Friday, July 14, 2006

A fair go for Rabbi Feldman - From the Archives



OVER the years there has been much more that I have disagreed with Rabbi Pinchus Feldman about than we have agreed about.

I am not a Chabadnik and I am sure my degree of religious observance, though more or less satisfactory to me, would leave much that is desired by adherents of Lubavitch.

But my arguments with Rabbi Feldman have not been about religion, but about money, administration and communal responsibility in running his Yeshiva institutions — and his failure to carry out needed reforms in their conduct.

On the other hand, because I applaud Chabad’s extraordinary service to Jewish rebirth in the wake of the greatest of all disasters for our people, I spent a great deal of time and effort in the ’90s trying to help the Yeshiva through its difficulties at that time.

I found Rabbi Feldman extraordinarily difficult to persuade to change his ways of spending the significant funds he raised.

And when I failed to bring about the administrative and financial controls I thought necessary, he and I did not talk for about three years, not least because I could not see the point of a struggle I had ignominiously lost.

However, if I did not always approve of his governance, I have always supported what Rabbi Feldman was trying to do in Jewish terms.

Whatever my misgivings about his priorities, nothing has prevented me acknowledging and admiring much of what he has achieved.

Denunciations of Rabbi Feldman during and after the litigation with Joseph Gutnick, almost reaching hysteria, were unfair. People can feel aggrieved at the fall of the Yeshiva’s institutions, but it is wrong to blame all this on Rabbi Feldman.

I specifically reject the assertion that the Yeshiva empire collapsed because anyone rifled the till.

Millions of us respected the saintliness, knowledge and leadership of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Rebbe. On the other hand, I do not accept, as many adherents of Chabad advocate, that he had a special line to God.

In three full audiences, the Rebbe and I discussed matters affecting the Jewish world, Jews as a people and individually, Israel and him and me personally. He repeatedly denied fostering or believing in his divine connection. He also disavowed interest in the “super-guy” status that many followers have bestowed upon him.

At one stage, some of his followers were gung-ho about his imminent resurrection as the Messiah — something the Rebbe thought absurd. Why he could not convey this to his followers I do not know. And why a successor has not been appointed to head the House of Lubavitch has not been explained, except in unrealistic terms.

The spiritual health of our people seems to demand that this situation be addressed if the exciting aspects of the Rebbe’s inspiration are to continue in a modern incarnation.

Nor do I accept and, as I understood him, neither did he, that it is appropriate for adherents of this sect to interfere in the Israeli political scene. He opposed funding parties or leaders as a reflection of his beliefs.

The Rebbe told me he accepted that religion and politics are separate. His exception was that if Israel was to reject the Jewish faith, he would feel duty-bound to do his best to prevent it.

But then Israel would not exist as we know it. And with that one exception, the Rebbe unconditionally forbade his adherents in Israel to officially engage in politics.

Just as with the stories about Rabbi Feldman, much fiction has emerged about these matters. They should not be allowed to derogate from the unarguable fact that Rabbi Schneerson made a major, possibly the single most significant, contribution to Jewish spiritual recovery after the Holocaust and into the modern generation.

Through his “Mission to the Jews”, he played a decisive role in leading a post-disaster rediscovery of the Jewish soul and in inspiring so many to follow his vision.

Not only was the Rebbe one of the world’s leading Jewish scholars, but he was able to influence thousands of rabbis to leave their families to take on the task of building communities.

Under his leadership 2700 branches of Chabad have been established.

From Estonia to Japan, Siberia to Uruguay, shlichim have been developing education, outreach, Jewish awareness, crisis intervention, children’s and adults’ programs, summer camps and community activities.

One of the Rebbe’s protégés was Rabbi Feldman, whose shlichut in Sydney, given to him by the Rebbe and carried out under his auspices, was to introduce and entrench these principles and activities here.

Rabbi Feldman was an only child, so when he left his parents in Baltimore, it must have been an enormous wrench. Yet for four decades the Rebbe’s personality and concepts drove Rabbi Feldman’s activities in Sydney.

I was as sorry as everyone that the community was dragged into the spectacle of two rabbis, not to mention brothers-in-law, scrapping in a courtroom like disenchanted lovers, spending money on lawyers which would have been much better spent providing services to needy Jews.

Here was one rabbi threatening to close Jewish schools, a synagogue and many other commmunal endeavours in order to recover moneys provided by Jewish people to help build them in the first place, while another was taking out an injunction to stop it.

My only observation is that if rabbis do not take their disputes to a beth din or other din Torah, how can the religious establishment expect the rest of us to do so?

