Chabad Battles Russia for Trove of Works

Times Staff Writer

While it remains out of reach in Russia, a centuries-old collection of Jewish religious books and letters evokes an image of a distant light for Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin.

“No one can hold them in their arms, no one can glean the spark of the light and the warmth that are contained within the aging pages of these books,” said Cunin, West Coast director of Chabad, the Lubavitch organization of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews that recently sued the Russian Federation in federal court in Los Angeles to obtain the 12,000-volume collection.

The light, he adds, is also a guide for a second generation of rabbis and attorneys working to force Russian officials to have the books and papers moved to a Lubavitch library in New York where they would be available to scholars.

“The torch has been passed,” Cunin said.

The works, assembled over more than two centuries by the movement originating in the Belarussian town of Lubavitch, have been at the center of a diplomatic tussle since 1990.

Russian officials have given selected volumes over the years to Lubavitch leaders. But despite pledges of support for Chabad from former Russian leaders Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev and three U.S. presidents, the agencies in control of the books have shown no signs of handing over the entire collection, which they say is the property of Russia and should not be transferred overseas.


After spearheading the effort for years, Cunin has since ceded some responsibility for garnering political support in Washington to his sons Chaim Cunin, 30, and Yosef Cunin, 32, both also rabbis.

“It’s a message to the Russians that we have enough belief in the younger generation,” said the elder Cunin. “We will never, never stop until we get back the last book, the last manuscript, the last picture.”

On Chabad’s legal front is Marshall Grossman, 65, whose work for the organization over the years has been mostly pro bono. Now, aided by a second generation of attorneys in the Santa Monica firm of Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan, Grossman hopes the Los Angeles lawsuit will force a response from Russia. The suit, filed in November, names the Russian Federation and the Russian Ministry of Culture, state library and military archive as plaintiffs.

Though the Russian Supreme Court ordered the documents returned in 1991, the order was never obeyed, according to the Chabad court filings.

“We are operating here on both a political and legal field,” said Grossman, a friend of Cunin. The Los Angeles case was filed “with great reservation because we had hoped to accomplish this through the Russian legal system.”

The Russian Ministry of Culture plans to formally respond at the end of the month, said James Broderick Jr. of Squire Sanders & Dempsey, the American firm recently retained to represent the ministry.

“We are just coming into this case,” said attorney Sarah Carey in Washington, who is working with Broderick on the matter. “We’ve gotten bits and pieces, but the pieces that we’ve gotten aren’t complete. The Russian position, stated simply, is that Russia owns the collection and that it should remain in Russia.”

Broderick and Carey argue that sovereign immunity shields the Russian Ministry of Culture from a suit filed in U.S. court, a position that Chabad disputes.

“We can say that the Russian government is concerned about the idea of this kind of an issue being the subject of litigation in the United States,” Broderick said. “Suppose a suit was filed in Russia to recover manuscripts being held in the Library of Congress?”

Repeated attempts this week to obtain comment from the Russian Embassy in Washington were unsuccessful.

The saga of the documents dates to the early 20th century. According to the lawsuit, the chief Lubavitcher rabbi at the time sent a collection of books and manuscripts to Moscow during World War I for safekeeping. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, it was reportedly taken by Soviet officials and placed in the Russian State Library.

The second part of the collection, handwritten letters and records, was maintained by the next rabbi to head the Lubavitcher movement until he was forced to flee Poland during World War II, leaving the collection behind. The Soviet army seized parts of it after the war and placed the documents in storage at the Russian Military Archive, where they remain, the Lubavitchers say.

For the two younger attorneys now on the case for Chabad, Jonathan Stern, 28, and Seth Gerber, 32, the cause is part of a larger tapestry of political and Jewish activism passed down by their families.

Leading up to his bar mitzvah 15 years ago, Stern engaged in a letter-writing campaign on behalf of a Russian teenager who was attempting to immigrate to Israel. Gerber can recall handing out fliers, as early as age 5, during demonstrations organized by his parents in support of Jewish emigration from Russia.

For Stern, buried somewhere in the trove of books is knowledge “about living a life that strives toward ethical and moral perfection.” Gerber is similarly intrigued by the books’ content.

Grossman, whose grandparents emigrated from Russia, made his first trip to the Soviet Union in 1961 during the height of the Cold War. The trip marked a turning point in his life.

In Moscow, he met an engineer named Jacob who spoke of being persecuted as a Jew and of it being dangerous for him to be seen with Westerners. When he returned home, Grossman learned that an engineer named Jacob had been executed.

“I don’t know if it was the same man,” he said. “But I’ve been haunted by it to this day.”

In 1990, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the seventh leader in the Chabad movement’s history, charged the elder Cunin and a delegation of four others with the responsibility of retrieving the collection.

Later, the younger Cunins and their four other brothers, ranging in age from 14 to 22, were sent from Los Angeles to Chabad headquarters in New York. There, Schneersohn tapped them to take their cause to Washington to lobby for support from Congress.

“Thus began this journey of ours,” Chaim Cunin said. “We know that our job in life is to pursue the path of justice. Even though we may have not yet been successful, we know that the journey is just as important.”

He and Yosef, who have now spent almost half their lives in pursuit of the collection, are married with seven children between them. When they are not lobbying in Washington, they help their father run the Chabad’s West Coast network of synagogues, social service centers and schools.

Both generations of Cunins and the attorneys helping them believe that the collection will be relinquished in their lifetimes.

“I am fulfilling the most urgent mission the rebbe entrusted [to] me, and now my children are doing the same,” the elder Cunin said. “How are they going to get rid of me? I’ve got 13 kids, and their kids will be no less determined.”