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Michigan Supreme Court Bans Mixed Seating in Orthodox Synagogue

June 15, 1959
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Michigan Supreme Court ended a four-year dispute involving Congregation Beth Tefilas Moses in Mt. Clemens when it voted unanimously last Friday to forbid mixed seating during religious services at the synagogue. The move which caught members of the congregation by surprise, reversed a decision rendered last year by Circuit Judge Edward T. Kane, who refused to hear the case on the grounds that the court lacked jurisdiction in a religious dispute.

The Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Thomas M. Kavanagh, hinged on a definition of the congregation as Orthodox, at the same time establishing that one of the tenets of Orthodox Judaism is separate seating for men and women. Also involved in the case, which was appealed at its conclusion by only one man–Baruch Litvin–was the issue of the property rights of an individual.

Mr. Litvin, who claims to have spent $12,000 in battling the suit for four years, stated that the court’s decision was not a personal triumph, but a victory for Orthodox Judaism. However, a spokesman for the board of trustees of the synagogue, interviewed by Frank Simons for the Detroit Jewish News, implied that in the future nearly every one of the 75 member-families would join in forming a new congregation.

“Mr. Litvin’s victory has won him a congregation but lost him the congregants; has won him a decision that has cost him the friendship of the rabbi of the synagogue and nearly every family in the Mt. Clemens community; has won him a court case that gives him use of a building that prohibits mixed seating but lost him a minyan to conduct services,” the board member stated.

The mixed seating controversy has raged at the Mt. Clemens synagogue since 1954, when the original vote for seating men and women together was rejected. In 1955, however, a committee reporting to the congregation in favor of mixed seating, found that its resolution was adopted by the majority. An injunction, issued prior to the High Holy Days of that year, restrained the congregation from effecting the change until Judge Kane’s ruling, when mixed seating was put into practice.

Listed as appellants in the Supreme Court suit with Litvin were Meyer Davis, now deceased, and Sam Schwartz, who had, since the suit began, joined the majority in favor of mixed seating and even accepting membership on the board of trustees. In carrying out the battle alone, Mr. Litvin and his counsel called for testimony by Rabbi David B. Hollander, honorary president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and Dr. Samson R. Weiss, former dean of the Yeshivath Beth Yehudah in Detroit, and a leader in the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

The Supreme Court, charging that the defendant board members had the opportunity to refute the testimony of Litvin and other witnesses for the plaintiffs, ruled; 1. That Congregation Beth Tefilas Moses was an Orthodox Jewish congregation; 2. That under Orthodox Jewish law, Jews cannot participate in services where there is mixed seating; 3. That if mixed seating was enjoyed in this congregation, Orthodox Jews would be prohibited from participating in the services there.

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