CALLS are growing for an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) and fresh board elections at Temple Beth Israel (TBI) to quell instability at the 92-year-old Progressive congregation.
The move came after Rabbi Dr John Levi, a venerated emeritus rabbi of the shule and highly respected voice in worldwide Progressive Judaism, expressed deep concern about the synagogue’s direction.
At an April 4 crisis meeting, a group of TBI congregants of decades’ standing conveyed to the executive a sense of alarm within the congregation that chazzan Michel Laloum is being investigated for unspecified complaints, has received no public support from the board in relation to the allegations, and has been barred from commenting about the matter.
In a March 29 email to members, TBI president Joanne Loewy-Irons announced the shule sought legal advice from “a respected independent law firm” which has begun investigating the cantor’s “conduct at work”.
“The investigation process is confidential and the board will not receive any update from the firm … until it has concluded,” stated Loewy-Irons, adding that “all participants are prohibited from revealing details”.
Approached by The AJN, Loewy-Irons stated, “The board of TBI believes it is getting the balance right between responding to calls for transparency in its decision-making and protecting both the integrity of the investigation and the privacy of those involved. The board acknowledges this is a very challenging time for the TBI community. Without prejudicing the outcome of the investigation, it is keen to ensure that all parties – Cantor Laloum, the complainants and other affected members – feel supported by TBI during this difficult time.”
TBI was rocked last year by the departure of Rabbi Gersh Lazarow, its senior rabbi, who then rescinded his resignation, but parted ways with TBI again in January following allegations late last year of widespread plagiarism in his sermons, drashes and articles. Rabbi Kim Ettlinger and president Craig Levin also resigned last year.
Congregants were also told this week that the shule’s vice-president Judi Cohen has resigned to end perceptions of a conflict of interest, as her daughter Tammy Cohen is employed as a TBI staff member.
In December last year, Rabbi Gary Robuck, a former senior rabbi of Sydney’s North Shore Temple Emanuel, and a chazzan and principal baal koreh (Torah reader), began a 12-month contract as TBI’s interim rabbi, telling The AJN at the time, “I look forward to collaborating, being a good teammate in support of the staff, to assist the members of the community in whatever way they require, and to provide strong leadership at the board table. I bring not only experience but enthusiasm.”
The AJN has heard that unless a number of stalwarts are co-opted onto the board under TBI’s constitution to stabilise the congregational leadership, and with the next AGM not due until November, the only alternative would be early elections.
In a widely circulated April 1 email, Rabbi Levi – who was TBI’s senior rabbi for 23 years, has worked with the shule for more than six decades, and was vice-president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism – expressed dismay at how the board aired accusations against its cantor.
He said for some time now Laloum “has been subjected to conditions of employment that would have destroyed a lesser human being”.
Rabbi Levi said that in recent months, he and his wife Robyn “have been bombarded by messages from distressed and alarmed congregants” about the direction TBI has been taking.
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