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A Failure of Leadership: Rabbinic Overreach

June 12, 2014 – 12:27 pm33 Comments

By Anonymous:

madmen-finalWhat happens to a leader when they overreach? How many leaders in the world have begun to believe their own press and tried for one last grab for absolute power only to damage their reputation and adversely affect the prestige of their office?

There have been three examples of overreach recently within the Australian rabbinate. Two of them have yet to play out, so we do not know what the ultimate effect on the prestige of their office will be, however, one rabbi has already caused many former supporters to simply ignore a particular directive.

The first instance was reported on this website recently. It involved Rabbi Laibl Wolf of Spiritgrow. While Spiritgrow is usually the purveyor of the warm, homey messages of Judaism, here Rabbi Wolf moved to Israeli politics seemingly comparing those who ‘collaborate’ in the peace process to the kapos who collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust.

By so radically moving off script, Rabbi Wolf has potentially damaged his main message by delegitimising all those with left wing opinions, and putting them on the same level as some of the most vile individuals in our recent histories. There should be space for people to disagree, without being compared to Nazi collaborators.

The second instance of rabbinic overstep happened when Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant recently took over as the head of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australia (ORA).

This was reported in both The Age and Herald-Sun. In The Age he was called “the most prominent face in Australian Judaism” and “the new voice of local Jewish leadership.” The Herald-Sun went one step further and called him “the de-facto leader of the Jewish community,” news I am sure to the JCCV and ECAJ. While these peak bodies may exist in an imperfect democracy, they do still have some claim to being representative. ORA does not.

The RCV and ORA leadership are not even viewed as the leaders by all the rabbis, let alone by the wider community. Each of the rabbis of the larger Orthodox communities would be acting independently to ORA and ORA really has no way of controlling them.

Then there are the non-Orthodox rabbis. It is a terrible irony that Rabbi Kluwgant proudly talks publicly about interfaith projects he’d be pleased to engage in, while steadfastly refusing to appear publicly with non-Orthodox rabbis.

There is no way the newspapers would have assumed Rabbi Kluwgant was a de-facto communal leader without him having indicated as much and this constitutes a continuation of a number of instances of rabbinic over-reach in Australia over the years.

The rabbinic leadership have made submissions on behalf of all Australian Jewry to the government – in secret! Three that have come into the public domain were their submissions to give ORA exclusive rights to the word “kosher” on food packaging, opposition to gay marriage, and opposition to lesbians accessing IVF. There may have been more that we do not know about.

All of this has occurred in the context of splits and disputes within the rabbinate and with synagogues’ lay leadership over a variety of issues.

The third instance is the recent proclamation by the rabbis of Kosher Australia declaring most whiskeys on the market to be not kosher (in reality this is not a new story, rather one they seem to revisit every few years, but now it is with more force than previously).

While this may seem a non-story, and the very thing we are paying our rabbis to do – to make decisions on Jewish law – there is more to the story.

Many rabbis in Israel, including many roshei yeshiva have not only declared these whiskeys to be kosher, but will drink them themselves. There was also a rabbi of one of the significant congregations in Jerusalem who told me when buying my chametz before Pesach that if I ever felt that I could not drink my whiskeys I would always find a willing buyer at his office.

This is the latest in a line of stringencies that Kosher Australia place on the community without their knowledge and without declaring quite how strict they are with their standards.

Obviously Kosher Australia have every right to set their own standards (or more accurately to accept upon themselves the standards set by the AKO), but there is a point where new stringencies are viewed as so over the top that they end up being ignored.

The situation as it now stands is that many people have told me that they would only eat food certified by Kosher Australia but they have no intention of following the new whiskey edict. With KA’s attempt to further regulate an already over-regulated marketplace they are leading where many of their constituents have no intention of following.

Herein lies the message from all three of these cases. A leader is only a leader by virtue of the people that are willingly lead by him. The rabbinate seems to be distancing itself further from their willing followers to the point that the rabbinate may soon find that they are a group of leaders with no followers.

Their fears of people leaving Orthodoxy for secular lifestyles or to the Conservative and Progressive communities are self-inflicted. They need serious top down reform to become more relevant rather than the recent cosmetic changes. But as a group not answerable to anyone, I do not hold much hope for this happening.

