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Beyond Rabbi Groner

June 21, 2012 – 8:20 pm94 Comments

Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Groner

By David Werdiger
Rabbi YD Groner OBM was often described as “larger than life”. He was an imposing character: large in size, strong in voice, autocratic in nature. From his arrival in Melbourne in the 1950s, he worked tirelessly for the organization, and can take deserved credit for the strong positive influence Chabad had during the majority of his tenure as its leader.

This Sunday, as the local Chabad community will mark his yahrzeit, many have mixed feelings. Despite it being four years since his passing, Rabbi Groner has come under fire recently regarding what he did or didn’t do in cases of sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by people employed (or subcontracted) in or around the school, including teachers, during a period some 10-20 years ago. But here’s the thing: no-one will ever truly know what he did or didn’t do. While those who interacted with him directly know their side of the story, none of us can know all of his side, let alone the thought process that drove very private decisions. As he is not around to defend his decisions, he has become a convenient soft target for his detractors.

The mishnaic dictum (Pirkei Avot 2:4) “do not judge your fellow person until you stand in their place” applies equally to the community leaders of the time, and to the victims of abuse. Even with our 20/20 hindsight, we cannot understand the cultural challenges of dealing with the scourge of sexual abuse in a closed, tight-knit community in a time before mandatory reporting. The leaders of the time acted using the knowledge, information and context available to them at that time, all of which are now considered vastly deficient. Equally, we cannot understand the anguish of victims who were abused, and feel betrayed by a trusted organisation and its leaders.

The ambiguities of the day and the passage of time do not preclude our community from advocating for justice on behalf of victims. They have every right to be heard, and to confront their alleged attackers in a court of law, and for that court to make a determination. That is the only appropriate place for judging.

Those who use these terrible events to paint the Yeshivah Centre, Orthodox Judaism, or religion in general as hopelessly broken have it very wrong. But those who seek to whitewash, make excuses, and naively maintain a façade of utopic perfection are equally wrong. As eloquently written by Mimi Hecht, the more meaningful discourse is about the majority of us who live in the muddled middle – who face the very human challenges of living as Orthodox Jews in the world today.

In our community there seems to be an obsession among some with protecting the reputation and legacy of Rabbi Groner. Here too scripture gives us a clear answer (Kohelet 7:20) “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.” We are human beings, not angels. We make mistakes. We do teshuva. Then we make mistakes again. And dare I say it; Rabbi Groner made mistakes during his lifetime.

Looking back, I have many memories of Rabbi Groner, such as the time I was sent to his office after repeatedly mocking a newly arrived Kollel Rabbi who was teaching us. My fear was palpable as he read me the riot act and warned against further infractions: “I don’t care who your father is, I don’t care who your grandfather is. We’re going to throw you out!” While at the time, I was an intimidated teenager, I can reminisce fondly about interactions like this.

But there are decisions – very public decisions – made by Rabbi Groner that genuinely haunt me until this day. [content removed by editor for legal reasons]

It is not reasonable to allow Rabbi Groner to rule from the grave. He had his time on this earth, during which he achieved great success, and during which he, like all humans, was imperfect. On balance, he achieved far more positive things for the Melbourne Jewish community than bad. To perpetuate or whitewash his mistakes is an insult to his memory, and after four years, it’s time for the current Rabbis and leaders of our community to recognize this. They must step up and do what is best for the community now. They must show the community that they have moved on from the autocratic and insular control structures of the past.

The Torah tells us the stories of many characters – all of them real people with real flaws. Moses was denied entry into Israel for his errors, yet is still regarded as the greatest Jewish leader of all time. We can recognize the flaws of past leaders and still remember them with the appropriate respect.

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