signed the ruling, which was issued by Rabbis Gedalia Oberlander, Chaim Yehuda Rabinovitch and Binyamin Kuperman.
Shemtov has operated in Washington for close to 25 years and runs the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad). Neither Shemtov nor Kaplan responded to requests for comment.
While Shemtov has long been regarded as the movement’s liaison to the U.S. government and Jewish officials in the District — among other things, Shemtov has regularly koshered the kitchen of the White House for the president’s annual Chanukah party — Shemtov and Kaplan have repeatedly butted heads over who has the authority to operate in Washington in the area of community concerns.
Most recently, their dispute came to a head in July over a controversy about whether Rabbi Yudi Steiner, who was terminated by Shemtov but then began working under Kaplan’s authority, could operate a kosher food truck in Washington.
“Rabbi Kaplan has not had, does not have and will never have the authority he is apparently claiming over Washington, D.C.,” Shemtov told Washington Jewish Week in July. “For Rabbi Kaplan to insinuate that anything has changed in Washington, absent any din Torah and halachic ruling to the contrary, is reprehensible.”
In 2014, Shemtov took Steiner to District of Columbia Superior Court to implement a previous rabbinic ruling that Steiner could no longer operate Chabad activities on the George Washington University campus. The civil court ruled in favor of Shemtov.
The latest rabbinical court ruling, issued on Jan. 17, was based on the decision of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, to give Philadelphia-based Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, Levi Shemtov’s father, responsibility for representing Chabad in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Today, the elder Shemtov is chairman of Agudas Chasidei Chabad, the movement’s umbrella organization.
In the formal complaint Kaplan submitted to the beit din, he argued that the Shemtovs should represent Chabad on all political matters in Washington, but that he should be responsible for programming relating to the Jewish community in the city.
However, the beit din rejected Kaplan’s claim, saying that the Shemtovs’ mandate applied to both political representation and local programming. The ruling also states that Kaplan maintains authority over Chabad activities in Maryland, a point which had not been disputed by Shemtov.
In the last month, the website of Jewish Colonials Chabad, the George Washington University group that Steiner has been operating in contravention of Shemtov’s wishes and in apparent violation of the Superior Court order, removed language indicating that it was under the supervision of Chabad of Maryland.
George Altshuler is a reporter with Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.