Top Rabbi Resigns
Australian Jewish News February 3, 2012
THE president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia (ORA) has stepped down from the role after three-and-a-half years, ruing the disrespectful and antagonistic behaviour of some of his colleagues and criticising them for their apathy and lack of courtesy.
In a letter sent to members last Friday, Rabbi Dovid Freilich said he had already held the role at the Orthodox roof body for far longer than the two years he had intended when taking up the post in 2008, and now wanted to focus on his community in Perth.
“I accepted the position only because the Australian rabbinate had given so much to me and I appreciated the opportunity to give some service back to them in return.” However, the letter also referred to the sometimes fraught relationship between rabbis. “Simply because colleagues may not agree with each other’s views, this should not chas v’sholom lead to open antagonism, threats and blackmail. What type of example are we showing the ba’alei batim [laymen/congregants] from whom we expect respect, if we show no respect for each other?” Elaborating on his comments in an interview with The AJN this week, Rabbi Freilich said he had had personal experience of such hostility on certain occasions when he had taken it upon himself to represent the rabbinate.
“I was made to feel uncomfortable over statements that I felt were necessary to come out with,” he said, adding he now felt he was “persona non grata” among some of his colleagues, and that arguments during “turbulent times” had left him feeling “despondent”.
The letter also saw Rabbi Freilich lament the lack of response from members of the rabbinate when he had asked for suggestions in pre-yom tov newsletters. Stating he “rarely had the courtesy of a reply”, he said, “This was both disheartening, but also illustrated great apathy.” But it wasn’t all negative. Rabbi Freilich said that during his presidency he hoped he had raised the profile of ORA.
And announcing his successor, he described Rabbi Moshe Gutnick as “very capable and level-headed”, expressing no doubt “he would do an outstanding job”.
Paying tribute to his predecessor, Rabbi Gutnick said, “He is a respected senior colleague who I will continue to turn to for counsel and advice.” Looking ahead to his own term in office, Rabbi Gutnick added, “We are challenged both from within and without by the dual threat of radical secularism on the one hand and radical fundamentalism on the other.
Rabbi Gutnick went on to state his intention “to ensure that the authentic and at the same time tolerant voice of Judaism is heard loud and clear”.
“To that end, among other initiatives, I will be seeking to strengthen the voice of the rabbinate as well as strengthen our ties with the lay leadership of the community, especially with bodies such as the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.
“Our community must not only be united, it must be seen to be united, and in a united voice represent Judaism,” said Rabbi Gutnick.
Rabbinical Council of Victoria president Rabbi Yaakov Glasman also praised Rabbi Freilich as “an excellent ambassador for Australian Jewry”, adding, “He has never shied away from speaking out about the religious and ethical issues affecting our community and more importantly, he has done so with the giant heart that has so characterised him within his own community in Perth.” Rabbi Yosef Feldman, president of the Rabbinic Council of New South Wales, was unavailable for comment.
As he stepped down as president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia, Rabbi Dovid Freilich spoke to Zeddy Lawrence about the challenges he faced in the role, and the occasionally fraught relationship he experienced with the organisation's members.
"My father always held rabbis up with great esteem, as an honourable profession and wonderful people," recalled Rabbi Dovid Freilich this week after stepping down as president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia (ORA).
“I saw that and I felt that, and that`s why from the age of six, I always wanted to be a rabbi." After joining the rabbinate though, he said, “It wasn`t long before I saw that my father really didn`t know the full picture." Reading his resignation letter and hearing him reflect on some of his experiences as president of ORA, that picture becomes a little clearer.
The letter talks of “turbulent times" and laments a lack of respect that can exist between rabbis, which can lead to "open antagonism, threats and blackmail".
Nonetheless, Rabbi Freilich stressed it was "an honour and a privilege to serve all my colleagues", and expressed his hope that he had raised the profile of ORA "as an organisation which expresses unequivocally, intelligently and tactfully the Divine teachings of our Torah".
But in an interview with The AJN, he elaborated on some of those experiences that had left him “despondent" and "disillusioned".
The most recent incident was last winter when the mainstream press revealed the police were investigating claims of child abuse at Melbourne`s Yeshivah College in the 1980s and `90s, and spoke of a code of silence among the communal leadership.
The news sent shockwaves throughout Australian Jewry “I felt it needed a response immediately," said Rabbi Freilich. "I didn`t want the general public to think we were going to keep silent on this. I took the bull by the horns, I wrote a piece saying straight out this type of behaviour is not only unacceptable, it`s abhorrent and anybody who perpetrated such acts and anybody who covered up such acts should be immediately reported to the authorities.
“I thought it was a Kiddush Hashem. I thought I came out with a statement we should all support, and I got it out immediately. It shouldn`t have even been a thought." But when his statement was published, he only received two letters of support. The rest of the feedback was negative. “What really riled me was that I was questioned why I sent it out without consulting them, that I was somehow casting disfavour on certain sections of the community The ensuing arguments that engulfed rabbis across the country left him “disheartened". “I thought, I cannot go on with these colleagues." As with a previous incident, he said, “I was made to feel uncomfortable over statements that I felt were necessary to come out with." He did remain, however, to avoid media speculation that the rest of the rabbinate didn`t share his views on dealing with child abuse. “I didn`t want the general community even thinking that." Eventually, the rabbinic councils of both NSW and Victoria issued their own statements on child abuse, but the fact they did so highlights another potential danger noted in Rabbi Freilich`s resignation letter. “lt is ...extremely important that there is a clear definition of the roles of both the state rabbinic councils and that of ORA, for otherwise it can lead to different pronouncements, thus creating confusion in the wider community.
" Without “clear demarcation" of the different bodies` various roles", Rabbi Freilich told the AJN, it could leave ORA “redundant".
Asked about his comment on “antagonism, threats and blackmail`, Rabbi Freilich said it was deeply saddening "to see such disrespect from colleague to colleague`.
The reason for it he believed was “they’ve got their patches to protect and rather than seeing the wider picture of Yiddishkeit and what we have to achieve, they`re guarding their own authority, their own concerns." A further issue highlighted in his resignation letter is how some of his colleagues come across in public. “As rabbis. it is extremely important to know what to say and even sometimes more important what not to say. and indeed how to say it in order to be effective." he wrote.
Applying it to his own position, he told the AJN, that his colleague's advice was to announce, “Ayatollah - type statements or Taliban-type statements, because they have no idea how to put over a reasonable argument.
“You can`t tell the government you've got to do this because the Torah says so. You can`t tell Julia Gillard such and such a stance should be taken because this is written in the Bible. You have to put it over in an approach that appeals to the general public." ln short, he believes not everyone with the title “rabbi" is capable of being a spokesman for the community or a great leader, with many lacking the worldliness afforded by a university education.
Nonetheless. he praised the enthusiasm and ‘wonderful job" of all those who spread Yiddishkeit, “putting tefillin on people and making them do mitzvahs".
For all his concerns, ultimately Rabbi Freilich remained positive, stressing that “it is with a great sense of confidence and optimism that I hand over the mantel of the presidency" and that "I found it an honour and privilege to be given the opportunity to be president of ORA, and all in all, despite the frustrations, I believe that we have a very enthusiastic and dedicated rabbinate in Australia."