Yeshivah chief defies call to reinstate sacked rabbi
Barney Zwartz • The Age
MELBOURNE and Sydney's most senior rabbis are at loggerheads over the unexplained sacking of a rabbi from Melbourne's Yeshivah Centre, with Melbourne leaders accused of ''desecrating God's name''.
The centre's chief rabbi, Zvi Hirsch Telsner, has defied an order by the Sydney Beth Din (the rabbinical court) to stay the sacking, prompting an ultimatum from the court to back down by Tuesday or be shamed worldwide.
According to Jewish community figures, Rabbi Telsner overruled the injunction and instructed Yeshivah Centre chairman Don Wolf to sack Rabbi Mordechai Engel, 42, who has nine children, including a newborn baby, and has worked there for 14 years.
The Yeshivah Centre - the headquarters of the Orthodox Chabad movement, with two schools and many other facilities - has been controversial within the Jewish community for its handling of sexual abuse allegations from the 1980s to the present. Police were highly critical of community leaders in the Melbourne Magistrate's Court last year.
The Beth Din responded with a furious letter to Mr Wolf, declaring the sacking ''null and void'', complaining that they had not even had ''the courtesy of a response'' to their injunction.
The letter, signed by the court secretary, Rabbi Eli Schlanger, said that if Rabbi Engel was not reinstated by 4pm on Tuesday or the centre did not agree to rabbinic arbitration, the Beth Din would inform Orthodox leaders in Melbourne and New York that Mr Wolf and the centre were effectively in contempt of court. ''We will also consider other enforcement action available to us,'' Rabbi Schlanger wrote.
''You certainly understand that it is unacceptable that the authority of Halacha (Jewish law) is ignored by yourself and your institution, and that the resultant consequences and Chilul Hashem (desecration of God's name) cannot be tolerated.''
Beth Din decisions have no legal force in Australia, but they have significant moral authority within the Orthodox community, and it is a serious matter for a leading Orthodox rabbi to ignore a leading Orthodox institution.
Mr Wolf said it was an internal matter involving one employee out of 400, which would be sorted out in the normal course of events. Asked about the significance of the Sydney Beth Din, Mr Wolf said': ''Not much - we never see them or hear of them.''
Rabbi Engel, who did not return calls from The Saturday Age, had to approach the Sydney Beth Din with his wrongful dismissal complaint because the Melbourne Beth Din handles only divorces and conversions.
Rabbi Telsner is in the United States and did not respond to emails, but has reportedly told people within the community that rabbinic arbitration is being arranged. Rabbi Moshe Gutnick of the Sydney Beth Din said it would be inappropriate to comment.