By Katherine Wilton, Montreal Gazette – January 10, 2017
During the four years that he led prayers at a synagogue in Hampstead, Cantor Shmuel Levin occasionally crossed swords with Rabbi Michael Whitman.
There was some friction between the two men and observers say that Levin’s abrasive style didn’t sit well with many members of the Congregation Adath Israel.
Levin’s latest run-in with Whitman, which began in the corridors of the synagogue, has morphed into a strange saga that includes a police investigation, allegations of extortion and theft, an arrest warrant and a controversial 90-minute YouTube video where Levin accuses the rabbi of excessive spending when he entertains congregants at his home.
The synagogue’s president, Dr. Peter Safran, said Levin’s accusations are completely unfounded. He said all the expenses from 2012, which Levin detailed in the video, were approved.
Like many rabbis, Whitman’s contract includes a discretionary budget to entertain congregants or visitors at his home, something rabbis often do after the start of Shabbat on Fridays. “That is the way it is in most synagogues,” Safran said this week.
Levin, who is also a rabbi, has been causing trouble for Whitman and others at the synagogue since officials told him in the fall of 2015 that his contract would not be renewed, several people told the Montreal Gazette.
Safran said Levin’s contract was not renewed because the synagogue “didn’t need a full-time cantor and there were personal issues in his conduct so it wasn’t the right fit for our synagogue.”
When Levin left the synagogue officially in June, he was in possession of Whitman’s expense account reports from 2012.
Levin told the Montreal Gazette that he found the documents in a box beside the garbage outside the synagogue on Harrow Crescent. Synagogue officials told the Montreal police that the documents had been stolen.
When Levin left his post, he signed a mutually-binding non-disparagement agreement with synagogue officials. Levin claims that Whitman has since badmouthed him to people in the Jewish community, which has prevented him from getting another job as a cantor or rabbi. A cantor conducts the musical part of the service at a synagogue.
Officials at the synagogue insist they didn’t break the non-disparagement agreement and say they did nothing to prevent Levin from obtaining employment. Levin said he left Montreal on Dec. 4 because his visa had expired and is now in Europe.
On Dec. 12, Levin emailed the synagogue and demanded “compensation” of $17,000, claiming the non-disparagement agreement had been violated.
In the same email, he said he would make public some of Whitman’s expense accounts if the money wasn’t paid.
On New Year’s Day, Levin did just that. He released a video on YouTube where he held up numerous receipts from IGA and other stores where Whitman had shopped, implying that the rabbi was spending excessively.
After the police were called to investigate his demand for compensation and the synagogue publicly denounced his actions, Levin issued a statement last week to several people in the Jewish community saying he wasn’t trying to extort money from anyone. He claims he made a “very serious error” in the way he wrote the email by tying together the two issues.
But it appears Montreal police aren’t buying his story. They’ve issued an arrest warrant for Levin and will charge him with extortion and theft if he returns to Canada, according to Raphael Bergeron, a spokesperson for the Montreal police.
When reached by email on Tuesday, Levin refused to comment on the arrest warrant.
During a telephone interview with the Gazette on Monday, Levin said he posted the YouTube video because he “wants rabbis all over the world to be careful about spending funds.”
An employee at a Côte-St-Luc synagogue, who didn’t want her name published, said it’s common for rabbis to entertain at their homes during Shabbat. “A rabbi’s house is always supposed to be open,” she said.
Archie Etcovitch, a former president of Adath Israel who knows both rabbis, said he and many other congregants were disgusted when they saw Levin’s YouTube video.
“He crossed a huge line — you wouldn’t do this to your worst enemy,” Etcovitch said. “I always looked at him (Levin) as a high maintenance employee. He did his job well if you could keep him on track, but he often overstepped his bounds.”
Etcovitch said it’s not uncommon for rabbis and cantors to sometimes clash because they are both visible members of the clergy.
But he suggested that Levin’s comments about the rabbi are absurd.
“He is a s— disturber,” he said.
Several members of the Jewish community said that Levin had run-ins and disputes while working at Adath Israel and another synagogue. Levin said he has had disputes with some people in Montreal, but wouldn’t go into details.
Whitman declined to be interviewed, saying Safran had been designated as the synagogue’s spokesperson.
Safran said that Whitman is devastated by the false allegations made against him. “This video was done to harass the rabbi,” he said.
Rabbi Whitman has a long and distinguished rabbinic career and is a person whose moral credentials are beyond reproach, said Rabbi Reuben Poupko from the Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation
Rabbi Moishe Shur, who also works as a cantor at Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation, said he was surprised that Levin released the controversial video.
“We, as a council of cantors in Montreal, wouldn’t accept this behaviour from someone who is a current member,” he said. “There are ways to approach issues people might have with employers or co-workers and a public forum is not beneficial or proper or acceptable.”