Part of this religious establishment was the Tel Aviv Rabbinical Court which, at Rabbi Feldman’s instigation, attempted to force Joseph Gutnick to submit the dispute to a din Torah.

The Tel Aviv court excommunicated him for his refusal to submit to a rabbinical court. Other rabbinical courts in Israel took up this position.

The excommunication was lifted only when Rabbi Feldman was under threat of jail for contempt of court at the instance of Joseph Gutnick because, as I understood the argument, the Tel Aviv court held that religious law must prevail and that the matter be dealt with by din Torah and not submitted to the open and costly scrutiny of the secular courts.

I thought punishment of Jews was a matter for God. I did not know that Judaism had excommunication in its punitive armoury. Fancy the excommunication of an Orthodox rabbi! Fancy a rabbi facing prison for defending institutions he had spent his life building. None of these disgraceful events should have occurred.

I have no idea who, if anyone, was to blame for this and do not seek to defend or castigate either of the parties regarding the substance of their recent disputes, but if their equivalent happened between a divorcing couple, it would have been described as childish vindictiveness on both sides.

There simply must have been another way to resolve them, even if the result had been the same.

However, the collapse of the Yeshiva institutions should not prevent fair recognition of Rabbi Feldman’s significant service to the community.

When he arrived from the US in 1968, our community was, by comparison to today, Jewishly insular, uninspired and predictable.

There have been many changes, mostly for the better. Rabbi Feldman has not been the only contributor, but he has been a significant one, pioneering an Australian version of the Rebbe’s “Mission to the Jews”, including:

• a large primary school;

• boys’ and girls’ high schools;

• several kindergartens;

• Chanukah celebrations which attracted tens of thousands;

• a travelling succah;

• mobile matzah-baking factories;

• facilitating a single kashrut authority;

• a broader range of kosher food and food outlets;

• an almost endless availability of shiurim;

• major initiatives for women;

• establishment of synagogues, Chabad houses and crisis centres such as The Jewish House;

• tourist and migrant services;

• the welcoming into Judaism of Soviet migrants;

• services for thousands of Israelis completing army service, 350 of whom participated in the recent seder provided by the Yeshiva;

• training 500 rabbis, 200 of whom occupy pulpits around the world, including the majority of pulpits in NSW and Queensland;

• Camp Gan Israel holiday camps; and

• Jewish learning for thousands of children who otherwise would not have had any Jewish identity.

These achievements are not all Rabbi Feldman’s, but his presence was the drive behind most of them.

It is a story of prodigious success, deserving of recognition, even praise, not denigration and ostracism. It is also very much to Rabbi Feldman’s credit that he was able to build a substantial support base of followers.

His wife and family also threw themselves into the task. I have known Pnina Feldman since we were children. Her revered father, Rabbi Chaim Gutnick (who must have died with a shattered heart), and grandfather, Rabbi Osher Abramson, were my teachers in Hebrew School.

Pnina Feldman may not endear herself to everyone, a fate she shares with many who achieve results by not always passive or diplomatic means.

But to fail to acknowledge that supporting her husband’s herculean work, and building many aspects of it herself, did not amount to a communally beneficial achievement of no mean order, simply because you do not always like her method or manner, is unfair in the extreme.

Yes, there were substantial downsides. Few have argued with Rabbi Feldman as vigorously as I have.

That Jewish studies teachers received free or heavily subsidised schooling for large numbers of children as if they were needy when they, and sometimes their spouses too, were in regular employment.

That taxes were not always paid when due, notwithstanding extenuating circumstances the Yeshiva faced.

That despite the efforts of many, not least Harry Triguboff and myself, the Yeshiva defied communalisation and reconstruction and the wresting of the reins of financial administration away from Rabbi Feldman.

It was wrong that some families, especially former Russians earning income, paid no or minimal fees for education while others who were far from wealthy paid full fees.

I was also distressed to read that staff were not always paid, when no doubt they had mortgages to pay and children of their own to educate.

Rabbi Feldman raised and spent very large sums, running into many tens of millions of dollars, on providing communal services and facilities.

The people who gave him most of the money were not dupes. People like Harry Triguboff, Paul Kornmehl, Joseph Brender, the Harkham family, Larry and Rodney Adler, Richard Scheinberg, plus Joseph Gutnick, could hardly be described as pushovers whom Pinchus and Pnina Feldman wowed into submission with matzah balls and chopped-liver charm.

These are tough guys to whom gefilte fish was not some inspirational aphrodisiac or biblically-generated Viagra energising religious belief.

