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The Jewish Frankenstein – How to Breathe Life into a Dying Community

July 17, 2011 – 6:21 pm95 Comments

Frankenstein's monster, looking suitable disechanted with his community.

By Yaron Gottlieb

For the second time in not very long, someone that I held in very high esteem has come crashing down.

First Rav Motti Elon, my former Rosh Yeshiva, had suspicions raised about his conduct with some students. While these allegations were never proven, Rav Elon’s credibility has been destroyed. This is a pity as his vision, message, and boundless energy have now been lost to the wider world, and the entire Jewish community has suffered as a result.

In recent weeks something similar has happened, when it was alleged that Rabbi Groner was complicit in moving known sex offenders overseas to new communities, allowing them to continue their crimes elsewhere. Current police investigations will reveal if this was a one-off event or – worse – if there were several sexual predators in the Yeshiva community.

How do I respond? Firstly this does not shake my faith in the tenets of Judaism. A flawed individual does not cause a system to become irrelevant. Religion itself does not produce pedophiles, wars or thieves, and if someone wishes to use religion as their excuse for immoral behaviour, it is the failing of the individual and not the system.

But there is no doubt that the community has to get their house in order. Something is broken in our community and it is becoming apparent that something has to change.

Not only have we seem a series of child abuse scandals, there are other problems that point to something rotten at the core of the Melbourne Jewish community.

Recently we have had LionFM, which died a painful death. This was partly to do with the executive’s actions, but there was also a huge battle going on between various communal groups all fighting over how a radio licence was taken away from the community and how such a golden opportunity was lost. The bloodletting between the various parties presented the worst that our community has to offer.

Then there are other problems. Marginalising those who do not agree with you, and localised fights happen in every shule and organisation. I have been witness to at least one such major fight recently that has sullied at least one major communal figure in the eyes of many, due to his behaviour. And these are just the big ticket items.

But there is another major problem: members of the community themselves.

Day to day, I interact with people from a variety of backgrounds: Jews, Greeks, Russians, Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese among many others.  At times, interacting with certain types of Jews, I’m left desperately wanting to be anti-Semitic. While there are many nice friendly people within the community, there are also many arrogant Jews who leave a negative perception on the community as a whole.

No wonder people are running away from our community and want nothing more to do with Judaism. I understand them. If I were not religious I would not want to go to any shule (of any denomination), and I would not want to interact with the Jewish community at all. What have we done as a community to encourage people – and specifically the younger generation – to engage and join our congregations and organisations?

The answer: Nothing.

Quite the opposite – we have given them every reason to run in the other direction.

Since I have moved out of Caulfield, I have felt far more relaxed out of the eye of the Jewish community, and away from the petty squabbling that is a daily feature.

So how do we bring them back? What is the way forward for the community?

I have a dream, and while Martin Luther King is far more eloquent and intelligent then me, humour me for a few short paragraphs as I present my dream for what I would like to see in a community that I would be a member of.

It would be a community that is Orthodox, and yet non judgmental and welcoming of everyone: men, women, gays, the intermarried, those who walk on Shabbat and those who drive. The only qualification is to be welcoming, friendly and a pleasant person.

The place is a synagogue, but the aim is more to build a community, rather then a congregation. Interaction should not be limited to once a week, rather there should be a communal feel running through.

The community would be Jewish but would have a strong social conscience. It would be as much about being a good person as it would about being a good Jew.  We cannot feel ourselves to be too big to ignore the outside world, and the pains of the wider community around us.

Unfortunately at the moment this exists as a dream only. The people I have spoken to about this can be divided into 4 groups:

1. Not interested, just let things keep going the way they are. These people are not necessarily happy with the status quo, they just want to keep it.

2. Great idea in theory, but it will never happen.

3. Let me know when it is up and running, but I will not help set it up.

4. Ok, where do I sign up? Unfortunately these people can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

There are, however, moments when the community may be able to rise up and achieve something. There are moments like the last few weeks where everyone is ready for action, but then everything settles down and life happens.

Can we mobilise members of the community and specifically the youth to become active, building something that might change our communal culture? Is there a group of us in the community willing to make this change?

Yaron Gottlieb is a Melbourne based rabbi with a graduate diploma of education. He spends his spare time being eccentric.

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