A call for reform for the Sydney Beth Din

February 4, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The Working Group established by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in 2019 to inquire into and make recommendations regarding the administration, finances, governance, communal oversight and other matters concerning the Sydney Beth Din (SBD) has now brought down its final report.

Lesli Berger

The Working Group was established following a decision by Justice Sackar of the Supreme Court of NSW (upheld by a majority of the Court of  Appeal), which identified serious Governance issues relating to the SBD, including finding the senior religious leaders of the SBD  guilty of contempt of court.  This follows a crticism of the SBD’s threat to impose sanctions on a religious man involved in a commercial dispute who defied a Din Torah hearing by the Beth Din. That decision generated great consternation within the Jewish community according to The Working Group.

It is chaired by the The New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies president Lesli Berger, Rabbi Marcus Solomon SC,  Jacquie Seemann Charak and Philip Stern.

After conducting wide-ranging interviews with members of the Jewish community, Jewish clergy and the SBD itself, reading written submissions from these sources, and researching the practices and set-up of batei din overseas and in Victoria, the Working Group concluded that “substantive reform of the SBD is required for it to be restored to a position where it enjoys the support, confidence and respect of the community”.

The Working Group advertised in Jewish media in December 2019 for submissions from the general community and reports the grievances “were not a great many”.

The report’s recommendations are directed principally to the model and structure of the SBD.  Key recommendations include:

  • There should be a “restructuring” of the SBD providing for “the separation of the judicial and administrative functions of the SBD and credible mechanisms of governance and accountability”.
  • “The financial and organisational management of the SBD should be overseen by a lay committee that does not include the dayanim and is broadly representative of the Orthodox community – including by having women on the committee.  The Working Group regards this as fundamental to achieving a minimum level of appropriate governance and accountability.”

The report criticises the SBD’s “shambolic lack of administrative professionalism”, which it says “appears to be exacerbated by a lack of resourcing, but is not fully explained by that factor”.    It finds that these deficiencies are also “no doubt facilitated by a lack of accountability of the members of the SBD to anyone but themselves”.

The report also adds: “SBD had needlessly diminished the reputation of Judaism in the Jewish and broader community.”

The Working Group concludes: “This further reflects the critical need for a lay Board, separate from the dayanim, to whom the dayanim are accountable not for their Halachic decision making but for the efficient and timely performance of their tasks. Indeed, we think it fair to observe that the Rabbis would be greatly assisted by a Board who could relieve the Rabbis of administrative tasks for which they appear ill-equipped or grossly under resourced or possibly both.  This would permit the Rabbis to focus their attention on matters of Halachic expertise.  The Rabbis must be willing to relinquish these matters to others, and indeed should welcome such a development.”

Beyond these recommendations, which the report describes as “matters of broad principle”, the Working Group has made twelve recommendations about the SBD’s “operational and procedural aspects” relating to the training of dayanim and financing and resources among other issues.

Commenting on the report, NSWJBD President Lesli Berger said “I urge everyone in the Jewish community to read the whole  report.  The standing and reputation of the Sydney Beth Din are important to the whole Jewish community and not only to those who are religiously observant.”

He praised the members of the Working Group for undertaking “a difficult and thankless task”.

“The Working Group has conscientiously sought a way forward that will strengthen the Sydney Beth Din, which would be very much in its interests as well as the interests of the Jewish community as a whole”, Mr Berger said.    “It has taken meticulous care to hear from all interested parties and to consider all viewpoints.  In its analysis, conclusions, recommendations and overall tone the report is well-informed, measured and balanced.”

Rabbi Moshe Gutnick

The Sydney Beth Din’s Rabbi Moshe Gutnick responded to the report saying: “When the working group of the BOD was formed we were of the understanding, as was published in the media, that it was to be a collaborative effort to assist the Beth Din in its own efforts to introduce reforms to ensure the Beth Din achieved the highest standards of transparency and in particular to ensure that never again would the Beth Din be at odds with the civil jurisdiction.

