This week’s Parasha may be Noach but I’m looking forward to Lech Lecha, next week’s Torah reading about the call to Abraham. I’m focusing on Lech Lecha because it’s particularly resonant for me as I announce my resignation from Caulfield Shule as its Senior Rabbi, a position I have held for 13 years. My time with you will end in October 2021.
Thirteen is of course the age of independence, the bar mitzvah year for a young Jewish man, a time when we set him off on his life’s journey; when we issue the call and challenge to him to “Lech Lecha” – go forth young man, have trust in Hashem that he will show you the place of promise, the land of your dreams. And be sure to put in your best, to know thyself, to travel not only without but also within. The words are “Lech Lecha”, which can also mean journey into yourself, ‘to your own self be true’.
I left the age of 13 behind a long time ago but my bar mitzvah year at Caulfield Shule seems an appropriate point to plan my departure and to venture towards other destinations that Hashem may have in mind for me, other places out there and in here that I need to explore. As the wise King Solomon put it: “For everything there is a season and a time”. You just have to be able to read the seasons and choose your time.
Leaving is rarely an easy or simple thing, especially when you are separating from people and places that you love and have invested in. I have poured my heart, soul and years of my life into Caulfield Shule. When I was first approached by the exceptional and indefatigable Gary Frydman to be the Shule’s senior rabbi, I was apprehensive. Leaders from across the Melbourne Jewish community warned me that it was a toxic place, a dangerous space for a rabbi! It was certainly a deeply wounded and fractured congregation.
I have never been afraid of hard work and challenges and have preferred to build from the foundation rather than to add to a well-established building. Caulfield Shule may have been daunting, but it was also ready and ripe for change. I was fortunate to be surrounded then by a supportive and talented group of people who were willing to embrace my vision of Caulfield Shule as a centre of accepting and enlightened Modern Orthodoxy with an ethos of inclusivity and social justice and a goal of placing people first. They understood that the overwhelming majority of our community was not religious and did not find meaning in their shule being a place of prayer alone.
It was our mission to transform Caulfield Hebrew Congregation into a real community centre, to ensure it was not only an excellent “Beit Tefillah” – House of Prayer- but also a “Beit Midrash” – a house of learning and particularly, perhaps essentially a “Beit Knesset” a place where Jews gathered and connected. A locus of diversity – diversity of ages and interests; a house of many portals, a multitude of entries for all kinds of Jews.
The programmes we created flowed from these goals: Caulfield Bubs for pre-schoolers; a revamped children’s and bar mitzvah programme under the leadership of a newly appointed Youth Director; inkr572 Shabbat dinners for young adults (20-30 somethings); Tuesday Shmoozeday for seniors… Educational programmes have included the popular Scholars-in-Residence both local and from overseas, in addition to weekly shiurim. Social justice was activated through the creation of Darchei Shalom which involved visits to and talks from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Aboriginal people and the homeless. It later consolidated into the Soup ‘n Chat programme at an Inkerman Rd public housing estate.
One of my priorities was to engage our youth and to appoint and foster talented youth directors. We have been fortunate to have outstanding young people from our first to our most recent. I was delighted to facilitate the move of Hineni, a moderate and socially aware Modern Orthodox youth group to Caulfield Shule.
About a year after my arrival, Dov Farkas became our Chazan and injected our tefillot with his superb voice and energy. It was Dov’s vision that brought the Israeli choir Kolot Min Hashamayim to our shores and which transformed our Yamim Noraim services. Caulfield Shule moved from a chattering market to an inspirational matrix.
Maya Angelou once remarked: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel”. The goal of my rabbinic career has always been to put people first, to connect to people at significant points in their lives, to reach out, support and empower. It is one of the rare privileges of this position and I have striven to make people feel appreciated, affirmed, nurtured, comforted and recognised.
I may not have always succeeded in this and inevitably some will have been disappointed or inadvertently offended. I’m sorry for any unintended harm. I also know that some have felt affronted by my social activism, championing of the LGBTIQ community (and their place in Orthodoxy), climate change, refugees and promoting of multifaith relationships especially with the Muslim community. I make no apologies for this. The role of a rabbi is not to be a populist, but to be a model of principled leadership. I have always been guided by the maxim that my job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.
I like to think I have contributed to both the wider Australian and Jewish community, through my various roles such as ADF Principal Rabbi, a member of the Premier’s Multicultural Advisory Group (which I helped establish), and membership of AIJAC’s editorial board and Swinburne University’s Ethics Committee. Additionally, I hope I have helped to change the perception and experience of Orthodoxy, demonstrating its capacity to be relevant, engaging and compelling for all Jews. I intend to continue doing so.
The Torah tells us: “It’s not good to be alone” and if you’re lucky enough you should find an “ayzer kenegdo,” a loving, honest and compatible partner. Caron hasn’t sought to be a traditional rebbetzin but has always been beside me, supporting me, and I love her for that. She and my children have put up with the relentless and sometimes ridiculous demands of the rabbinate.
Building (or rebuilding) a community cannot ever be an individual endeavour. Our community is blessed to have many people of enormous ability, skills, energy and generosity. CHC has grown and flourished because of their readiness to become involved. For that, I am extremely grateful and appreciative.
I may be readying to leave Caulfield Shule, but I’m not planning on leaving Melbourne or the rabbinate. I ain’t done yet and feel energised and excited by the decision to move on! I can hear the “Lech Lecha” ringing in my soul. I’m not yet sure which direction I will head in and will be exploring various opportunities and options. I trust that the God of Avraham will open up other unexplored territories and hope that I will have the wisdom to discern them and to choose with an informed heart.
I want to thank you all for the journey we have shared so far at Caulfield Shule, for allowing me into your lives. Thank you for the innumerable moving and positive messages I’ve received over the past week. I hope in time, to reply to each and every one. I look forward to our final year together and to maintaining and developing the countless friendships we have formed.
Shabbat Shalom Chaverim