A Rosh HaShana letter from Rabbi Milecki

September 6, 2018 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Why Didn’t You Take the Money and Run?…Rabbi Benzion Milecki answers to his former congregants…

Rabbi Benzion Milecki

With Rosh HaShana fast approaching, I ask your indulgence while I attempt to answer a critical question that many have been asking.

As I believe you are aware, just before Pesach 2017 (on 7 April) I was asked by the Board of South Head, through their lawyers, to agree to the termination of my Rabbinical contract on April 30th. Should I do so, I would receive a considerable sum of money. This offer remained open until 26 April, 2017 some nineteen days’ later.

The sum offered would be a lot of money in anyone’s book, so many congregants are puzzled as to why I didn’t take the money and run, or, if I felt it wasn’t sufficient (because, according to the Synagogue’s books and financial statements I was already owed quite a considerable amount in annual leave, long service leave and other entitlements) why didn’t I negotiate for a better financial settlement?

The reason is because, while we all certainly require money, there are things that are far more important: primary among them fulfilling our responsibilities to G-d. Therefore, for example, no matter how desperate we are for money, we must not work on Shabbos.

Similarly, a modern Rabbi is expected to do many things and has many responsibilities towards his congregation. This, however, does not take away from his primary responsibility towards G-d, which is to be the guardian of the Halachik standards and Orthodoxy of his congregation. This is why, although it is the congregation who appoints the Rabbi, the congregation cannot dismiss him unless he has publicly contravened the very Halacha that he has sworn to uphold.

In my case this was emphasised in a unique ruling by the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe, as you know, had unbounded love, and absolute concern, for the welfare of each and every Jew no matter where in the world he or she lived. And although Sydney is a world away, the Rebbe cared deeply about the Orthodoxy of South Head Synagogue. When former President Nick Gardos travelled to the Rebbe to ask for a personal blessing for a member of his family, the Rebbe first blessed him concerning South Head, saying “You should be happy with your Rabbi, and your Rabbi should be happy with you, and together you will build a good Kehilla”. Indeed, until the sad events of 2016 and 2017 it was widely acknowledged by the general community that we were one of the most dynamic and successful Kehillot in Sydney.

Referring to me, the Rebbe wrote a letter in his holy handwriting (pictured below) which translates as: “You must do everything, to the greatest possible extent – so that HaRav Milecki shlita continues with certainty his Rabbinical appointment and the Synagogue continues to be Orthodox.”

It may not be obvious to those unfamiliar with the Rebbe’s style, but this letter, written some thirty years ago, is unique for its triple emphasis. 1) You must do everything; 2) to the greatest possible extent; 3) so that HaRav Milecki shlita continues with certainty.

We are living in a very secular society where any form of authority is shunned and personal autonomy is valued above all else. This is a world-view at total odds with Judaism where the Master-Disciple relationship is so cherished that our entire Oral Tradition is based upon it. Indeed, the greatest Talmudic Rabbis would take great pride in never having said anything that they had not heard from their Rabbis.

While the above is a stringency that not everyone is capable of adopting, it would be a very brave disciple who did not take the explicit words of his Master very, very seriously. From well before my appointment to the South Head Rabbinate, I have never hidden the fact that I am a disciple of my Master, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Although its harbour is magnificent and its weather unique, this is not why Rebbetzin Henya and I brought our family to live in Sydney. Like thousands of Shluchim throughout the world, we left our families to come here as Shluchim – emissaries – of the Rebbe. It is also the reason that we felt duty-bound to remain at our post as the guardians of the Synagogue’s Orthodoxy.

Although I am sure that most people appreciate the Rebbe’s greatness and the revolution in Jewish life that he fostered throughout the world, there may be some who will say, “that’s OK for you Rabbi, but we are not disciples of the Rebbe, and are not obliged to follow his direction, so if we didn’t want you, why didn’t you just go?” That may have been a valid complaint if I was asserting a right that I didn’t have according to Halacha. But as explained above, according to Halacha a congregation cannot unilaterally break off their relationship with their Rabbi. This is not merely because of a contractual agreement. It is Jewish Law – Halacha – and pertains as long as a properly constituted Beth Din does not rule otherwise. The contract merely reinforces the Halacha.

Although we are indeed fortunate to live in a wonderful country, with independent judicial processes, these do not replace our religious laws. Were a Court to rule that Jews must work on Shabbat, eat certain non-kosher foods, refrain from circumcising their sons, etc. this would be an intolerable infringement of religious rights. Indeed concerning Justice Brereton’s statement, “of course, the Rabbi has Hazakah, as an aspect of Halacha”, the Court of Appeal ruled, “That is no doubt a correct statement of the position under Orthodox Jewish law. However, the relevant enquiry is whether a provision giving the Rabbi life tenure is to be included in a contract with a Company enforceable under Australian law.”  Although the Court interpreted the contract to mean that the “religious obligations arising from the relationship between the congregation and its Rabbi under Orthodox Jewish law” “are not enforceable under the contract” in Australian law, this has no bearing on the religious and spiritual relationship or the religious and spiritual responsibilities that flow from it. The Court acknowledges these to be beyond its purview.

