Statement to clear the air and set the record straight

This may be relevant only to the dwindling number of members at Elwood Shule. Our family has been associated with Elwood for 60+ years. My father ע’’ה was Vice President and a very long-term board member, as well as regular mispallel. I joined the board several years ago, and functioned as the Ba’al Tefilla on Rosh Hashono and Yom Kippur for many years. I accepted the role of leading Musaf and Kol Nidrei the year prior to the untimely death of Chazan Levy ע’’ה, the Shule’s last, full-time Chazan, in the year before he passed away. He then passed away on Rosh Hashono itself.

I worked assiduously at Board Level, and oversaw and edited the updated version of the constitution and assisted in the unfortunate but necessary legal fight for survival with our tenant. I was involved at many other levels.

I came to the conclusion, some 6 months ago that my tenure as a board member was no longer tenable. It had preyed on my mind for longer, but only emotional ties kept me going. I will not use this blog to discuss a range of issues that contributed to my decision. I later resigned from the board, as did three other board members, and of course, my father passed away, thereby making the board four fewer people than when it was constituted years earlier. When I informed long-term President Fred Antman that I had finally resigned, his comment was that I should have done so long ago, for reasons I won’t go into. He had encouraged me to resign many times and said my father would have told me the same.

Elwood is at a cross-road, where it says goodbye in the next years to Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick, and welcomes a new Rabbi. Rabbi Karnowsky, the outreach Rabbi is assuming some of Rabbi Gutnick’s functions. Rabbi Karnowsky has a documented plan of what he was going to achieve as outreach Rabbi when he joined, and I assume remaining members of the board express a level of confidence in his achievements thus far.

Years ago, It was long-term President Fred Antman, who prevailed upon me, literally tens of times, to assume the function of Ba’al Tefila for Yomim Noroim. I also stepped in as needed on other occasions, willingly. I did not and never wanted to be the Ba’al Tefila. To be honest, I know my personal imperfections, and never felt worthy of representing this (or any) Kehilla. My children know too well, how, after members of the Shule passed away later during the year, that I took it personally. I might arrive home on Shabbos with bloodied knuckles and in tears or sloshed because I considered that Hashem had not listened to my prayers of מי יחיה or מי ימות and that this was due to me not being up to the spiritual level required to be a Ba’al Tefilla (or Chazan). I felt I wasn’t listened to and that my prayers were vacuous.

I was blessed with a good voice. This is not my achievement. My father ע’ה sang in the choir in the Rawa Mazowiecka Shtiebel with the Amshinover, R Zishe Shochet הי’’ד. My mother’s father played violin (as do I). These are not my achievements, they are some of Hashem’s Brachos.

A great source of personal happiness was descending the steps after Mussaf on Yom Kippur and spontaneously dancing with “Gandhi”, R’ Yossel ע’ה, a Buchenwald boy, as he was affectionately known. Of course, there was the scene of some 15+ Balbin offspring males sitting around my father on Kol Nidrei night, after he had carried the Torah during Kol Nidrei which I had intoned, and my father’s occasional glances at me. Upstairs a similar contingent of Balbin female offspring were present. My sons have beautiful life-long memories of walking with me and Zayda through thick and thin on a Shabbos (my father was, together with Rabbi Gutnick and Viggie Aron the only three people who walked a real distance on Shabbos to get to Shule and actually kept Shabbos). Nowadays, on Shabbos, Viggie only comes for layning, and Rabbi Gutnick mainly for Shabbos Shachris.

I vividly recall some feedback one year. I didn’t seek feedback. If proffered feedback I was happy to hear and sometimes listen. One man, whose face I knew, but whose name was not familiar, asked me why I kept stopping and starting during הנני העני ממעש. He sat in the front area, so he could presumably see my face, although I wear a Tallis over my head, as opposed to the more German style ecclesiastical headwear. Returning to the story, I couldn’t believe that this man hadn’t noticed that I was unable to resume my comportment at certain phrases, and often struggled not to weep. I am not talking about the iconic Chazanishe Krechtz or an “Oy yoi yoi” punctuated with a perfectly timed trill as choreographed according to the score (or iPod recording). I am talking about raw emotion.

I was shocked. That year, I decided I needed to “control myself”. I am sure I was wrong, but I consciously stopped myself thinking, perhaps over-thinking, about the meaning of the words I was uttering. At the same time, Rabbi Karnowsky approached me about incorporating his new sons in the service. I agreed (although musically, I felt they were young and raw). Nevertheless, it would be cute and perhaps would appeal to a majority of congregants who cannot follow or read a Machzor (we have 3 versions at Elwood and the Gabbay uses a fourth, and Davening is punctuated by annoyingly constant page call outs of different versions. I hope they have fixed this and settled on the magnificent Soloveitchik Machzorim, but I digress.)

Now, recall that I resigned from the board months before the High Holidays. In my letter of resignation, I also made it clear that the board should not feel encumbered in any way using my services as Ba’al Tefilla. I asked only that they inform me as soon as possible whether they required my services; a reasonable request.

Unfortunately, I was to find out that Mark Oyberman had asked around for people in Melbourne available to replace me, after which they settled on Shimon Wallis. I actually wrote to the board to confirm this as they had not communicated they were even looking let alone that they had already made a decision! Shimon has a fine voice, and his Nusach is derived from his grandfather ע’’ה, whom I enjoyed listening to on his rare visits. He was a Ba’al Tefilla with an authentic Yerushalmi Nusach. I wish him success.