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33 Comments »

  • Joe in Australia says:

    The earth-shattering revelation that someone disagrees with a rabbi may have all sorts of repercussions! No wonder the author chose to remain anonymous!

  • Why cant we all just get along? says:

    I also heard recently that a rabbi peed without lifting the seat…

  • Shimshon says:

    Anonymous has many relatives with the same name.
    Clearly you have gripes and sour grapes.
    Your comment is irrelevant, meaningless and certainly non constructive.
    Please moderator, get someone to write something that is interesting and comment worthy.

  • Benseon Apple says:

    The allegation that Rabbi Klugwant somehow crowned himself as king of the Jews to the media is outrageous. The author of the post obviously has no understanding of the media and how superficial journalists can be in creating stories out of non-events and generating eye candy. It is more than likely that the authors of the articles cited simply inferred that, as ORA is the pre-eminent (i.e. only) national rabbinic organisation for the majority orthodox, then its (titular?) head is “the most prominent face in Australian Judaism”.

  • Vivien Resofsky says:

    My comment relates to Rabbi Kluwgant’s “far reaching” comments in relation to his Rabbinic leadership.
    For the last 8 years I have been advocating for reform of how we protect children. Rabbi Kluwgant is one of the leaders I have spoken to – with no success. This week I spoke to Rabbi Glasman (past president of RCV). I have spoken to the Rabbi several times in previous years. I suggested that Rabbi Kluwgant look towards the future and reform how children are protected by adopting the latest reforms that were outlined at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. I also mentioned that I have made a submission to the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse, in relation to this issue.

    I asked to meet with both Rabbi Kluwgant and Rabbi Glasman so that I could explain these latest reforms. I thought Rabbi Glasman agreed to this. However when I contacted Rabbi Glasman he asked me to provide him with a copy of my report to the Royal Commission – before we continue correspondence. Rabbi Glasman would not continue communicating with me due to my negative response.
    My submission to the Royal Commission is a chronological account of correspondence in relation to requests for our leadership to adopt best practice response to child sexual abuse. My suggestion for reform was informed by well recongnised child protection expert, Victor Vieth – the same person who is informing reform originating at Yeshiva University.
    Rabbi’s Kuwgant pledges 2 things
    Mandatory reporting of any crimes against children or in household to the police + Establishing individual child protection policies in synagogue.
    New Yeshivah University reforms
    Role of Rabbis – to impact change in shuls and schools within our community, + child protection policies in shules.

    In my opinion he has excluded the most important element of protecting children .

  • Vivien Resofsky says:

    [Moderator: Vivien, this comment is too long. Apart from cluttering up the thread, comments of such length make it difficult for the moderator to ensure no defamatory material gets through. Please limit your comments to 150 words in the future. Also, please do not post multiples of the same comment. All comments await moderation before they are allowed through. This can take anywhere up to 24 hours. Please be patient.]

  • Ian Grinblat says:

    I am afraid I can see no reason for the author to conceal his/her identity. Nothing in the article is incendiary and it was ever thus – a leader remains a leader only as long as he has a group to lead.

  • Water of Life says:

    @Benseon
    True there may be nothing to it, and it may be overblown, but let us consider the facts- we have a change in a communal position within the Jewish community, something that has not been commented on by the press when for the recent changes at ECAJ or ZFA. Also both the newspapers spoke of Kluwgant as the head of the community, either directly or indirectly. The newspapers would also be aware of the communal structures of the community (and have the phone numbers of these leaders to get regular comments on stories)

    Now with those facts before you- who do you think fed that information to the newspapers?

  • Vivien Resofsky says:

    Benseon I don’t believe Rabbi Kluwgant was misquoted in the recent articles about his leadership role in the Melb Jewish community.

    Rabbi Kluwgant’s new role was mentioned and several examples of what he intended to do in his new role were mentioned.

    In Feb 2012, I rang the Rabbinical Council of Victoria in relation to statements attributed to Rabbi Kluwgant in an article entitled Child Sex-Abuse Scandal in Australia’s Jewish Community Spills Into U.S. Allegations Surface That Child Molesters Were Protected that appeared in Haaretz By Paul Berger

    “…..Rabbis’ approach to disclosures of sexual abuse has “definitely changed for the better in recent years.” But Kluwgant added that there has been no attempt to cover up abuse in Australia and that the rabbinate there is committed to addressing the issue.
    “A lot [of abuse accusations are] based on rumour and innuendo, unless they’re proven in a court of law,” Kluwgant added. “I could tell you lots of lashon hara [evil talk].”

