SYDNEY, Australia — A Sydney rabbi took the “extraordinary” step of asking a civil court to rule that Jewish law should govern his employment contract because he is a senior judge of Sydney’s Jewish tribunal that might have otherwise heard the dispute.
Rabbi Moshe Gutnick was less than two hours away from being made redundant by Bondi’s orthodox Mizrachi synagogue on Tuesday night when a NSW Supreme Court judge ordered that the dispute should be subject to Jewish law and heard by a Jewish tribunal other than the one he sits on.
The rabbi will continue to perform his functions without pay until the dispute is finalised — despite the challenge of having to give sermons to members of his congregation who want him to leave his post.
Rabbi Gutnick works part-time and is paid $80,000 a year, plus super, a sum the Mizrachi synagogue says it cannot afford because of its perilous financial state.
The Mizrachi synagogue met on Tuesday night but the congregation was injuncted against voting on Rabbi Gutnick’s role being made redundant. It says the dispute should have been handled like any other corporation wanting to make an employee redundant — but the judge disagreed.
At the heart of the dispute is the issue of whether Rabbi Gutnick has “life tenure” at the synagogue. He claims he does and that as such he has the right for any dispute over his role to be referred firstly to a Jewish tribunal. It also means he will be in line for a far greater redundancy package — more than $1 million.
The Mizrachi synagogue says it is verging on administration and the court order may force it to trade while insolvent, which is a breach of the Corporations Law.
But justice Richard White said he thought this was a threat being made by the synagogue and said the best place to resolve the issue of life tenure was a Jewish tribunal.
Rabbi Gutnick, the brother of mining magnate “Diamond Joe” Gutnick, is a senior judge of the Sydney Jewish court, the Beth Din, and the matter is now likely to be resolved by overseas experts or heard in a Jewish tribunal in London or the US.
Rabbi Gutnick was “not celebrating this as a victory”, his lawyer Michael Frankel told The Australian yesterday. “He is saddened that he was caused to go to this length.”
Because Rabbi Gutnick sits on the Jewish court, he did not want any perception of bias. But it also creates a further delay for the parties, who will have to look overseas for experts to hear the dispute.
The parties have been in dispute for some time. A mooted merger between Mizrachi and the Great Synagogue in Sydney would have resulted in Rabbi Gutnick receiving a $1 million-plus payment and retiring from his current duties but the merger fell through.
In a letter sent to his congregants last month, posted on the Australian Jewish News website, Rabbi Gutnick says “in order to protect the welfare of my family and my capacity to provide for them, I have been forced to take the extraordinary step of seeking orders from the civil courts”.