A tragedy of silence

August 21, 2019 by  
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I write this letter on the night of Tisha B’Av, having just returned home from shul and reading Eicha. As I reflect on the tragedy and destruction the Jewish people have endured through the centuries, I cannot help but think about the tragedy and destruction my own parents experienced over the past two years…writes Chony Milecki.

Rabbi Benzion Milecki

It is very hard to come to terms with.

The community of South Head felt like family. The bricks of the synagogue building felt like the bricks of my home. It was an illusion that was shattered, and in a very painful way because when things turn south you still expect your family to have your back. That’s not what happened. In my parents’ greatest time of need, there was a painful silence.

People don’t seem to understand. For our father being a rabbi was not a job. For our mother being a rebbetzin was not a role. It was a life. There really was no separation between our family life and South Head, except that South Head always came first.

We never resented that, by the way. It was very hard for us but we were very proud of it. Night after night our mother called, cared and cooked for the community. Our father would be locked up deep into the night, way past his bedtime, caring for each individual, giving advice, and preparing programs and shiurim. They had a right to time off, but hardly took it. Yes, of course, it was our father’s job. Every rabbi is expected to be there for his community. But what our parents did was a whole different level of dedication. It was a life.

Over the years, my father showed me some of the letters my parents received from members of the shul. They praise them for their pastoral care. They thank them for going the extra hundred miles. They express wonder at the dedication. In one letter a member calls our father a tower of strength, saying he would never forget.

But many forgot.

And that was the real tragedy of the last few years. People fell for a zero-sum campaign of slander, lashon hara, character assassination, lawsuits and untruths, and forgot the rabbi and rebbetzin who everyone acknowledges had given over thirty years of stellar service.

It came suddenly and as a shock. After thirty-two years of dedicated service to the community, our father was given an ultimatum to resign within three weeks before Pesach 2017. Perhaps he should have taken it more seriously, but he was preoccupied doing what he always did at that busy time of the year – answering Pesach questions, preparing Pesach sermons, and getting ready to sell Chametz. He could never have imagined his beloved congregation committing such an act of betrayal. As our father has previously asserted in Jwire and the AJN, before the end of January 2017 there was no suggestion by either the President or the Board of South Head that his position was in jeopardy. And yet, by the end of April, he was sacked.

Silence.

With no provocation, and during the year of Kaddish for his father–our grandfather–armed guards were stationed at the doors of the Synagogue, our father’s photo in their hands, and instructed to bar his entry. Is it possible to overstate this travesty? How is it possible they had a minyan that day?

Silence.

It has been suggested that our father brought it upon himself. He should have left with dignity. He should have taken the money offered and retreated. I discussed this with my father at the time. He told me that he had asked whether he could remain until after the High Holy Days to farewell his community. He was refused. He asked whether he could remain with limited Halachic Authority. He was refused.

He didn’t feel he could take the money and run under such circumstances. He felt like it would be selling his soul for money. There were principles at stake! What kind of Rabbi could just pick up and leave the community to which he and his Rebbetzen had dedicated their lives without a dark cloud forever hanging over their heads? How undignified!

Silence.

Then came an astonishing financial takeover of the shul without a vote from the board or community. Silence. Next, unbelievably, our father was sued! Silence.

It defies belief. His contract, signed by numerous Presidents and Vice-Presidents, demanded that any dispute be heard in either a mutually accepted Beth Din or a Beth Din established by the Chief Rabbinate. Instead, our father was the defendant in a court case and had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover his and the shul’s court costs.

Silence.

But that was not enough.

A claim was made against our father for $1,143,000 alleging that he defamed the creditors in a letter that he wrote after being hounded for months. You can find the letter on J-Wire and ask yourself whether it was worthy of a lawsuit.

Australia is the defamation capital of the world because of its draconian defamation laws. Defending the suit was debilitatingly expensive. Our parents asked members of the community to intervene to stop the absolute madness.

Silence.

Some of you think that after all the heartache our parents eventually received a big payout from South Head – and all is now good. That is not the case.  Our father received $236,000. It is a sum that did not even cover our father’s unpaid salary, super, annual leave and long service leave entitlements. It certainly didn’t cover any compensation the court agreed he was entitled to, let alone the hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of legal fees he was forced to spend defending himself in suits he did not bring.

Silence.