    I was very concerned that Rabbi Kluwgant was linking lashon hara to disclosures of child sexual abuse. I spoke to president of RCV, Rabbi Glasman. He told me that Rabbi Kluwgant was misquoted. If so, did Rabbi Kluwgant request that the newspaper correct the quote?

    I don’t think you can attribute clear messages made by someone as the fault of the media. Perhaps if a matter has been misquoted the Rabbi should take steps to correct the misquoted statements.

  • ben says:

    kluwgant is not a rabbi in a SHUL

  • Shimshon says:

    @ Vivien:
    I am sure the rabbis have all the right experts to consult regarding child protection. Just because they aren’t communicating with you doesn’t mean that nothing is being done.
    They have made statements to the press and elsewhere that it is for them a priority, as it should be. They don’t need your approval.
    They just need to get on with the implementation. I believe they will succeed.

  • Nadav Prawer says:

    Anonymous, I can’t help but note the irony of describing a submission to a inquiry- by definition a matter of public record- as ‘in secret’ when concealing your own identity.

    This is very much in keeping with the internet of today- a tool for anonymous complaints- but very much out of touch with serious public debate.

    Classically, the role of rabinnic leadership is not limited to what you would seem to describe as ‘spiritual affairs.’ Halacha relates to all aspects of life- to the way you tie your shoelaces to the way you do business. Judaism doesn’t stop at the door to your office and nor should a rabbi feel constrained from challenging the moral compass of their congregants in any manifestation.

    That said, a rabbi can be retained only for a limited role. This is the case in some shuls. But Mizrachi, for example, does not do so. In appointing a rabbi, it appoints a spiritual leader, not just someone to give a nice talk on shabbat mornings.

    As to stringencies- Anonymous, if you would care to, I would be more than happy to sit and learn the halachic debate with you, when you choose. Feel free to send me an email at nadavprawer @ gmail.com. You can remain anonymous if you choose.

  • Shimshon says:

    Nadav.
    Yours is truly a constructive post.
    As its says in the Haggadah, “Tzei ulmad” -go out and learn. Your invitation to share halachic knowledge is probably a first for this site.
    We are fortunate to have quite a few very knowledgeable rabbis in our community who are more than just pulpit rabbis.
    I wish you hatzlacha rabbah.

  • Vivien Resofsky says:

    Shimshon I attended the first International Congress on Child Protection in Jewish Orthodox communities that was held in Jerusalem in March and my knowledge of the response to child sexual abuse globally is very current.

    I know who the RCV have relied on. They have not kept this a secret.

    Recently Yeshiva University delivered reforms based on a non Jewish expert Victor Vieth and other experts from the legal dept of Yeshiva University. In my opinion these reforms were introduced because institutions in the USA have been sued (but not 100% certain). In any event, it does not matter. Lets just move forward and implement
    all the elements of reform in the Melbourne Jewish community sooner rather than later. It is not my intention to insult anyone, I just want to see our children fully protected – because it is the right thing to do.

  • conflict of interest says:

    Vivien, it is hard not to notice that you have been extremely critical of a range of Jewish institutions in their handling of child abuse cases and in other matters- it seems that you “submitted complaints to the JCCV, Jewish Care and the Rabbinical Council of Victoria about what I believe is The Taskforce’s dangerously misguided approach to a very complex issue; however, nothing has changed.”

    It seems that you have also “been attempting to engage The Jewish Taskforce Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault (The Taskforce) since 2006, both directly and in the pages of The Australian Jewish News.”

    Perhaps this track record- ‘going public’ when dissatisfied with the response you receive from communal leaders- acts as a disincentive to them to engage with you? It does seem that it is not only the rabbis, but much of the communal infrastructure, that declines to engage with you at this point in time.

  • leslie vasserteil says:

    AS Ben commented , Rabbi Kluwgant isn’t and has never been a rabbi of a shul.
    His main employment has for many years been as a Shochet for Solomons.
    Later he joined Montefiore Homes as a shomer/mashgiach (which no doubt much improved the standards of Kashrut there).