I think I read that Joseph Gutnick put his money in the Yeshiva as an investment. I do not know whether the other benefactors had a like motivation for their generosity, but if they did, they must have seen other accounts than I did. Nothing I saw in the Yeshiva books suggested that giving money to the Feldman mission was likely to be financially profitable, except perhaps to buy a frequent flyer seat to, or five-star reception in, the kingdom to come.

No. Pinchus Feldman had a vision. He saw Sydney Jews coming, if not flocking, to Jewish adherence by reason of the multifarious opportunities he and his followers were offering.

You can agree or not with this vision, and you can criticise his crash-through or crash philosophy in implementing it, but that is what he sold to generous Jews who were in the main (with Joseph Gutnick a distinguished exception) not adherents of, or natural recruits to, his flock or religious beliefs.

And he attracted large numbers of not-so-wealthy Jews seeking a distinctive Jewish identity for themselves and their families. All that makes the suggestion that the Feldmans raided these funds for their own benefit, or for Pnina’s commercial ventures, grossly mistaken and slanderous.

Anyone who has evidence, as opposed to scuttlebutt, should go to the police, for, if it were true, it would be fraud. To my knowledge, the Feldmans lived reasonably comfortably, but their indulgences, if that is the appropriate word, were for their kids and visitors, or for people down on their luck, in need of a Shabbat meal, spiritual care or inspiration.

Theirs was one continuous house of meeting, learning and planning with every male wearing a hat or kippa.

WHOEVER carried out the trashing of the Yeshiva Synagogue the day when it was taken out of Rabbi Feldman’s hands might consider what they would say about such behaviour if it were carried out on Jews by Muslims.

Were they too acting in the name of God, as extremist Muslims claim?

Whoever entered a place of holy worship on the eve of Passover to destroy Rabbi Feldman’s pulpit and the living quarters of rabbinical students might care to think about how such actions stand with the Jewish belief they claim to endorse.

Those who have permitted their children to confront the Feldmans’ grandchildren with insults against their grandparents might contemplate the impact of such disgusting conduct on children who neither understand nor bear responsibility.

The people who have been threatening violence to the Feldman family and their property might care to reflect on decency and where they might be if the Feldmans had not extended the hand of friendship over so long.

My knowledge of the handling of funds raised for and by the Yeshiva is that at the instigation of benefactors, banks and others, including myself, the Yeshiva’s books have been examined many times by certified auditors, as well as exhaustively by the Commonwealth Department of Education.

The court case presented another opportunity. And the liquidator of the Feldmans’ former companies no doubt has a free rein in pursuing any ill-gotten gains. My inquiries indicate he found nothing of the kind.

As the Yeshiva’s independent auditors stated, their investigations showed that not a cent made its way into the personal pockets of the Feldmans, as opposed to the needs of their mission.

While many of us may have thought some of the money may have been better spent, I and others are satisfied that none of it unjustly enriched the Feldmans personally.

I accept the conclusion of the independent auditors that the money was spent on the accountable payment of salaries or stipends for services or on outreach activities.

Furthermore, as one who was involved during the Yeshiva’s crisis in the ’90s, I can testify that if all donors had honoured their pledges then, the Yeshiva’s institutions would not have suffered their recent tragic fate.

Those people have to face their own consciences, but their failure to honour promises is, more than any other, the principal reason the edifice was able to be brought down.

Far from raiding the funds for selfish ends, the Feldmans spent large sums of their own money on projects to the point where they now have a hideous mortgage on their home and substantial credit-card debts, on which, without present jobs or income, they are unable to pay the instalments.

Their home is in disrepair and needs urgent but unaffordable work. Without the Yeshiva’s benefactors, they would not be able to provide a roof over their own and their remaining young children’s heads.

My hope is that the ignorant slanders and criminal activities stop and that we allow the Feldmans to pick themselves up and start their professional lives again, if that is their choice.

The community will be the poorer if they pull stumps and declare that enough is enough. As a community, we need them to get going again, no doubt wiser for past experiences.

The fact that, with the help of Chabad colleagues in California and US businessmen, Rabbi Feldman has reclaimed the synagogue and centre in Flood Street is remarkable and a basis for resurrection of many activities.

I was delighted to learn that the schools he established have been given a new future with the leadership of a number of generous people.

Because I have seen the benefits of his work and the vibrancy it has brought our community, I hope many will join me in putting their hands up to offer advice and encouragement to him.

Then, as a community, we will gain Rabbi Feldman’s inventive skill and energies in well-targeted religious and communal services, minus the agony of hopelessly optimistic expenditure.

At least all might consider that enough suffering is more than enough and wish him and his family every future success and happiness.

Justice Marcus Einfeld is a former judge of the Federal Court.

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