THE administrator of South Head Synagogue is putting a padlock on the front door and closing the shule after a judge ruled that Rabbi Benzion Milecki’s contract cannot be terminated without a ruling from a Jewish court.
The AJN can reveal that the administrator, Anthony Elkerton, asked all parties on Tuesday to find a white knight who could fund the operation of the synagogue, but if that isn’t forthcoming he said he would be forced to close the shule.
On Wednesday night, he said he was left with no choice.
“I advise that the Synagogue will cease to operate from midday on Friday, 30 June 2017,” Elkerton wrote to members.
“Members should attend the Synagogue to collect any personal items prior to that time. If necessary a further time for members to attend the Synagogue and collect their personal belongings will be notified during the course of next week.
“I understand how disappointing this decision is for all members of the congregation however it is the only prudent decision available to the Administrators in the current circumstances.”
Elkerton will also recommend that the shule be placed in liquidation, which would see the sale of the synagogue’s premises on Old South Head Road, because it is not able to meet its financial obligations.
Rabbi Milecki’s contract, which costs the shule $31,666 per month, was terminated by Elkerton in April.
But the rabbi stated that he had life tenure, and the dispute went to the NSW Supreme Court last week.
Justice Paul Brereton ruled that Elkerton was not entitled to terminate the rabbi’s contract without a judgement from a Beth Din – the fallout was immediate.
“Within an hour of the court’s decision, two families called the shule to cancel their credit card authorisations,” David Balkin, a former South Head Synagogue financial advisory committee member, revealed.
“The rabbi does not accept that an overwhelming majority of his congregation do not want him as their spiritual leader,” Balkin continued.
“The situation has reached a crescendo: either the rabbi agrees to go or the shule will be put into liquidation in the next two weeks.”
The rabbi, on the other hand, said that he and his wife have invested their lives into the congregation and that he has no intention of leaving.
“We now all need to turn our attention to the survival of our shule.”
He has offered to step down as an active rabbi in the congregation and to become rabbi emeritus. “I believe that this proposal provides a fair and just basis for moving forward.
“For my part, my willingness to forgo my remuneration and benefits is a part of this.”
James Hochroth, who was shule president when Elkerton was called in, told The AJN this week that Rabbi Milecki should not be a part of the shule’s future and that he was offered more than $1.2 million to leave.
He said that according to calculations from the London Beth Din, Rabbi Milecki would have been entitled to a payout of less than $900,000 and that according to similar calculations by leading Israeli courts the payout would have been around $1 million.
“We took those numbers and we offered him an extra couple of hundred thousand to save the fighting,” Hochroth said.
Noting the potential conflict of interests in taking the case to an Australian Beth Din, Hochroth said, “Our idea was that instead of paying a Beth Din and schlepping half way around the world, that it would have been better to use that money to end the dispute.”
Hochroth said the shule has no money, but there were benefactors willing to help so that the congregation could move forward.
“We recently had a period of two months without Rabbi Milecki and we had more engagement with congregants, the services were warmer, we started new initiatives, had a new marketing committee with younger people and a lot of really good things were happening in our community,” Hochroth, who has been a member for 35 years, said.
“I see the potential of our community because this has brought us together like never before, but in my view Rabbi Milecki is a huge stumbling block and our financial collapse is immediate so there is no reason for me to think that we can continue and get out of this unless the rabbi decided to leave.”
Former president Malcolm Kofsky spoke exclusively to The AJN for the first time about the dispute and noted that the board has been trying to push rabbinic renewal for more than six years.
“Essential to the shule’s ongoing sustainability and continuing relevance for the next generation was the need for renewal,” Kofsky said.
“The plan for renewal (in 2011) included Rabbi Milecki who was appreciated for his erudition, pastoral care and contribution to the kehillah. It was unequivocally felt that Rabbi Milecki still had a lot to offer the shule. In short, the community needed rabbinic renewal, but was supportive of Rabbi Milecki.
“However the rabbi was not receptive to the idea.”
Kofsky said that, on reflection, he has formed the view that the rabbi never had any intention of stepping aside and relinquishing control of the shule. “Any non-acceptance of his proposal or counter-proposals provoked the rabbi’s outrage.
“Some of this abuse was demonstrated publicly at the information meeting held in the shule in February, alienating many of his erstwhile supporters.”
Kofsky said that, as has been mentioned by the rabbi, he and his wife have given of themselves for more than 32 years and they have been a bedrock of the community, but now is the time for him to leave.
“How does his past care now entitle him to ignore the wishes and collective need of his community?
“The community is aggrieved, heartbroken and bewildered.
“The shule is bigger than the president, bigger than the board, bigger than the rabbi, all of whom are there only to serve the community to the best of their ability.
“The loss of an established community such as South Head is a tragedy not just for South Head but for all Australian Jewry.”