What prompted me to post this article, was an Elwood promotional video I saw yesterday. I genuinely feared that some might assume that my absence from Shule was due to this new appointment.

Nothing could be further than the truth. I kept a seat at Elwood. I will hopefully be able to daven quietly and with some purpose this year. The reasons for my resignation as a board member are seemingly as valid now as they were then, and they will not be discussed in this blog post.

שנה טובה ומתוקה

Myths and Facts: Yesodei Hatorah vs Elwood Shule

[Apologies: Many of you submitted comments, but I couldn’t turn comments off for this post. I had never intended that this post would induce discussion as this would just end up as flame fodder]

In a previous post, I mentioned that the truth will come out. I will resist the temptation to be more expansive and limit myself to incontrovertible cold facts. Do not ask me to expand on these as I don’t wish to reignite. Rather, my intention is to go on the record so that rampant misinformation doesn’t permeate.

Below, ETTC stands for Elwood Talmud Torah Congregation (Elwood Shule). YHT stands for Yesodei Hatorah College, as led by Messrs Lipkies and Casen, on behalf of their board.

Myth:  ETTC never got along with YHT and tried to close down the School
Fact:  ETTC tried for a number of years to conclude an ordinary long term lease for YHT based on reasonable commercial rates.

Myth: ETTC did not support the school in tangible ways
Fact:  ETTC supported both the original establishment of the School and provided a most favourable rental fee for use of ETTC buildings. In fact, YHT paid no rent for many years, and when they later agreed to a nominal rental of $20,000 per annum in return for providing regular mispallelim for ETTC’s daily minyanim, YHT failed to honour this commitment. The bottom line: when compared to normal rental fees over the years, ETTC has supported YHT to the tune of more than 1.5 million dollars.

Myth: ETTC should have offered a better deal to YHT when discussions about a more permanent lease began and none of the litigation from YHT would have transpired.
Fact: ETTC made offers more generous than that ultimately accepted by YHT. All of these offers were rejected by YHT

Myth: ETTC initiated court action against YHT
Fact: YHT brought the legal proceedings against ETTC and ETTC was obliged to defend itself.

Myth: ETTC forced YHT to go to arbitration
Fact: ETTC had no choice but to go to arbitration and in doing so prevented YHT from effectively taking over the premises

Myth: The issue was simply over the existence of a lease
Fact: YHT sought damages of more than 1 million dollars against ETTC

Myth: YHT actually had a lease and ETTC were being difficult
Fact: After a thorough and lengthy arbitration hearing ex Federal Court Judge, the Honourable Alan Goldberg AO QC,  ruled decisively in ETTC’s favour and awarded ETTC the costs of arbitration

Myth: After Goldberg’s findings ETTC went after more money from YHT
Fact: YHT did not accept the umpire’s decision and appealed on a technicality to the Supreme Court (one assumes they had Halachic permission to do so?)

Myth: ETTC wasted money by defending itself in the Supreme Court
Fact: YHT hired arguably the most expensive and high-profiled QC in Victoria who eventually unearthed a technicality that questioned but one aspect of Goldberg’s findings. ETTC had no choice but to defend itself once more.

Myth: The appeal in the Supreme Court found in favour of YHT
Fact: The appeal was allowed (on a procedural issue) but made no substantive findings

Myth: ETTC will be in a worse financial situation because it vigorously defended itself against YHT’s claims
Fact: ETTC will recoup over $2m in rent as per the new lease which will more than cover its costs and provide a much needed injection of fresh income for new projects to reinvigorate the Shule.

Myth: ETTC and YHT are sworn enemies
Fact: ETTC hopes that relations with YHT will be harmonious and is very sad that YHT sought the action that they did and that they chose to reject a deal put on the table by the current ETTC board which would have seen YHT with a much better outcome than what transpired.

Disclaimer: I am a board member and long-term member of Elwood Shule. This post, however, was not approved of by the Board and is not to be seen as representing anything but my own summary.

The truth will come out

Various sprinklings of disinformation, sock puppeting and outright lies find their way across the internet about the court case where two individuals from the governing “board” of Yesodei Hatorah College (YHT), took Elwood Shule to court because they didn’t like the Arbitrators ruling . The Arbitrator was an eminent Judge and QC of the highest rank who ruled against YHT and ordered it to pay Elwood’s costs. That’s not to cast aspersions on the School itself and its educators, who I understand do a sterling job, especially for children who have challenging special needs. There is definitely a place in our community for an American style Aguda school.

Ironically, it was those two members of their “board” who insisted that all matters be kept secret. Elwood never entertained such secrecy but reluctantly had to sign on in order for Arbitration to proceed. We have had, and continue to have nothing to hide. Make no mistake: Elwood will not only survive this, but they will become a shining example to other communities through innovative programs that enfranchise those elements of the community who are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the fiercely Zionist Holocaust survivors who paid for and built every brick of the Shule.

In good time, with Hashem’s blessing, the real story about these two interlocutors will come out, and hopefully they will donate their money to the School and not lining lawyer’s pockets. We would be happy if, as per the Arbitrator’s ruling, the College goes from strength to strength in their eventual own premises and Elwood Shule is able to carry out its ambitious renaissance program, unencumbered and designed for its own membership.

Watch this space when the dust settles. In the meanwhile, just don’t believe everything that you read.

Disclaimer: I am a board member and long-term member of Elwood Shule. This post, however, was not approved of by the Board and is not to be seen as representing anything but my own private opinion.