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

Inspirational Jews

He has no idea I am posting about him. I’ve seen him at Elwood Shule for many years, but have known little about him. He sits in the back of the Shule, about ten rows behind us. His name is Mordechai (Mark) Oyberman. A Russian Jew who immigrated to Australia from the Soviet Gulag, Mordechai was forced to add the surname “Borisovich” to identify him with his father. Mordechai and the Oyberman family are committed to Judaism. He attends Elwood Shule for Shachris, Mincha+Ma’ariv each and every day. He is one of the last, if not the last to leave the Shule.

For many Russian Jews, reading Hebrew is a hurdle especially given that they weren’t lucky enough to attend a Jewish School, like Mount Scopus or similar. If you are middle-aged when you are finally exposed to the brand of free Judaism in our democratic Australia, the task is that much harder.

Mordechai doesn’t cut corners. With a Russian/Hebrew Siddur perched on his paunch, he assumes a slow and determined sideways swagger, otherwise known as “shockling”. Each word is pronounced lovingly and slowly; but not without difficulty.  Mordechai cares enough to ascertain whether at all times he is saying the correct prayer for that time of the year.

Yesterday, on Parshas Ki Tavo, Mordechai blew me away. I assume it was the anniversary of his Bar Mitzvah Parsha. I also assume that he never enjoyed a formal Bar Mitzvah in the way we know, and it was unlikely that at 13 years of age, he recited Maftir+Haftorah in a Shule. I do not know if Mordechai has done this before, but yesterday, he was called up for Maftir. I was taken aback. Sadly, there are not many at Elwood who can navigate the Haftorah at will. This task is usually rotated amongst Rabbis Gutnick, Karnowsky, Aron and myself.

Mordechai acquitted himself with great aplomb. Confident, and with no apparent reticence despite the larger than usual attendance, he sang at “the top of his voice” faultlessly and meticulously reciting the Haftorah. The scene certainly moved me, and in his sermon, Rabbi Gutnick felt likewise to the extent that he mentioned it explicitly.

This might seem like a trivial observation, but it is not. He and his wife’s determination and fealty to our religion, translates not only in deeds, but in tackling a hurdle that a Jewishly educated Bar Mitzvah spends almost one year perfecting. This was a humbling experience. Many of us fought hard to free soviet jews. When liberated the toxicity of freedom adumbrates into assimilation. When someone grapples to hang onto each vestige of our religion, we should exult.

In the month of Elul, preparing for the long day of Judgement, this was a perfect lead in, a segue if you will, into the High Holidays.

Hats off to you, so to speak.