    But it says something about ORA and the RCV membership that a shochet/mashgiach has become their leader

  • Vivien Resosky says:

    Conflict of Interest, thank you for taking the time to read the articles I have written in relation to my ongoing concerns about my concerns about the response to child sexual abuse by successive presidents of the JCCV, The Jewish Taskforce executive members, Rabbi Kluwgant (as a community Rabbi, member of The Taskforce Board, Rabbi at Jewish Care and current President of RCV and Rabbis Glasman and Goodhardt in their roles on the RCV.

    I am only sorry I was not able to rely my message to you.

    Many people believe that child sexual abuse has nothing to do with them. In the case of Orthodox communities many people believe that stopping sexual abuse should be left to Rabbis, schools etc.
    But Rabbis can never put an end to sexual abuse; Why? Because they come on the scene too late. By the time they get there, the children have already been abused. Only community members like you and me can get there in time.
    That is one of the reasons why I have been so critical of The Taskforce, JCCV and RCV. I believe that they have left out the most important element in protecting children – community based education so that people like you and me to have the knowledge and confidence to prevent, recognise and react responsibly to the abuse.

    Please have a look at a 30 minute free on-line program. The Parents Protect Child Sexual Abuse Video Learning Programme. Can you tell me why Rabbi Glasman and Rabbi Goodhardt in their roles on the Rabbinical Council of Victoria, Nina Bassat President of JCCV and The Taskforce have not be willing to tell the community about this program, while not offering an alternative comprehensive (with all the elements) easily accessible program? Please tell us all what you think after you have viewed the program.
    http://www.parentsprotect.co.uk/video.htm

  • Water of Life says:

    @Nadav
    I assume the problem of anonymity is representing others while remaining anonymous. There would be many reasons the author may wish to remain nameless- he could be a member of the RCV, or lay leader. The arguments are either true or false, the identity of the writer is irrelevant.
    As to your other point, you have not answered the question posed in the article- what happens when most of the people supposed to follow a leader stops following? Does he remain a leader. Just pointing out random halachot does not make the rabbis any more of a leader.
    As to the stringencies, I am aware of the halacha, but do you understand the social and political histories that caused us to choose stringency over the leniency?

  • ben says:

    we need a real rabbi like Rabbi Sprung

  • Shimshon says:

    Ben and Leslie
    As far as I have ascertained, Rabbi Kluwgant was never a mashgiach but was appointed as rabbi of Jewish Care, and since when does being a shochet disqualify one from a rabbinical position.
    You both wouldn’t know a real rabbi if you tripped over one.
    I agree that Rabbi Sprung is a real rabbi, but so are many others here!
    Is this site going to be known as a rabbi bashing blog?
    How sad!

  • Water of Life says:

    @Shimshon
    Funny you mention that since most rabbis wouldn’t know a real rabbi if they fell over one either. Too busy playing politics and engaging in power plays.
    But since you want something positive out of this why don’t we get rid of the position of rabbi in our communities. A congregation without a rabbi needs to become educated if they want to survive, while often a rabbi led community becomes lazy. I do not necessarily want to bash rabbis but I am advocating for an educated lay led community, thus making rabbis obsolete.

  • TheSadducee says:

    @Water of Life

    This was the case in Canberra for decades and I can assure you that, although it can work in terms of a community functioning and existing, it is not optimal – even Canberra has appointed a new rabbi because a community really does need one to develop/function properly.

    I think the real problem here is not so much the ‘real’ rabbis and their politics/games (that has been the case for millenia and seems to have worked irrespective) but communal oversight of their rabbis.

    Rabbis should be accountable to their community – if they step out of line, they should be put back in place, and if necessary prevented from making gestures that are out of touch and/or in opposition with their communities’ views/mores.

    The exception to this can be if they are making statements that are their own personal convictions etc then they need to make that explicitly clear and remove any ambiguity that they are representing anyone but themselves.

    It is unlikely that this will occur often, because a rabbi who is at odds with his community over a significant number of issues is unlikely to be a good fit for that community and should get the message and move on (either voluntarily or involuntarily).

    One must consider also the point that the rabbinic model that is provided in some of the communities is outdated and self-limiting, they are essentially functioning in the 21st century using mid-20th century functionality and practices – they are often lacking in media and social awareness and savvy, modern technical capability and an inability to plan and respond in a 24 hours expectation news cycle.

