Despite his unpopularity, and his presence being a financial threat to the existence of the synagogue , Chabad rabbi Benzion Milecki refuses to leave his post.
Last February the Australian Jewish News revealed that South Head Synagogue was reporting a $250,00.00 loss for 2016 and was facing liquidation closure. The synagogue has had reportedly been losing money for years with a declining membership and increasing debt. Synagogue programs, such as the choir, face elimination as cost saving measures to save the shul. One cut the synagogue wants to make is the removal of their unpopular but expensive Chabad rabbi, Benzion Milecki. In February, current South Head president James Hochroth was quoted saying:
“I’m not happy about the fact that the congregation has a lot of dissatisfaction and that we have lost members. I don’t know how long he will remain rabbi of our congregation. We can’t afford to keep our existing rabbi and bring in another rabbi.”
Conflicts between the South Head Synagogue members and Benzion Milecki go back as far as 2015. And the previous synagogue board wanted to bring in a younger (and less expensive) rabbi.
In 2016 half of the synagogue’s board members quit due to conflicts with Milecki. In the following synagogue election Hochroth was elected as the shul’s president.
Subsequently more than 100 members met to discuss the synagogues financial problems and their desire to remove Rabbi Milecki.
Rabbi Benzion Milecki refused to leave, and in January offered to take a 35% pay cut in exchange for being named the synagogue’s CEO, with additional terms giving him unprecedented power over the synagogue :
“I made a formal offer to donate 35 per cent of my current remuneration to help reduce our shul’s overhead, subject to certain conditions,” … “As part of my proposal, I would assume significant additional operational duties and responsibilities in addition to my rabbinical duties.”
In response South Head’s president, James Hochroth, said:
“In the heads of agreement for his proposal, he asked for a degree of control that no board could ever agree to: he asked to be appointed chief executive with the right to have the final say on all matters; and he wanted a five-year contract giving him these powers.”
Hochroth further described the “significant additional operational duties” the rabbi was looking to obtain over the synagogue:
“full control over all religious and administrative staff including their appointments, terms of appointment, responsibilities and salaries, budgeting, planning, financial management, expenditure both as to purpose and amount, fundraising, membership, categories of membership and membership dues and recovery”
In light of that description it appears that Milecki’s description of “certain conditions” and “significant additional operational duties and responsibilities” are sugarcoated half-truths. And the situation appears to be taking on the characteristics of the type of synagogue takeover attempts for which Chabad is becoming known. Milecki’s refusal to leave has placed him in a position of causing the synagogue excessive financial burdens which could, in a worst case scenario, force it to close.
On Thursday April 27, 2017Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported that the rabbi had been fired from his post:
An administrator brought in to save a Sydney synagogue has taken the extraordinary step of sacking its Rabbi after claims his wage was sending the congregation broke.
On Wednesday, an administrator was appointed to the South Head Synagogue at Rose Bay in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, the culmination of a dispute between the synagogue’s board of management and Rabbi Benzion Milecki.
For months the board had been pushing the Rabbi to retire to stem what it said was a decline in membership.
Shortly after the synagogue was placed into voluntary administration, three members each paid $500,000 to cover the synagogue’s overdraft, as its property was in danger of being sold off by their bank.
Yesterday, administrator Anthony Elkerton made the decision to “terminate the employment of Rabbi Milecki” because he said the congregation could not afford to pay him.
In a letter to members, synagogue president James Hochroth said the board had tried to negotiate with the Rabbi.
“He claims his contract gives him life tenure at our synagogue no matter what the [congregation] wants from their spiritual leader,” the statement said.
“The Rabbi made it clear he is not prepared to negotiate [stepping aside] or retire from his position.”
Rabbi cancelled board’s computer access, president claims
Mr Hochroth said the Rabbi was offered a fair and generous retirement package but was determined to remain in the pulpit.
“Rabbi Milecki was one of the highest paid Rabbis in Australia – terminating him will save a great deal of money,” he wrote.
