Rabbi Milecki responds to Alan Wahlhaus

July 4, 2017 by  
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The spiritual leader of Sydney’s South Head Synagogue responds to two letters to J-Wire from member Alan Wahlaus last week…

In response to Letter to the Editor by Alan Wahlhaus:

Rabbi Benzion Milecki

1) Mr Wahlhaus should be honest and confess that his animosity towards me is nothing new. While on the Board some thirty years ago he tried to have me dismissed, and when he failed left. He has never tired of finding fault in me. 

2) Mr Wahlhaus tried to make an issue of the manner in which I lead services for Neila a number of years ago. He claimed then, as he does now, that the issue was that I davened according to Chabad custom. It was explained to him then that the way I lead services for Neila has nothing to do with Chabad custom. During Neila we say “Hashemite, Hashem El Erech Apayim…” a number of times. Mr Wahlhaus insisted that Ashkenazi custom was to say it seven times. This is not correct.  Some Ashkenazi communities say it seven times, some three, some once. Indeed the original custom in the United Synagogue after which our Synagogue is modeled suggested once.  Moreover,  the codifiers say that the number of times is decided by the Chazan dependent on the time available. I would vary the number of times from year to year to ensure that we concluded Neila in time, as is the correct thing to do.  

Here is an extract from the Board minutes of 19th November 2013 in response to a disrespectful letter written by Mr Wahlhaus:
“Rabbi Milecki noted that he davened Ashkenaz Nusach.  What Rabbi Milecki didn’t do was to say all of the “Vayavor…El erect apayim”s.  People who understand Nushach know that there is a difference between Nusach and Piyutim (communal hymns).  On all Yom Tovim there were extra Pyutim, in many cases going back well over a millennium, which differed substantially from community to community, even those which prayed in the same Nusach.   In recent times, standardised siddurim were produced leading people to falsely believe that that Piyutim were an essential part of Nusach.  Just because Artscroll does it a certain way does not mean that that is standard to all Nusach Ashkenaz.  As an example Rabbi Milecki showed a leather bound 140 year-old English machzor, which states in Ne’ilah there are three (3) “Vayavor”s.  Rabbi Milecki also showed the machzor Rabbi Sacks just put out which stated there are many different customs when it come so to “Vayavor” – some say one, others three, seven, ten, thirteen, etc This machzor adds the rule is that each community follows its own custom.  Rabbi Milecki also looked at the old Herman Adler machzor, used in the United Synagogue after which our Synagogue is modelled, and this states that only one need be said during Ne’ilah.    And this is also backed up by quotes from Rashi, in his city of Troys, France which Rabbi Milecki read out to the Board. Bottom line: There is not one Ashkenaz custom.
Rabbi Milecki noted when he first came to the shul there was no Artscroll, they used Birnbaum, Singer and other older generation Hebrew maczhros which originated in Europe.  Rabbi Milecki introduced the Artscroll Siddur.  The Hertz Chumash was also in use in those days, and Rabbi Milecki also introduced the Artscroll Chumash.  Rabbi Milecki didn’t introduce the Artscroll to change the minhag, but because it was easier to use, and in any event the Artscroll is not a prescription for minhag.
William Maynard thanked Rabbi Milecki for preparing the formal response he presented.  William Maynard is grateful for Rabbi Milecki’s comments to explain Ne’ilah as this has cleared the issue up for him.  William Maynard stated we all value Rabbi Milecki as a leader and educator.  William Maynard thanked Rabbi Milecki for what he has done, for his full answer and explanation.
Garry Lavan noted his support for what Rabbi Milecki has said. 
Roger Kaye endorsed what William Maynard has said and he thanked Rabbi Milecki for the full explanation. 
During the Board discussion there was severe criticism of the tenor of Mr Wahlhaus’ letter and its disrespect towards me by members of the Board. In respect of both the Board members and Mr Alan Wahlhaus, I have not quoted these critical comments here.

3) Mr Wahlhaus also makes an issue of singing Hatikvah in shule. When I first came to South Head, Hatikvah was not sung in shule. Nor had it ever been sung in Shule at the time of my predecessor or those who preceded him. I am therefore very surprised that Mr Wahlhaus who from his concern about Neila seems to be a stickler for Nusach, would want to change the custom of the shule in such a dramatic way. 

When I was asked about singing HaTikvah several years ago, I responded that I was more than happy for Hatikvah to be sung in the Synagogue Hall. I however explained that shule is a place where G-d’s praises are sung and thanksgiving to Him offered. HaTikvah, as beautiful as it is, speaks not of G-d at all and as such it is not appropriate in the Synagogue. Indeed, there are many Synagogues, both here and in Israel, including Rabbi Blackman’s local JLC who no one would accuse of being either Chabad or non-Zionist, where HaTikvah is not sung at any part of the service, for the reason stated above. 
Nevertheless, in recent years when people asked that HaTikvah be sung, not wishing this to become a source of communal friction, I said that although it was not part of the official service, I would have no objection if people sang it spontaneously, as indeed occurred on several occasions.
4) Alan Wahlhaus mentions a letter of the Rebbe concerning my role in the Synagogue. It is entirely disingenuous of him to claim that either the Rebbe or I had any interest but the shule’s foremost in our minds. In the Rebbe’s letter, he expresses concern not for Chabad but for our Synagogue. He asks that I do everything possible to ensure that “the Synagogue continues to be Orthodox”. Not Chabad, Mr Wahlhaus, Orthodox! The Rebbe cared, and inspired his emissaries to care, about all Jews, Chabad or otherwise! Misrepresenting his position or mine, is at best misleading. Anyone who has travelled around the world knows this, as do most members of our community who have witnessed our 32 years of service for a community which is not Chabad.
5) I have responded to Mr Wahlhaus’ letter at length several days after it was published in at attempt to clear my good name with facts. I ask readers to note that just as I have responded to his email with matters of fact, I could have responded with even stronger evidentiary material to the many baseless accusations that have been hurled against me in various emails and in the press. The main reason I have not done so is because I have hoped against hope, based on a famous letter by the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, that a conciliatory approach would prevail. All my talks in the shule since my return have been similarly conciliatory. May Hashem have mercy on us all, give us strength and bless us with peace.

Rabbi Benzion Milecki OAM
South Head Synagogue


5 Responses to “Rabbi Milecki responds to Alan Wahlhaus”
  1. Jock Orkin says:

    Why doesn’t the shul call in the Australian Electoral Commission asap to arrange a vote on whether the Rabbi shuold remain on in his position ?

  2. Ira Seidenstein says:

    I only heard about the tumult at South Head in recent weeks via the press. I am thankful for the Rabbi’s words and that you have made them available.

  3. Jackie Davidson says:

    Brilliant reply by the Rabbi.
    But he should allow rabbinic renewal to take place by stepping down as suggested in The AJN last week.

  4. Ian Katz says:

    There are lots of different nusachim and lots of chasidic groups. Hard to understand why some get excited by the number of chants of a prayer during ne ilah

    • Jodi Kofsky says:

      It can make it very difficult to follow the service Ian, especially if you do not know that a difference nusach is being used. This can be disconcerting at any time, but particularly at Neilah which is arguably the most intense and charged davening of all.

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