If, in spite of what I have written above, there are those who still feel that Halacha and the Lubavitcher Rebbe had too much influence – as I believe was being suggested by those who put together last year’s survey – I would ask them to consider the following. As emphasised in each instance below, we endeavoured to do our work with the total devotion that the Rebbe demanded of his emissaries.

a) For thirty-two years our home was not only open to our congregation, but an actual extension of the shule. As an example, the Rebbetzin spent two days of almost every week, sometimes many more, preparing and cooking for congregants invited to our home, often in preparation for a Simcha in their family. This conduct, influenced by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, was unprecedented by any Rabbi or Rebbetzin of a major Sydney synagogue (although later on other Rabbis followed suit.)

b) Not only did the Rebbetzin do this without any pay whatsoever for almost two decades, but until 1991 the vast majority of this massive amount of entertainment expenditure was paid from our own pockets. This too was unprecedented by any Rabbi or Rebbetzin of a major Sydney synagogue and influenced by the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

c) Under the influence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbetzin took upon herself the mantle of sick-visiting, function-organisation, support of families in need, Bat-Mitzvah coaching, individual counselling and many other tasks – none of which she had any obligation to do. (Unfortunately, other Rebbetzins were unfairly and unfavourably compared to her.)

d) Under the influence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who believed in disseminating Judaism through any and all means possible, including the latest technology, I took upon myself the organisation and administration of the Synagogue office, establishment of modern databases and processes, publication of Sydney’s first electronic Synagogue email, establishment of Sydney’s first Synagogue Website and fund-raising well beyond that done by any other congregational rabbi, none of which I was obliged to do.

e) Under the influence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I established, and fund-raised for, the first fully structured and organised children and youth programmes of any mainstream Synagogue in Sydney.

f) Under the influence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I organized and lectured at what became the biggest and most successful Adult Education programme of any Synagogue in Australia, and one of the biggest in the world, usually attracting between 80 and 100 students for each six-week course.

g) Under the influence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I encouraged the building of the South Head Mikveh, and with Dr Sam Friedman fund-raised the majority of its establishment and running costs. The Mikveh catered to over 100 women a month – an amazing number for a community in Sydney.

h) Under the influence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I painstakingly established, collected and organized a Jewish library that is an amazing resource for anyone who wishes to delve into the depths of our Torah, history, philosophy and traditions.

Although I could continue, the point is not self-aggrandizement but to demonstrate that everything we have ever done, the vast majority of which was appreciated by the vast majority of congregants, was as an emissary and under the influence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And it’s the same Lubavitcher Rebbe who tasked me with continuing as the Rav and the guardian of the Orthodoxy of the Synagogue.

It’s the same Rebbe who wanted us to love, care for and extend ourselves to each and every one of you. And so in service of, and to celebrate with, you and your families, who we believed were our extended family, we missed nearly every one of the Bar and Bat Mitzvas and Weddings of our nieces and nephews.

It’s also the same Lubavitcher Rebbe whose prescience – I would call it prophecy – has been demonstrated time and again. Whether it was his open prediction of a) Israel’s victory during the Six Day War when so many Jews and Jewish leaders were worried sick about the possibility of a second Holocaust (G-d forbid); b) the peaceful mass immigration of Soviet Jewry after seven decades of oppression before anyone even dreamt it possible, c) the exceptional safety of Israel during the Gulf War when Jewish groups and leaders were issuing travel advisories to stay away, d) the safety and security of South Africa in spite of endless predictions that it would collapse into utter chaos (over the past few months two of my nieces and their husbands and families have been sent to South Africa as Chabad Emissaries).

It is because of the Rebbe’s unlimited love of the Jewish people no matter where in the world they lived, his love of the Israel, his respect for humanity, his uncanny prescience, his positivity in the face of adversity, and his unbounded activism that so many people, from leaders of industry and commerce, to Israeli military leaders, to Presidents and Prime Ministers, to rabbis and educators, to ordinary Jews and non-Jews, sought the Rebbe’s advice and guidance.

Is it any wonder that we take the Rebbe’s words so seriously?

Both the Rebbetzin and I have loved and prayed for our congregants for thirty-two years (thirty-two is “Lev” – heart – in Hebrew). The pain we have suffered for the past one and a half years is almost unbearable. Whether you agree with us or not, we fail to understand how a community, to whose members we have given so much, and whose pain we have sought to mitigate (as even confirmed by those who are presently suing us for defamation) can stand by and watch us suffer.