On that basis we entered in good faith and readily cooperated. However it is now clear, that its workings were more about finding fault with the Beth Din, (including ludicrous suggestions even in relation to where it sits), rather than helping us. In our opinion, in order to try and impose or even suggest an agenda with reforms, that the committee knows are in our view against Halacha, and against the view of world renowned Dayanim  who advised us, and therefore cannot succeed, is not only not helpful and futile, but extremely divisive. Furthermore, some of them, if implemented, would lower our standing internationally.

We will not respond to each of the allegations and recommendations made in the report other than to point to the following. From the perspective of natural justice, we are only seeing many of them in the report for the first time.  We were not shown them, nor were we given the opportunity to test their veracity or bona-fides. We were not asked to give any submission in response to them. Hardly the basis of what was supposed to be co-operation and in our view hardly transparent, and hardly an example of procedural fairness .

The Beth Din had two important aims, (i) the incorporation of the Beth Din with a constitution and subsequent registration with the ACNC (which has now taken place) and (ii) the development of Rules of Procedure , that together would give complete transparency to all the workings of the Beth Din and ensure that never again would the Beth Din be placed at odds with the law – clearly our primary concern and that of the community.

On both counts, despite our requests starting from the very establishment of the committee, no practical assistance was forthcoming. The committee was focused on what it wanted and its agenda, rather than on what the Beth Din (and the community) needed.

We therefore sought and received the assistance of two communal leaders, both unimpeachable experts in the law, who assisted us. We are now incorporated and registered with the ACNC. We are still working on Rules of Procedure which will be forthcoming with the assistance of legal counsel. The Beth Din fully recognises its responsibility to Australian law and will achieve the absolute highest standards in that regard.

With the greatest respect for all the good the BOD does, let us be clear. The BOD is not a judicial or statutory body. It has no standing or jurisdiction other than that given to it by its affiliates or members, and the Beth Din is not and has never been one of them. It does not have the moral right or statutory power to conduct an inquiry into anyone let alone the Dayanim and the Beth Din, in the same way it has no jurisdiction to conduct an inquiry into any other organisation.

How much more so beyond the pale is it for the BOD to believe it has any jurisdiction whatsoever in the makeup or operation of a Beth Din or any say whatsoever in any halachic matter or halachic body. It is unfortunate that it did not recognise the limits of its jurisdiction, and it is unfortunate that we were mistaken in thinking they did, and that they were there to help. An opportunity for real collaboration has been lost.

The Beth Din will continue to serve the community achieving the highest Halachic standards as well as the highest standards in adherence to Australian law.”

Beth Dins in the USA and the U.K. join Melbourne in having an administrative board. In some cases, the boards have lay and rabbinical members.

J-Wire has learned that Sydney Beth Din has an annual revenue of less the $100,000 and the following are their standard fees:

$1050 for a regular Gett
$1150 for a Gett through an agent
$500 registration at the beginning of the conversion process
$500 at the end, the process takes about 2 years
$180 for marriage application
Rabbi Gutnick told J-Wire: “We will charge less if applicants are unable to pay the costs and all Getts are not conditional on payment.”
The rabbis serving on the Sydney Beth Din receive no payment.
The Sydney Beth Din registered its constitution at the beginning of October, 2020 and will be now compelled to make it finances public. The two other rabbis who sit on the Beth Din with Rabbi Gutnick are Rabbi Yehoram Ulman and Rabbi Michael Chriqui

Lesli Berger called on the community to give the report and its recommendations its backing.  “It deserves the support of all parts of the Jewish community, including the Sydney Beth Din itself.”

Comments

2 Responses to “A call for reform for the Sydney Beth Din”
  1. Leah Vasa says:

    Would it be reasonable to allow the religious to remain that way without too much judgment on them? As we say, it was not the Jews who kept Shabbes but Shabbes who kept the Jews. And would it be reasonable for the religious to release themselves from the obligation to hinder administrative progress? As we say, Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.

  2. Yoram Polovin says:

    The Rabbis on The Beth Din are out of touch both with the concept of good corporate governance and with the community,
    The assertion that The BOD has “ no jurisdiction over the Beth Din “ is not germane to this dispute

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