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Sherman Oaks Temple Charged With Breach of Contract : Fired Rabbi's Suit Revives Bitterness

April 09, 1985|STEPEHEN G. BLOOM | Times Staff Writer

From the start of Rabbi David M. Baron's tenure at Temple B'nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, he proved to be not quite what temple officials had in mind.

A month after he became the rabbi of the Conservative congregation in 1983, Baron invited local television stations to film a memorial service following the shooting down of Korean Air Lines flight 007.

"From then on in, there was no getting along," recalled M. Roy Siegel, chairman of the board of directors of the synagogue.

Contract Terminated

After a series of other incidents--including the rabbi's passing up a funeral to attend a conference in Palm Springs--the board terminated his contract.

Almost a year after Baron's dismissal, the dispute has not died. On Friday, Baron, 35, filed suit against Temple B'nai Hayim in Van Nuys Superior Court, charging the synagogue with breach of his employment contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, conspiracy, libel and slander.

The suit asks for $51,249 in lost wages, as well as unspecified punitive damages.

"It is a very unfortunate incident, especially coming at Passover," Siegel said.

"The whole thing has caused a tremendous amount of hard feelings, and it has taken the whole last year to get things on a smooth keel again."

Families Leave Temple

Controversy over Baron caused repercussions in the temple, including the departure of about 10% of the synagogue's members, Siegel said. About 160 families remain as temple members, he said.

According to court documents, Baron started work on Aug. 1, 1983, as rabbi at the 27-year-old temple at 4302 Van Nuys Blvd. His two-year contract was terminated last May 13.

In the lawsuit, Baron says that the board told him one reason for the firing was his having left town to go to Palm Springs instead of presiding at a funeral.

Baron refused comment on the case. But his attorney, Leon Gilbert, said the rabbi had already made plans to attend the rabbinical convention in the desert resort community.

Choir Member Dismissed

The rabbi's suit alleges the board also complained that Baron "made special financial arrangements in performing weddings without passing on the fees for using the facilities." Gilbert said Baron waived the fees required by the synagogue for certain couples who could not afford to pay.

The suit says another source of friction with the board was Baron's dismissal of a temple choir member.

Gilbert said Baron fired one choir member because that person was not Jewish. "The rabbi wanted an all-Jewish choir at the temple. It's that simple," he said.

Temple director Siegel, a lawyer, declined to comment on specific allegations in Baron's suit. But he defended the synagogue's dismissal of the rabbi as legal.

Tension at Temple

According to Baron's contract, either the synagogue or the rabbi could terminate the rabbi's employment with 90 days' notice. The contract set Baron's annual salary at $27,333, plus a $13,667 housing allowance.

Gilbert said the tension between synagogue officials and Baron was caused by "people at the temple who had a vested interest, and who were uncomfortable with having a new rabbi."

Siegel, 41, disagreed. "It was nothing but a whole bunch of minor points between Rabbi Baron and the board," he said.

The conflict "resulted in a total breakdown of communications between the rabbi and the board. We felt there was so much conflict on every single point, that we had to do something. We couldn't even ask him what time it was without an argument," Siegel said.

Board Dismissal Sought

After the temple board voted in February, 1984, to fire Baron, the rabbi asked the entire board to resign, and called for new elections, Siegel said.

That attempt failed, and the board upheld the dismissal.

Siegel termed Baron an "activist rabbi" whose activism was not based solely on religion, but a desire to publicize himself.

He cited the memorial service Baron called following the Sept. 1, 1983, shooting down of the Korean Air Lines jet. Siegel said the board was not consulted before Baron invited television camera crews into the temple.

Baron now is rabbi at the Synagogue for Performing Arts in West Los Angeles, Gilbert said.

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