How was this possible? Wasn’t there a moral duty to do something? Say something? There were so many travesties! So many chances! What kind of lashon hara could cause people to so radically ignore this responsibility?

Over two years have passed, but the pain is deep. Time has not healed this open wound.

There have been a few who did try to take a stand. Some voted with their feet to leave the community that was callous to their rabbi. They spoke up to their friends and wrote letters. Thank you for your thought and effort. But everyone else?

Why did you forget?

Why haven’t you called and offered words of care and support?

Why did you stand by when you could have done something? 

Why do you associate with people who deliberately hurt our parents?

Why did you fall so deeply for the slander and Lashon Hara?

Why do you accept that our family’s name and contribution has been purged from the community, website and building, as if we never existed?

Our rabbis tell us that dismissing a rabbi unfairly is akin to spilling blood (shofech damim). It seems very hyperbolic, but I get it now. The way in which this was done at South Head was cruel. It robbed our parents of a lifetime of friends, community, dignity, reputation, money and life’s work. Can you imagine it in your own life?

Our parents are bewildered. By the time you read this, they will have put their home up for sale while they prepare to leave Sydney forever. My nieces and nephews, their grandchildren, are devastated, begging them to stay. But the pain of remaining in the place that has brought them so much heartache is too much. Their blood cries from the earth of the community upon which it was spilled. 

Will it too be answered with silence?

Comments

26 Responses to “A tragedy of silence”
  1. Halina Rubenstein says:

    Chony, it would have been an enormously painful and draining experience for the entire family, but please know that their life’s work was not in vain.

    I am reminded of the expression “thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened.”

    Many of us have been encouraged over the years through Rabbi Milecki to find that ‘inner spark’ of Yiddishkeit. So wherever your parents find themselves in this next stage of their lives, they should know that so many people have followed through on this message – whether it be lighting the Shabbat candles more often than they would have throughout the year, that extra visit to shule, engagement in Jewish learning or simply a random act of kindness. Not only that, this message has been passed on to the next generations.

    Many of us have not forgotten the Milecki hospitality and kindness in both times of joy and sorrow. We wish your parents well, with only good health and nachas to travel their way.

    The Stein and Rubenstein Family

  2. Larry Page says:

    Chony I would recommend that you read a letter on this website composed by one of the secured creditors in which he comments that your Father was the one who mentioned legal action first in response to a recommendation that he accepted “ Rabbinic Renewal “
    Such recommendation appeared to be on very favourable terms which your Father refused out of hand.
    So yes, as one commentator had said “ let us be objective “

  3. Dave Ash says:

    The tragedy is that the Rabbi was so obstinate, obdurate and self- centered !!
    How are the mighty ( and haughty ) fallen ! !

  4. Alan Zeligson says:

    Chony I hope that from this difficult experience you have endured you will learn that in all relationships there is give and take and that being obstinate and unwilling to compromise only leads to loss.

  5. Michelle Mekler-Peled says:

    It breaks my heart to see your family go thru this. I do not understand a community that reacts so heartlessly to an esteemed rabbi. They forgot very quickly everything he had done to make it the biggest and most thriving shul in Sydney. They forgot how he was always there for them in good and bad times at all hours. They forgot how he invited the whole congregation into his home for meals and celebration. They forgot how he had the BEST sermons that people ran to hear. They forgot all the incredible lectures, youth programs, activities and sellout functions he developed and how all other shuls then copied his innovative ideas. They forgot so much more. I remember everything and am grateful for all your parents have done. They have always been there for my family – both in good and bad times. My late parents adored them both and held them in such high regard. Our family were long time member of South Head Synagogue from Rabbi Silberman days. We chose not to be affiliated with this takeover congregation that calls itself Kadima when in fact it is so Achora with the way it has discarded our rabbi. Your parents did not deserve this in the slightest. Those involved will look every day at the empty chairs in the shul that you all sat on and the empty chairs that members who chose to leave the shul no longer fill. I miss my old congregation but I cannot support this new regime who think it is ok to discard a rabbi of 32 years. I cannot forget this.

  6. Alana Ludwin says:

    The silence is unfortunately indicative of the fact that the Rabbi was respected but never loved.

  7. Sarah Millstein says:

    Seems as if you censor views with which you disagree !
    What cowards you are !
    The truth will set you free !!
    What some of my family has sent in has not been published

  8. Les Kuper says:

    Chony should apologise for his heartless, shocking, insensitive and shameful comment about “ blood being spilled !!

