Five years ago, I wrote an article marking 25 years at the Great Synagogue. I called it “25 Not Out“. To continue the cricketing analogy, I’m now 30 Not Out. It’s a new milestone in my career and, I venture to hope, in the long history of the Great Synagogue.
Admittedly, others have served Australian and New Zealand congregations longer. Even at the Great Synagogue, Rev. AB Davis was in office for 41 years and Rabbi Porush for over 32. But I am now the third longest-serving senior incumbent at the Great, and I am by far the veteran of the CBD clergy.
Not that the mere passing of years is necessarily such a great achievement, though there are some congregations where it would be. The main thing is not simply to sit there and survive, but to be active, proactive, and reactive, and know that there is still so much to do.
It is not an easy time to be a rabbi, nor even an easy time to be the rabbi of the Great Synagogue. Our history is viewed by some as an excuse for cloning the past. Our geography has long been an obstacle to developing a close-knit community. But fortunately, we have embarked upon an array of initiatives to carry the Synagogue into new areas of attitude and activity, and the city and inner suburbs are slowly becoming residential again and will bring new people into our orbit to join our existing members who will remain loyal come what may. I welcome these developments and have helped to spearhead them.
From another point of view, however, the history and geography of the Synagogue have influenced what kind of rabbi I am, as has been the case with my predecessors. They have required a high-profile rabbi able to be the public face of Judaism, the mentor of a large segment of the Jewish community and a well known figure in public life.
Without undue modesty I believe the Great Synagogue has been consistently successful in choosing senior incumbents with urbanity, presence, broad culture and a broad outlook. The rabbinate of the Great is no place for the kleinshtetldik.
Personally, I must have done something right in my ambassadorial role. One current communal leader calls me “a one-man public relations committee for the community”. A Melbourne rabbi called me a national treasure. A well-known journalist refers to me as “urbane and widely respected”. The State Premier describes me as “a great advocate of community harmony”. A talk-show host has said I am “a very intelligent man”. Even a bus-driver seems to think I am someone; before Rosh HaShanah, a bus pulled up at the Elizabeth Street corner as I was about to cross and the driver opened the door and called, Shanah Tovah, rabbi!” Perhaps the ultimate, humbling accolade was to be called by a Jewish leader “a great communicator”.
I must have counselled Jewish communities with some wisdom. One congregation’s past president says that in time of need I was his first port of call. Another president says I am his congregation’s mentor.
I admit I enjoy my public role and I believe I do it well. I am a well-known Jewish presence on civic, state and national occasions. I feature quite frequently on the media. I try to exercise an influence privately as well as publicly: when I help to put out fires of a metaphorical kind, especially in inter-faith relations, the community reaps the benefit without being aware of what has happened. I take part in the debate on countless social and moral issues, though the media do not always want to know because I tend not to say outrageous or outlandish things.
I am comfortable in the public and cultural life of the nation, not only as a back-bencher but in an active capacity – opening exhibitions, launching books, organising events, giving keynote speeches, lecturing at universities, chairing meetings, and even doing film voice-overs. I play a role in movements as varied as freemasonry and aboriginal reconciliation. I am involved in the Defence Department and on various trusts and public committees. I am constantly engaged with people of other faiths and cultures and we respect each other.
I encounter remarkably little prejudice. I do not think Australia is or ever has been significantly antisemitic, even whilst acknowledging that there are spates of antisemitic incidents which no-one can satisfactorily explain. I believe the ordinary fair-go Australian is a fundamentally decent person. The fact that I sometimes receive letters, generally anonymous, that say abusive things about Jews, Judaism, Israel and myself (including the accusation that I am “an ignorant bigot”) is an aberration, and in any case I see no reason to react to a person who lacks the courage to sign their name.
Within the Jewish community I have my critics. Some are less than happy when they see Sheikh Hilaly in a press photograph with me. Whilst there is no moral equivalence in the two episodes, some in the orthodox community used to disapprove when they saw me in the same photograph as a liberal rabbi. More significantly, I have learnt that there is no longer any automatic respect for rabbis, and when I take up a position of Torah conscience on some issues there are always those who accuse me of being unreasonable. But I can only be who I am – a rabbi who believes in the word of God, who is convinced that Torah is right, and who is prepared to leave ultimate judgments to the Almighty.
Being the senior rabbi of the Great Synagogue is two full-time jobs. One is as rabbi of the community; the other is as rabbi of the Shule. I have been at the Great long enough to feel not only at home with the Synagogue but in love with it. Its splendid surroundings present a wondrous ambience. I enjoy wandering through the building on High Holydays and seeing wall-to-wall people who are not just faces but individuals with their joys and sorrows, their successes and failures, their courage and dignity. They have become my extended family.
I am not only comfortable with the ambience but with the ethos of the Great Synagogue. Not every congregant, indeed very few, would claim to be a hundred per cent observant of Jewish practice. Indeed some are not sure whether they even believe in God (though a few tell me they believe in the rabbi, and whilst I appreciate the compliment it seems like a polite form of idolatry). But the Great is a congregation with attitude – a civilised orthodoxy, reasoned and rational, seeking to stand for tradition and live in the midst of modernity.
Unfortunately there were long decades when there was little learning or understanding of the tradition at the Great. This has now changed for the better and for ever. Adult education is an integral part of the Shule. Our OzTorah brings a Torah message to hundreds of readers all over the world and is used by rabbis in many other places. We are a congregation growing in knowledge.
There were long decades when even the Synagogue itself made compromises with halachah with hardly a voice of protest. This has now given way to a firmer halachic stance, whilst constantly seeking ways within halachah to find space for women’s spirituality, in particular. In this respect one of my proudest roles is as rabbinic mentor of the Sydney Women’s Tephillah Group for a number of years.
The Great Synagogue style is not for everyone. Not only the top hats and morning coats, not only the rabbinic caps and gowns, but the sheer stateliness of the Shule and its services. On the other hand, the touchy-feely style which takes liberties with the set nussach is not for us. There are those who are uncomfortable with intellectual rigour in the pulpit, and are not sure the rabbinic voice should address broader issues so often, but on the other hand the homely meiselach of some places are not for us.
The Jewish community role of the Great Synagogue and its clergy is often misunderstood. It is simply not true that we aim to rule. We long ago abandoned any claim to paternal or maternal authority over the community. But on the other hand countless people still look up to us as “The Big Shule” and look to us whenever they need help, even though they are not officially members of the congregation. Not only individuals and families, but rabbis and congregations too. Rabbis criticise me and sometimes seek to have me unfrocked but they all, orthodox and non-orthodox alike, come to me for help and advice.
Congregations resent us at one moment for our eminence and (imagined) affluence, but the next minute they need a mentor and do not hesitate to consult us. Organisations too, even those who would not publicly admit to any religious affiliations, are constantly in search of our guidance and advice. So its’s all very interesting.
30 Not Out. Not a bad record. Thank you for giving me the privilege of being part of the Great. It’s had its moments of frustration, but I am grateful to God that, as the Psalmist says, “the lines have fallen for me in pleasant places”.
This article was first published in 2002.