A Sydney synagogue may have to close because it is unable to sack its rabbi, the synagogue’s president says.
For 32 years, Benzion Milecki has served as the chief rabbi of the South Head and district synagogue, an orthodox congregation on Old South Head Road, Rose Bay.
But this year, the synagogue attempted to bring that relationship to an end.
Facing mounting financial difficulties, the synagogue’s management appointed administrators on April 26. A day later, those administrators wrote to Rabbi Milecki to tell him he had been made redundant.
However, Justice Paul Brereton of the Supreme Court found this week that, under his contract, the administrators could not sack Rabbi Milecki.
Rabbi Milecki’s contract meant his relationship with the synagogue was governed by halacha, or orthodox Jewish law. And halacha included hazakah, or life tenure, terminable only by a Jewish court for conduct contrary to tradition and religion.
“The rabbi’s contract includes hazakah,” wrote Justice Brereton. “The purported termination was therefore a wrongful dismissal.”
For the synagogue president James Hochroth, the decision could precipitate a sad outcome for a congregation of almost 1000 members.
“I fear that the synagogue will be closed soon and wound up,” Mr Hochroth said.
Mr Hochroth traced the synagogue’s difficulties in part to the debt burden of a building program a decade ago. In addition, high house prices and competition from other synagogues had led to declining membership.
“There was [also] an underlying issue that there were some people discontented with the rabbi,” Mr Hochroth said.
Mr Hochroth, who became president of the synagogue about a year ago, said he started to have discussions with Rabbi Milecki about reducing his salary late last year. According to the administrators, payments to or in respect of the rabbi were about $31,600 a month. Most of that, however, was not salary.
Mr Hochroth said Rabbi Milecki was open to a pay cut, but only if he could assume a chief executive’s control over the synagogue. Mr Hochroth rejected that idea.
“From the time I told him that we would not support that proposal, he increasingly came to regard me and the other members of the board as his enemies and we proceeded to fight about everything,” Mr Hochroth said.
Rabbi Milecki, who Fairfax Media made multiple attempts to contact, was later offered a financial settlement by the synagogue but, Mr Hochroth said, did not respond to the offer.
The synagogue then appointed administrators, who attempted to terminate Rabbi Milecki’s contract, and sought a court declaration they were able to do so.
Instead, however, Justice Brereton ruled the administrators could not terminate his services.
Mr Hochroth said attempts were being made to reach a settlement with Rabbi Milecki, but he was not confident that would happen.
“With the need to pay the rabbi his very high salary, on top of all the legal and administration costs … and the fact that the overwhelming majority of congregants don’t want the rabbi and won’t stay and won’t pay their bills while he is there, it is very hard to see how we can avoid liquidation while he is there,” Mr Hochroth said.
One of the administrators, Anthony Elkerton, said via email: “At the present time liquidation is the most likely outcome.”