On Thursday, April 27, South Head Synagogue announced the termination of Chabad rabbi, Benzion Milecki. In response, Milecki insisted that he would remain at his post. Statements from Milecki’s legal representative were also included in his response.
Conflicts between the South Head Synagogue members and Benzion Milecki go back as far as 2015. In this latest round, the synagogue board realize the threat he poses and have banned him from the synagogue premises. The banning was enforced over Shabbat with additional security guards stationed. The rabbi instead went to Coogee Synagogue, a Chabad-Lubavitch shul.
Additionally, three members of South Head Synagogue; President James Hochroth, Rodney Naumberger and Curtis Mann, have paid off the $1.5 million mortgage held by Wespac Banking. In doing so, they have effectively saved the synagogue from foreclosure. They also expect the move will reduce their expenses, even with the threat of expenses from legal battles with Benzion Milecki.
In their most recent update, J-Wire details the banning of Milecki from synagogue premises and the synagogue’s financial situation:
A letter terminating Rabbi Milecki’s employment reached him on Thursday afternoon and clearly stated he had no longer access to the synagogue.
A spokesman for the synagogue told J-Wire: “An hour or so later, he came to the synagogue, parked in the small employee car park, attended the daily service and gave a short d’var Torah between Mincha and Ma’ariv. On Friday the Administrator, through his lawyer, advised Rabbi Milecki that he needed to provide a written undertaking that he would not speak publicly in the synagogue or otherwise purport to be the continuing rabbi of the congregation and not park in the car park. Rabbi Milecki did not provide that undertaking and he was told that the Administrator would take appropriate steps to deal with the situation.
On Friday evening and Saturday morning, security guards were appointed by the administrator to join the synagogue’s normal CSG security.
Rabbi Milecki davened on Shabbat at Coogee Synagogue.
The bank debt of $1.5 million owing to Westpac has been replaced with three contributions made equally by three members of the synagogue…President James Hochroth, Rodney Naumberger and Curtis Mann. At the time of the appointment of the administrator J-Wire understands the synagogue had $50,000 in its account.
President James Hochroth told J-Wire: “We expect that, aside from the possible claims from Rabbi Milecki and related legal expenses, the synagogue will generate significant cash surpluses over the next few months.”
The article also cites a synagogue survey that points to Rabbi Milecki’s overwhelming unpopularity among the congregation. They recognize it as the cause of diminishing membership and project it will get worse without the removal of Milecki.
The congregation reached its highest level about 8-9 years ago with 1350 members. James Hochroth said: “We have lost about 30% of this total; the decline has accelerated over the past year. We now have about 850 members, perhaps a little fewer.”
A professional survey of members showed that approximately 72% of respondents put as their top priority the need for rabbinical renewal some calling for Rabbi Milecki to retire or leave, some wanting a younger rabbi and others wanting a rabbi not associated with Chabad. Some 5-8% of respondents expressed positive sentiments about Rabbi Milecki. In our view, the congregation was not divided but rather united, with some 8:1 or 10:1 wanting change.
James Hochroth added: “We asked whether members will stay with the synagogue over the next 12 months and we estimate that some 25-30% of congregants will leave the shul if there is no change within a fairly short period.
An additional survey was also conducted yielding the same results.
Only the latest in Chabad vs. other synagogue conflicts
The situation with South Head and Milecki is only the latest in Chabad vs. other synagogue conflicts worldwide. Similar articles have appeared recently reminiscent of stories about Chabad stealing synagogues from other sects and movements, or causing conflicts with other communities.
The phenomena has been observed enough that here is even a web site that is dedicated to the topic: chabadandstealingshuls.com
Not long ago JTA reported on a conflict between the Jewish community of Frankfurt and the local Chabad that makes use of it’s Westend Synagogue.
The umbrella group representing the Jewish community of Frankfurt is distancing itself from the city’s Chabad-Lubavitch chapter following a series of alleged instances of “disrespect” shown against local non-Chabad rabbis.
In an open letter published March 20, the Jewish Community of Frankfurt am Main group wrote that the city’s synagogues will no longer provide rooms for Chabad events. The letter cites “increasingly aggressive behavior” and “insults” from Chabad rabbis aimed at two local rabbis, Avichai Apel and Julian Chaim-Soussan.
Apel was hired as a replacement for Rabbi Menachem Halevi Klein, who retired in 2015 after heading the Orthodox Westend Synagogue for 21 years. The Chabad Frankfurt am Main chapter has been holding its services and housing its yeshiva in the Westend Synagogue.
“[It] appears, unfortunately, that one party [in the conflict] expected to be able to demand new roles within the community upon the retirement of Rabbi Klein,” read an editorial on the website Honestly Concerned, an Israel advocacy organization based in Frankfurt.
Among other things, Chabad leaders are accused of barring Apel and Chaim-Soussan from accessing the bimah on Purim and ignoring Apel at a public menorah lighting last Hanukkah.
Previously there was this story from The Forward, in which a Chabad rabbi and his followers were banned from the main synagogue in Lithuania.
In an escalation of the internal feud dividing Lithuanian Jews, the Chabad movement’s senior emissary to the country was banned from the capital city’s main synagogue.
Rabbi Sholem Ber Krinsky, who has lived in Vilnius for 22 years, was informed in an email Monday from the chairman of the Vilnius Jewish Religious Community that he could not set foot inside the Vilnius Choral Synagogue until he commits in writing to follow the synagogue’s “rules and order.”
The move follows a brief period of reconciliation following reports in November that guards hired by the community prevented Krinsky from entering the same synagogue.
“You do not pay attention to my oral and written request to comply with the orders and rules of our synagogue,” Shmuel Levin, the community chairman, wrote in the email to Krinsky, which the website Defending History about Lituanian Jewry published Monday.
As of Tuesday, Levin said, “you’re being banned from entering the synagogue for breaking its rules, namely showing disrespect to the rabbi of the synagogue.”
In this case there is some big money involved. Chabad viewed from the ‘money angle often generates a better understanding of their behavior.
Holocaust restitution money is supposed to heal wounds.
But the Lithuanian government’s payment of $40 million to the country’s small Jewish community has reopened a decades-long dispute between Lithuania’s Jewish leadership and a Chabad rabbi from Boston.
Arguments over the money have swelled into a debate about who better represents Lithuanian Jewry — a Hasidic rabbi from America, or a native community among whom identity is more important than religious observance.
Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, the 49-year-old nephew of an influential Lubavitch Hasidic leader, claims that after living in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius (formerly Vilna), for 22 years and serving the country’s Jewish community — running a religious school, overnight camps and holiday events, and presiding over circumcisions, bar mitzvahs and weddings — he is entitled to a portion of the restitution money.
Occurring in Vilnus (formerly Vilna) gives it another dimension. Vilna of course, being the namesake city of the Vilna Gaon, a stark opponent of the Alter Rebbe – Shneur Zalman of Liadi) and Chasidus in the wake of the Shabtai Tzvi false messiah fiasco. He is a highly respected rabbinical figure, and one that Chabad still bears a grudge against.