Indeed, writing to me after the passing of my late father in August 2016 Mr. Curtis Mann, recalling our support after the tragic passing of his brother, wrote: “All I know is that you have always been a tower of strength in our families (sic) time of need and I just wish that I could give a big hug and try and absorb some of your pain. I wish you and your family only good things.”

Similarly, in an email to me, and in a talk in Shule on June 9, 2016, James Hochroth wrote and said:

“He (Rabbi Milecki) understands well the importance of establishing close, personal connections with our congregants – he often speaks movingly in shul to bar mitzvah and aufruf celebrants, and also at funerals, and cares about all of us. He is also a mensch. My mother died in New York in 2007. He knew her a bit – she had come to my two sons’ bar mitzvahs and visited Australia regularly – and he spoke nicely about her at a shloshim service here.  Nine months later I arranged to go to New York for the consecration – they call it an unveiling there – I found out that R Milecki was going to be in Brooklyn on holiday at that time.  I asked him to come and officiate at the cemetery, which he and Henya did happily and he spoke sensitively about my mother and my whole family was grateful.”

True, sacrifice for Jewish values is in our blood. At a time when many succumbed, the Rebbetzin’s two grandfathers literally gave their lives to establish Judaism under Soviet rule. In the case of her mother’s father, it was, unbelievably, a troika of Jewish communists who pronounced the death sentence. Nevertheless, sacrifice is not something that we relish. To be quite clear, although we were prepared to fight and sacrifice to maintain our Rabbinic position at South Head in accordance with Halacha and the express will of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, we are certainly not celebrating our potential financial ruin through a) the substantial amount of court costs (half being our own and a possibly equivalent sum awarded against us for mounting a legal defence against my dismissal by the Administrator); b) the defamation law suits brought against us by Messrs. Hochroth, Mann and Naumburger, for letters we wrote to the community and on JWire in which we spiritedly defended what we considered defamatory statements against us (we too had strong legal grounds to bring suit against several members of the community for defamatory articles that were published on JWire, on social media and in emails, yet felt it unbecoming, let alone against Halacha, to do so); c) the withholding of back pay and entitlements (as listed in the Synagogue’s financials and in emails to me by the former treasurer Mr. Ian Charif) of about a half a million dollars and a reasonable amount of compensation for my dismissal (especially as it appears from Federal Court documents that it is the Administrator’s intention not to honour them).

We cannot believe that our cries from the pain and suffering that we have suffered, and are still suffering, after so many years of dedicated service will not be heard on High by G-d.

At the same time, we are not unaware of the difficulties facing our old South Head community and its desire to move forward.

Although a Shliach of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, I am a mere human being, and very far from being an angel. It is therefore possible that I have erred in my understanding of my role and responsibilities. I may have also over-reached although (as I have written in the past) I was prepared to give up the vast majority of my Rabbinic responsibilities and limit my role to Halachik guidance and Adult Education.

It is because of our pain and your pain, and the possibility of errors on either or both sides, that I have said from the very beginning that the way to settle this dispute is through a properly constituted Beth Din. The Torah calls a properly constituted Beth Din by the name of G-d – Elokim – and considers the judgement issued by them the word of G-d.

The Talmud – the source of Jewish Orthodoxy – intimates that settling an unresolvable matter between Jews before Beth Din is a sanctification of G-d’s Name. Surely it behoves an Orthodox Rabbi and an Orthodox congregation to act in accordance with Orthodoxy.

We do not wish to take what doesn’t belong to us, nor do we believe that our community wishes to deprive us of what is rightfully ours. As the Rabbi whom you trusted to lead you for thirty-two years, I have a duty to ask that we all follow the word of G-d as expressed in Orthodox Halacha and settle matters between us in Beth Din.

We of course would have wished to continue in the mission that the Rebbe gave us, the purpose of our lives. We would have wanted nothing more than to lead our community to greet Moshiach, whose arrival is imminent. We would have been honoured if you would have enabled us to do so. But if it has been decreed from Above that this not be so, we needed to be sure that we had done everything, to the greatest possible extent, to carry out our mission.

As we prepare to stand before the Mountain of G-d as He judges us on Rosh HaShana let us ensure, as King David exhorts us in the Psalm we recite on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur nights, that our hearts are pure and our hands are clean, and that we have neither lied nor misled. That is the only way to receive G-d’s blessings that we be written and sealed for a good and sweet year.

With heartfelt prayers and blessings, Rebbetzin Henya and I wish  that each and every one of you, and all your families, be written and sealed for a good and sweet year of health, prosperity, nachas from your families and the fulfillment of all your lives’ missions, up to and including our ultimate mission, the revelation of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.

Rabbi Benzion Milecki


2 Responses to “A Rosh HaShana letter from Rabbi Milecki”
  1. Bruce Cooke says:

    Please G-D R Milecki will have a refuah shlamer

  2. Sean Krauss says:

    The Rabbi is under the influence it seems!!

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