Monday, 5 Dec 2022

‘A time of turmoil’: Infighting over future of Melbourne’s largest Progressive synagogue

Key points

  • A group of dissidentshas called on members of the Temple Beth Israel board to resign amid claims the institution is in “turmoil”.
  • The board has accused the dissident group of “a concerted and increasingly sophisticated effort to sow disunity from within and undermine our community’s successes”.

Infighting has erupted over the future of one of Melbourne’s biggest Progressive synagogues, Temple Beth Israel in St Kilda, between the board and a group of disaffected senior religious leaders and former presidents.

The group of dissidents has called on members of the Temple Beth Israel board to resign amid claims the institution is in “turmoil”. But the board says the situation involves a “generational shift” in how the synagogue manages its affairs, including running an investigation into workplace bullying.

Temple Beth Israel in St Kilda.Credit:Joe Armao

Temple Beth Israel has been in the grip of conflict since last October, when Senior Rabbi Gersh Lazarow apologised for plagiarising parts of his sermon. Lazarow resigned last year but later retracted the resignation with board support, before leaving again.

In a message sent on June 29 and seen by The Age, the dissident group said the decision-making of the board indicated the synagogue needed a “fresh start”.

“This has been the saddest period in Temple Beth Israel’s history. It is indeed a time of turmoil,” the email said. “We need a fresh start. Many members of the present board should resign.”

The message was signed by Temple Beth Israel luminaries and emeritus rabbis Dr John Levi and Fred Morgan. It was also signed by former presidents Phyllis Dorey, health advocate Kathy Kaplan, Joe Lewit and Philip Mayers, lawyer and business owner Roger Mendelson, former Victorian Supreme Court judge Howard Nathan, QC, and Sam Sharman.

The message prompted the synagogue’s board of governance to reply last Friday, saying the congregation was “tired of the conflict and unsettling events that have been occurring within our community over the past year”.

The board accused the dissident group of “a concerted and increasingly sophisticated effort to sow disunity from within and undermine our community’s successes”.

It claimed the intention of the dissident email was to disrupt a workplace investigation conducted by an external law firm into allegations of bullying by a senior member of the clergy and that operational staff had resigned after being subjected to inappropriate “calls, harassment and confrontation”.

“The board has received numerous demands from the supporters of [the dissident group] to disregard legal advice in relation to the workplace allegations and immediately terminate the external investigation,” the board said.

“The truth is that TBI is facing a generational shift in how it deals with workplace matters and the standards to which our religious practitioners are held. We consider it is highly disingenuous for members of this group to agitate and engage in activities which, in the board’s view, have contributed to conflict and destabilisation at TBI, then present themselves as the solution to these very same problems.”

The board’s composition has changed in recent months, with some of the critical faction being invited to join. Temple Beth Israel will hold its annual general meeting in October, when the majority of board seats are up for election.

The dissident statement, which sought support from other members of the community, said decisions by the board had “polarised” the congregation.

“There has been a culture of secrecy under the guise of confidentiality … we can no longer remain quiet as we watch the situation go from bad to worse involving a number of people’s livelihoods and damaging our spiritual home,” the letter said.

“We are losing many members. A number of esteemed congregants say with deep emotion that they cannot set foot in the synagogue while this whole situation remains unresolved. Donations have dwindled.”

The board did not wish to comment.

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