    My goodness get a grip Chony, your comment is an insult to those Jews who really did shed blood during our history !!

  9. Cecile Smith says:

    “ Their blood cries from the earth of the community upon which it was spilled “

    What an emotive load of poppycock. Chony your last sentence is beyond the pale, misleading and immature.
    You need to desist from this emotional hyperbole

  10. Debbie Katz says:

    I do not attend South Head Synagogue and am unaware of the intricate details of the dispute that ended Rabbi Mileki’s career but I’d like to leave this comment in his favour.
    As the organizer of the largest singles events in Sydney, Rabbi Mileki permitted me use of the hall at South Head Synagogue without any strings attached unlike many other rabbis in the Eastern suburbs who I have approached.
    Rabbi Mileki was kind and generous allowing me to go about my business to organize my event without any interference.
    I am very grateful to him for this ‘mitzvah’. Without use of the shule’s hall on that Friday night, no shidduchim would have occurred.

  11. Adam Green says:

    We left behind who support and love your Parents ,and are also lost and devastated by such awful situation, Can only send our very best regards and best wishes to your parents for their future and may you all only know simchas and mitzvas and have lots of nachas for your whole family.

  12. Gershon Shapiro says:

    This sounds like something no rabbi should have to go through especially not a dedicated rabbi who has been there all the years for his congregation. It is very unfair to say the least.
    Edit or delete this

  13. Harvey Sommet says:

    Jose Mourinho was removed as a highly paid manager by Manchester United mainly because “ he lost the dressing room “
    Chony your Father was likewise removed from an excessively highly paid job because he had “ lost the members “
    Let’s move on and as it says in The Gemorah “ what was was “

  14. Alan Cohen ( Toronto) says:

    Seems to me that Australian Jewry and their Rabbonim are in turmoil.

  15. Zac Smith says:

    So sad but I am sure that there is fault on both sides of this ugly dispute.

  16. Harold Kaplan says:

    Chony everyone understands what you are going through and offers you comfort in your hurt.
    You do need however to read some of the objective comments made by very good people on this sad saga.
    I would particularly refer you to letters written by the Ex President of the Shul, as well as one written by his wife.
    The members of the community are not as heartless as you make out and all parties in this dispute share
    responsibility for the outcome including your parents.
    The Directors were acting in the best interest of the community whilst your Father believed he was The CEO to whom everyone owed homage

    • Dov Rubin says:

      Unfortunately every situation has “objective” people – everyone wants to think they are objective.

      So let’s just observe the facts:

      The rabbi didn’t get a Din Torah as per halacha and his contract.

      The rabbi didn’t get fair dismissal remuneration.

      The rabbi was treated worse than dirt throughout the ordeal.

      The rabbi was punished for sticking up for his rights, because he should have just walked away when he was told to.

      These are facts that all sides agree on.

      • Alan Perlman says:

        The Rabbi’s remuneration must surely have been paid in accordance with NSW Law.The Rabbi never acted in good faith during the many years that the Committee discussed Rabbinic renewal with him ( read letters by previous Chairmen of The Shul)
        The Rabbi’s Case was dismissed by The Appeal Court.
        The Rabbi’s remuneration was excessive and the Shul was going insolvent.

      • Stan Moller says:

        All sides did NOT agree that’s why there was a dispute !!

  17. Michael Jaku says:

    Shameful!

  18. Danielle Jaku-Greenfield says:

    Chony, I am so sad to read this message. You must feel so betrayed. We did sadly leave the shule in support of your parents. Driving past it these days does bring feelings of loss and disbelief. And we did send messages of support through the website set up by your family to show respect solidarity for them. We have also been in touch with Brookie quite recently, and very much enjoyed hearing from her. Your parents have been wonderful to our families for many years, including during my Bat Mitzvah in 1990. Maybe you don’t know about some of the people, like us, who are strong supporters of your parents, because we are more quiet than those who have hurt them. Knowing that time cannot be rewound, what would make things better for them now? Lots of love and understanding, Danielle Jaku-Greenfield

    • Adam Green says:

      We left behind who support and love your Parents ,and are also lost and devastated by such awful situation, Can only send our very best regards and best wishes to your parents for their future and may you all only know simchas and mitzvas and have lots of nachas for your whole family.

  19. John David Bevins says:

    Benzion is my friend. I am very saddened to read this.

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