Challenge for the Rabbinate

February 26, 2015 by Romy Leibler
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In bygone days, the title of Rabbi commanded automatic respect and reverence. In modern times, respect has to be earned…writes Romy Leibler.

The Royal Commission into Child Abuse, including its precipitating events, has sadly exposed the many shortcomings of the Australian Rabbinate and diminished their standing in the eyes of the Jewish community. Regrettably, it took the force and scrutiny of a Royal Commission for some Rabbis to bemoan the lack of accountability and transparency in the Rabbinate.

Sadly for our community, one of the few shining lights within its ranks has departed in unfortunate circumstances. Rabbi Kluwgant was one of the few Rabbis who worked assiduously over the last 15 years to promote change and reform in the Rabbinate. I worked in tandem with him and one of our major successes was the restructuring of religious institutions such as the Melbourne Beth Din, which is now incorporated with a proper constitution and a communal body shareholder. His successor, Rabbi Franklin, has a huge task ahead of him to fill Rabbi Kluwgant’s shoes and reclaim the respect and relevance of the Australian Rabbinate in the wider community.

However, the task ahead of Rabbi Franklin is colossal. The damage, most of which is self-inflicted, will require courage and dedication to address.

When Rabbi Franklin assumed his new post, he requested a strong statement of support from the lay leadership of the Orthodox community for NORA, the New Organisation of Rabbis of Australia. Such support will be forthcoming conditional on obtaining the following commitment:

The Rabbinate through its federal and state Councils must implement true reform and restructure the institutions that service the needs of the Orthodox community .

But I also remind Rabbi Franklin that the Rabbinate will be judged by what it does, not what it says. If the Rabbinate is to derive any lessons from the Royal Commission, it is that the lack of communal governance, accountability, transparency and oversight led to many of the breakdowns exposed.

In the wake of the rapid unravelling of communal support for the Rabbinate, two timely opportunities have arisen for the Rabbinate to demonstrate its bona fides. To work in tandem with the lay leadership to restructure the Sydney Beth Din and help implement the recommendations of the Kashrut Commission of Inquiry (“KCI”), established by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.

Since the establishment of the Council of Orthodox Synagogues of NSW (COSNSW) and the national roof body, the Council of Orthodox Synagogues of Australia (COSA), countless meetings with the Rabbinate have heard our demands for reform, including with Rabbis Moshe Gutnick and Ulman of the Sydney Beth Din. To date, we have been met with nothing but obfuscation.

But this is no surprise. In 2012, the Rabbis of the Sydney Beth Din conceded that there was no constitution. This position was apparently justified on the basis that it had received halakhic opinions from Jerusalem that it meets “best practices”. So without a constitution, how are Dayanim appointed? The answer is self-evident.

In a similar vein, the KCI delivered a damning indictment on the NSW Kashrut Authority’s lack of communal governance and transparency.  The KCI‘s preferred outcome is a restructured NSW Kashrut Authority. Rabbi Gutnick would have halakhic responsibility and a communal board would assume financial and administrative responsibility.


Numerous efforts to mediate have occurred over the last year. At one stage, COSA and ORA were close to reaching an accord with Rabbi Gutnick where he agreed subject to his Board’s approval to incorporate with the COSNSW as the shareholder. The differences between the COSA/ORA proposal and the recommendations set out in the KCI report were minor.  However, once it became clear that Rabbi Gutnick withdrew his offer to incorporate and only offered the breadcrumb of a seat on his Board to be provided to the COSNSW and NSWJBD, it was evident that there was no possibility of achieving an outcome that would meet the minimum standards of communal governance required

But why are we at this impasse?

The level of suspicion and distrust among the Rabbinate and lay leadership of NSW is rife. However, any suggestion that the KCI report is a witch hunt designed to cobble Rabbi Gutnick has no basis. However, if Rabbi Gutnick fails to address the report’s findings, it would seem that he is willing to sabotage both his own interests and also those of the community by refusing to address the Report’s findings.

The silence of the Rabbinic Council of NSW in relation to the Beth Din and the NSW Kashrut Authority over the last decade has been deafening.

The challenge before the Rabbinate is to finally accept that the modern world has modern demands. Community institutions must be properly structured. Any responsible Rabbinate would endorse the demand that the Sydney Beth Din and the NSW Kashrut Authority come under the communal umbrella. Unless the Rabbinate takes urgent action, our community will continue to be exposed and embarrassed by our leadership and institutions. This is a time of reckoning for every Australian Rabbi and rabbinical organisation, from NORA to ORA and from the RCV to the RCNSW. If our Rabbis, under the leadership of Rabbi Franklin, continue to bury their heads in the sand, the Australian Rabbinate will spiral into irrelevancy.

Romy Leibler is the president of the Council of Orthodox Synagogues of Australia