  • Ben says:

    There is no way the newspapers would have assumed Rabbi Kluwgant was a de-facto communal leader without him having indicated as much and this constitutes a continuation of a number of instances of rabbinic over-reach in Australia over the years.

    How do you become a leader without a Shul?

  • Naftoli says:

    The idea that a Rabbi cannot be a ‘leader’ unless he is the minister of a shul is ludicrous. If a person has intelligence, knowledge, charisma, is articulate, empathetic and humble and is accepted by others as a leader he does not need to be the head of any specific organisation.

    History demonstrates that there were Jewish leaders who were not employed by a shul but who others gravitated to for advice and guidance – whether individually or on a communal basis. I know of Rabbis in our Melbourne community who are not Shul rabbis but do have a following.

    (In case you were wondering I did not write the above in defense of any particular Rabbi mentioned in comments – some of our Rabbis are only too lacking in the attributes of empathy and humility)

  • Leslie Wasserteil says:

    In response to Shimshon (and with no personal offence to MSK, what does it say about the entire Australian rabbinical world that for the past years a non-Chabad rabbi has no hope in becoming the leader of either ORA or RCV?

    And even more so seeing that Rabbi Kluwgant – a non-pulpit shochet – is at the very top of it all.

    (It also seems to be of assistance if one happens to be a grandson of Mr Glick. There must be something in those bagels..)

    But seriously isn’t there a suitably qualified congregational rabbi who we can present to the public as the leading spokesman for the rabbinate?

    The first to comein mind would of course be Rabbi Sprung – who is a decent ‘mentch’ and a serious Talmid Chacham who also is not afraid to offer his views – even when they are not 100% politically correct.

  • ben says:

    Leslie Wasserteil
    the best comment

  • TheSadducee says:

    There are a couple of issues here that should be explored IMHO-

    1. Can/should a rabbi without a shul become the leader of a rabbinical organisation?

    2. Is there a a problem in the Australian rabbinical world if a non-Chabad rabbi cannot become the head of an orthodox rabbinical grouping? If this is the case, why is it so?

    3. Are the ORA/RCV etc incapable of change? If so, why?

  • Shimshon says:

    Lelsie and Ben
    Both of your posts are ridiculous beyond words.
    This is becoming a rabbi-bashing/Chabad-bashing site and I am going to wait till something else is posted so that we can move on to a more intelligent exchange.

  • Joe in Australia says:

    Is there anyone here who honestly cares about ORA or RCV? Anyone here – apart from lurking rabbis – who knows how often they meet, or what’s on the agenda, or whether they chip in for tea and bikkies after the meeting? Because if (as I suspect) nobody really cares about these organisations, why are we so exercised about who the President or General Secretary or High Pontiff of them happens to be? On the other hand, if you do feel that you need input into the selection of their Exalted Leader, do you also take an interest into what they actually do, and if not, why not?

  • Water of Life says:

    @Joe
    If they would be an irrelevancy then we could all rest easy. The problem is that this ‘secret society’ is busy networking and representing the Jewish community. Not the Orthodox community, but the whole Jewish community. So you may wish to ignore them, and they are counting on your apathy.

    @Leslie/Ben
    I have no idea what you are talking about. It is random silliness.

    @Sadducee
    1. I think it is irrelevant what experience the head of ORA/RCV has. To compare there is not (nor should there be) a set path for someone to become head of the JCCV.
    2. There is no reason that a non-Chabadnik cannot become head of RCV. But it is a numbers game, and the big majority are Chabad (the lowest figure I have heard is 2/3, but it may be more).
    3. Change is unlikely to happen. Not only are the majority from the Chabad world, but there are a small number of families that have a significant numbers (Gutnick, Groner, Glick). This is unlikely to change even if all the non-Chabad shules and orgs remove the Chabad rabbis due to the sheer number of Chabad houses opened up around Melbourne.

  • ben says:

    kluwgant couldn’t get a job in shul?

  • Ephraim-Effie says:

    In relation to the leading Rabbis, have they spoken up about gay rights?

    I noticed a comment by Rabbi Glasman (aussiechareidim.blogspot.com)Did he actually make this comment or not?

    Why does he think he has a right to decide for gay Jews?

    I couldn’t find anything relevant on St Kilda Shul’s site.

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