A senior rabbi’s lucrative leaving
Ihave more than once in this column drawn attention to the indifferent quality of the indifferent management that has been one of the most outstanding characteristics of Anglo-Jewish communal leadership. In so doing, I have been forced to wonder why it is that otherwise rational people, of proven ability and (often) exceptional achievement in whatever worldly pursuits they have pursued, seem to have little difficulty in discarding all this wisdom and good sense when it comes to ordering communal affairs.
A year ago, I featured the embarrassing efforts of those in charge of the Stanmore Synagogue to choose a successor to Rabbi Dr Jeffrey Cohen. I have also had the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations in my sights — its multiple incompetencies being all the more wondrous because it continues to believe that its management operates behind closed doors, whereas (in fact) these incompetencies are the stock-in-trade of every charedi gossip in town. My own Federation of Synagogues has featured more than once in my list of communal bunglers.
All these examples ought to have inured me against any otherwise understandable shock should further examples come my way. But they haven’t. The story I have now to tell is breathtaking. And it possesses no hint of the redeeming comedy that has characterised some of the other tales I have told.
Some weeks ago, the Spanish & Portuguese Jews’ Congregation (SPJC) announced the impending retirement of one of its most senior rabbis, Dayan Pinchas Toledano.
From time to time, the SPJC has appointed a Haham — its own Chief Rabbi. But when the last Haham, the late Rabbi Dr Solomon Gaon, resigned in 1977, the Congregation could not agree on a successor.
The older SPJC families favoured Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy, Gibraltar-born and Jews’ College-trained. But the new money in the kehilla — brought to the table through the immigration into the UK of Sephardi Jews from North Africa and the Arab Middle East — favoured the Moroccan-born Rabbi Toledano.
So the office of Haham was in effect split. Dr Levy became the public face of the Congregation, and immersed himself in an ambitious education programme. Rabbi Toledano acted as the Congregation’s senior rabbinical expositor.
For the most part, this dual kingship has worked comparatively well. But it has not been without its tensions.
In the 19th century, and for most of the 20th, the SPJC lived in the shadow of the Ashkenazim. Of late, it appears to have rediscovered its self-confidence. As a result, there seems to be growing support for the idea that the office of Haham, vacant for 30 years, should be filled once more. However, this cannot be done while Rabbis Levy and Toledano are simultaneously in post. Somehow one or t’other must be eased out.
Every organisation is faced with such a situation from time to time, though one hopes it is dealt with in a manner which is open and consensual.
But, it seems, this is not what happened on November 27 last, when the Board of Elders of the SPJC was summoned together by its executive committee — the Mahamad — to discuss something of which (so two of those present have told me) no advance notice whatever was given.
It appears that when the Board of Elders assembled (at the Lauderdale Road Synagogue, West London) they were first required to sign an undertaking of confidentiality. Having done so, they were then presented with an extraordinary proposal: that Rabbi Toledano be asked to give up his contractual rights (such as they are) in return for the payment to him of a sum that seemed so huge that I had to ask one of my informants to repeat it as I thought I had misheard. Then there was a vote and, by a majority of 18 votes to 5, the proposal was reportedly endorsed. The papers that had been carefully distributed at the meeting were then carefully collected again. And that was that.
I want to make it clear that I am not questioning Rabbi Toledano’s legal rights and entitlements. His contract can presumably be terminated and, if so, I would certainly expect a Jewish organisation to do the right thing, and offer him more than his legal entitlement.
But the sum which has been mentioned to me — £525,000 — is large by any reasonable standard. If I were a member of the SPJC, I would be demanding to know the basis on which this sum has been calculated, and from which particular coffer it was to be taken.
I would also be more than a little concerned at the precedent it might set.
Of course, if I were Rabbi Toledano, I would be laughing all the way to the bank.