Let My History Go!

Seth Gerber fights for the return of a Chabad treasure trove

Published in 2005 Southern California Rising Stars magazine

By Robin Heffler on August 26, 2005

In 1915, in the midst of World War I, it didn’t take a genius to see that Germany was on the verge of attacking Russia. Rabbi Shalom Dovber, the fifth in a line of rabbis of the Chabad Lubavitch Jewish religious movement — who may well have been a genius — knew he had to get out of Russia fast. But Rabbi Dovber had a problem. He was in charge of the 250-year-old religious and historical heritage of the Chabad movement and had to find a safe place to store the thousands of books and documents under his care.

Dovber left the invaluable library in Moscow for safekeeping, but while the collection survived the German invasion, after the war the new Soviet Union expropriated part of it and eventually placed it in a state library. A generation later, an archive of other Chabad manuscripts were seized by the Nazis during World War II, recaptured by the Red Army and then stored in a Russian State Military Archive. To this day, this two-part collection of holy documents that belongs to a vital Jewish religious group sits in the storage facilities of a formerly atheist state.
Fast-forward to the year 2000. Seth Gerber, born more than a half century after Rabbi Dovber stashed his archive, is incensed by the theft, and continued holding, of these valuable books and documents by the Russian state. Gerber is an associate in the Santa Monica firm of Alschuler, Grossman, Stein, & Kahan Business Litigation Department and a member of its Intellectual Property and Patent Litigation Practice groups. Gerber and firm attorneys Marshall Grossman and Jonathan Stern are currently litigating to reclaim the treasured Chabad documents from the Russian government. On behalf of the Chabad movement, now headquartered in New York, they are seeking the return of 12,000 Jewish religious and law books, as well as 35,000 pages of manuscripts written by seven generations of Chabad leaders.
Gerber’s work on the case has drawn generous words of praise. “He is a passionate pitbull,” says Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, who heads the West Coast Chabad Lubavitch Headquarters. “Hours mean nothing to him. When he’s convinced of the client’s position, nothing will stop him.”
Hearing Rabbi Cunin’s remarks about his aggressive style, the boyish-looking Gerber laughs, blushes a little and passes it off to low expectations. “It’s nice to look young because you’re often underestimated,” he says. “I won’t say no to victory by surprise.”
The dispute over the books and documents is a daunting legal challenge because it has a decades-long history and involves American, Russian and international law. In addition to the texts initially seized by the Soviet Union, the Nazis captured more of the Chabad collection in Poland during World War II. While the Polish government returned a portion of the documents, efforts to get the Russian government to return the bulk of the collection under its control failed in the 1990s, prompting the filing of a federal court suit last fall against several branches of the Russian government. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss in May, and a hearing was expected in July.
Gerber works diplomatic connections as well as taking the legal route. He has been involved in bringing the issue to the United States Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the independent federal agency better known as the Helsinki Commission, which has a strong mandate to encourage human rights. “He was up day and night for two or three days preparing several dozen witness statements to be provided to the Commission,” says Marshall Grossman, the lead attorney on the case and a partner at Alschuler Grossman. “He worked tirelessly under the most extreme deadlines. In addition, he has proven his ability to function in both the legal and political arena.”
The cause has garnered widespread support in the federal government. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, House members and the full Senate are all urging the Russians to return the collection.
Gerber says he is representing a nonprofit organization like Chabad and serving his business clients at the same time. His business cases have included a patent dispute over an exercise device, protecting trademarks and Web site domains of financial services companies and a copyright infringement case for a fashion accessory company. That last case — which he won — was the only case he’s had to bring to trial in six years of practice.
On the wall facing the desk in Gerber’s small office are two framed prints of matadors engaging their foes in battle. “I often feel like that, with bulls charging me,” says the soft-spoken 32-year-old. “I like the way that matadors step out of the way and then take care of the bull.”
While thus far he’s had no bullfighters for clients, one of his favorite cases was the 2003 suit involving boxer and WBO heavyweight champion Lamon Brewster. Gerber was one of three attorneys who helped Brewster win the right to contend for the world title after then-champion Cornelius Sanders sought an injunction to prevent the scheduled match from going forward. Because of boxing rules, Brewster ended up fighting former champion Vladimir Klitschko. “We prevailed in getting him a shot at the title,” Gerber explains, “and then he did the tough part and won the fight.”
Before working at Alschuler Grossman, Gerber spent a year sparring in banking and unfair-competition litigation as an associate at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan in Century City. Gerber first began working on his litigation skills while earning a J.D. from Hastings College of Law at the University of California, San Francisco, where he served on the Moot Court Board and as a member of the National Moot Court Team and the National Appellate Advocacy Team.
“I enjoy the strategic aspects of skillful litigation,” he says. “I don’t believe in thoughtless, shotgun litigation. I’d rather be a sniper.” His favorite challenge is taking depositions. “I like the thrill of thinking on my feet and the art of verbal advocacy,” says Gerber, who also enjoys adventure sports like parachuting. Grossman assesses his deposition skills as those of “a lawyer many years his senior” and says Gerber is able to “cut through the minutiae and go straight for the jugular of an issue.”
A native of Los Angeles, Gerber was drawn to law in part because of his family’s social and political activism. As a child, his parents were very involved in the Free Soviet Jewry movement and served on the regional board of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
“My parents encouraged me to do something with my life that would better society and to use my skills to improve things not just for Jews but for society at large,” he explains. His studies as an undergraduate history major at Trinity College in Connecticut also played an important role. “I was inspired by reading about the NAACP’s efforts through litigation to change the fabric of this country and move it into a world that is more pluralistic, inclusive and diverse, where respect for differences is valued.”
After college, Gerber wasn’t sure he wanted to pursue law. So he put his toe in the water by enrolling in paralegal school and volunteering with Bet Tzedek, a legal aid organization based in mid-city Los Angeles. There he represented homeless, indigent and elderly clients in administrative hearings and received the Wiley M. Manual Award from the State Bar of California for his pro bono efforts.
Today, Gerber is heavily involved as a volunteer for the ADL. He is vice chair of its speakers’ bureau and regularly gives talks to community groups about global anti-Semitism and terrorism; serves on the legal advisory committee that oversees discrimination complaints; is the Alschuler Grossman liaison for the ADL’s summer associate research program; and is a member of the Salvin Young Leadership Institute that cultivates young ADL leaders. Michelle N. Deutchman, western states counsel for the ADL, says, “Seth is in the forefront of the next generation of leaders. He’s bright, has great energy and is committed, passionate and optimistic. I wish there were more people like him. We’re really lucky to have him.”

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