Heated arguments spark premature end to ECAJ conference

The following article by was just posted on AJN’s web site (december 2, 2008)

THE annual conference of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) in Sydney ended prematurely and in uproar on Monday after a verbal clash over the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation (AHC)’s legal troubles with its former spiritual head, Rabbi Yossi Engel.

The dispute centred on a purported lack of action by the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia (ORA) on the dispute between the AHC and Rabbi Engel.

Rabbi Engel is currently waiting to hear whether he will be charged by South Australian police on nine counts of false pretences and eight counts of deception in relation to funding applications made by a South Australian Jewish school to the state’s Ethnic Schools Board.

His wife Chana Engel is also waiting to see whether she will be charged.

In an impassioned speech, Jewish Community Council of South Australia president Norman Schueler accused the ORA of hiding behind protocols, and said that the rabbinic body’s “intransigence in this matter” had caused the destruction of “160 years of the proud history of Adelaide Hebrew Congregation”.

Schueler added that the rabbis of the ORA will “go down in history” as having failed to uphold the trust of the community, and had brought “shame to the rabbinic office”.

The ECAJ conference agenda had allotted ORA representatives 45 minutes to discuss ORA representation at ECAJ meetings.

But the heated discussion continued for around 90 minutes, with individuals stating the ORA did not deserve communal respect, especially with regard to its lack of action over the AHC dispute and in addressing problems faced by agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant them Jewish divorces).

Newly elected ORA president Rabbi Dovid Freilich, and ORA representatives Rabbi Moshe Gutnick and Rabbi Yossi Feldman, answered the accusations.

Rabbi Freilich said: “As the newly elected ORA president, the first thing I did was to travel to Adelaide and present a donation to the AHC on behalf of the ORA.”

He went on to pledge the ORA’s support in helping to resolve the situation at the AHC.

Rabbi Freilich said that, just as the non-Jewish world respects its spiritual leaders, the ORA hoped the ECAJ would consult the Orthodox rabbinic organisation on halachic matters to present a united front and prevent embarrassment.

The discussion became more abrasive when Rabbi Gutnick, who had been under pressure to ask Rabbi Engel to stand aside until his dispute with the AHC was resolved, said the ORA “did not have anything in its constitution” that would allow it to take action.

“And Rabbi Engel is being pilloried for something he feels he did not do,” he added.

ECAJ president Robert Goot said: “My difficulty with the ORA is that they set themselves, and their membership, above the law of the land.

“I appeal to Rabbi Freilich to seriously consider what has already occurred [in Adelaide], and act accordingly,” Goot added.

Others in attendance expressed their frustrations with the ORA’s lack of response, including Jewish Community Council of Victoria president John Searle, who said: “Some rabbis expect respect, but don’t do anything to earn respect.”

“This failure to hear the mood of the community and to respond [to the situation in Adelaide] is causing the community to lose faith in the rabbinate,” added Shalom Institute director Peta Jones Pellach. “It is a tragic situation.”

ECAJ immediate past president Grahame Leonard then asked that the ECAJ formally adopt the resolution on the participation of the ORA in ECAJ meetings. The motion passed and the conference was adjourned.

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