The dispute which had been bubbling for months escalated last week over access to the synagogue’s information technology system called ShulCloud that controls newsletters and databases.
“The Rabbi terminated access to ShulCloud for your board, the administration and the Shule’s IT consultant,” Mr Hochroth said.
“We had to contact the software provider in New York and request them to restore everybody’s permissions.”
When the Rabbi again started terminating access, Mr Hochroth said the board responded by terminating the Rabbi’s access.
In February, the Rabbi offered to take a pay cut on the condition he was made chief executive of the synagogue.
A cached copy of the South Head Synagogue’s ‘About Us’ page from April 27, 2017 shows the names of Milecki and his wife serving as “Chief Rabbi” and “Rebbetzin” (an honorary title given to the wives of Chabad rabbis).
Rabbi Benzion Milecki OAM Chief Rabbi Ext 8 email@example.com
Rebbetzin Henya Milecki Rebbetzin Ext 7 firstname.lastname@example.org
Snapshot of the page as it appeared on Apr 27, 2017:
The current South Head Synagogue ‘About Us’ page has both the rabbi’s and his wife’s names removed from the South Head Synagogue staff lists:
The rabbi’s response was carried the following day, April 28th, on J-Wire:
“It is with deep sadness that I, together with the Rebbetzin, regret the need to make this statement.
For over thirty-two years we have devoted our lives, our souls and our family to South Head Synagogue and its members and friends.
We will we continue to do so. We will also continue to work for the viability of the shule even at our personal expense.
Last night, Mr James Hochroth wrote an announcement to the community containing many statements, including that my employment with the synagogue has been terminated with immediate effect. So as to promote dignified relations with the synagogue’s management and controllers, I am choosing not to respond here to many of the matters raised in the announcement – other than as follows with respect to my continuing role as Rabbi of the synagogue. I make this announcement for the congregation to be properly informed.
Today, my legal representatives have notified the synagogue’s legal representatives that I do not accept that there has been any valid termination of my employment and that I remain ready, willing and able to perform all of my obligations under my employment contract.
The response continues with a statement from the rabbi’s legal representative, attempting to justify Milecki’s refusal to leave; and, declaring that grounds for termination must be determined by halacha (Jewish law) in addition to civil law:
The Contract remains on foot
Please be on notice that our client does not accept that there has been any valid termination of our client’s contract of employment with the Synagogue (the Contract). The Notice of Purported Termination constitutes a repudiation of the Contract, in response to which our client hereby elects not to accept the repudiation but instead to keep the Contract on foot.
The Notice of Purported Termination is ineffective because it is in breach of the Contract for reasons including that:
(a) it is impermissibly retrospective; and
(b) our client’s engagement as Rabbi of the Synagogue cannot validly be terminated unless and until a properly constituted Din Torah has first determined in accordance with Orthodox Jewish Law that the termination of our client’s employment is justified on a ground recognised by the usages, customs, practices and traditions of Judaism.
Accordingly, the Synagogue and our client continue to be bound by the Contract. The parties’ rights and obligations under the Contract remain in force, respectively as applicable under the local civil laws in force in New South Wales and under Orthodox Jewish Law.
Please be on notice that no act or omission by our client, regarding the continuation or otherwise of his employment relationship with the Synagogue, should be taken as any acceptance of the purported termination. This includes any temporary absence from the Synagogue by our client or his refraining from officiating at the Synagogue, pending our client’s obtaining relief from a Court. Our client is and remains ready, willing and able to perform allof his obligations under the Contract in accordance with its terms.
Our client reserves his rights.
However, to date, no contract, stating that termination must be determined by a Jewish court (beit din) has been presented or reported upon. Nor has one that states that the rabbi is entitled to a lifetime tenure been produced. At this time it appears the Chabad rabbi is ‘digging his heels in’ while seeking control, and not leaving gracefully where he is not welcomed. The reports cited above make it very clear that he was offered ample opportunity to retire gracefully before he was fired.