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As the Australian Shul Turns: Synagogue Served Eviction Notice

August 18, 2003
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In the latest episode of an ongoing Jewish soap opera, officials at an Australian synagogue and yeshiva were evicted last week.

The eviction came after a court ruled that the millions of dollars that diamond magnate Rabbi Joseph Gutnick gave his brother-in-law, the head of the Sydney Yeshiva, was a loan that had to be repaid, not a gift.

Nine sheriffs of the New South Wales Court took possession of the synagogue and seven other properties, including a boys school and rabbinical college.

Members watched quietly as Torahs, prayer books and rows of seating were carried out of the synagogue.

The story began almost a decade ago.

In 1994, Gutnick lent the beleaguered Sydney Yeshiva $3 million toward settling a debt of almost $16 million to the Commonwealth Bank.

To protect the loan, the yeshiva granted Gutnick mortgages over the properties. When he tried to exercise his right to sell them, the yeshiva attempted to block his moves in Sydney’s Supreme Court, claiming that the loans were a gift.

The court disagreed and awarded Gutnick his counter claim for just under $9 million.

Judge Peter Young gave the yeshiva until Aug. 11 to settle the matter or face a writ of possession.

Rabbi Feldman responded by appealing to a rabbinical court in Tel Aviv, which excommunicated Rabbi Gutnick on the grounds that he took his action to a secular court rather than a religious one. The Beit Din’s formal announcement said that the excommunication would be lifted if Gutnick froze all secular court actions.

Gutnick has brought a civil charge of contempt of court against Feldman that will be heard later this month.

Young has criticized Feldman’s move, claiming that it brought into question the dignity of Sydney’s Supreme Court. He warned Feldman that any further public announcements regarding the excommunication would results in warrants against him.

Much of the material removed last week was taken to the yeshiva’s high school property, which was not affected by the mortgages. But there is trouble there for Feldman, too: Teachers have not been paid for four months.

“This has been a very sad day for Sydney and a very difficult day for me. But I would like to see the synagogue stay as such, Gutnick told JTA.

“My aim is one way or another to retain a congregation there,” he said, adding that a different administration would be needed.

Feldman’s son, Eli, said, “Rabbi Gutnick would never have done this if the rebbe,” –the late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson — “was still alive. My father has established temporary facilities in his home for a minyan until we reorganize.”

The Melbourne-based Gutnick became a multimillionaire after following the rebbe’s advice to seek diamonds in the Australian Outback. He is an ardent supporter of the Likud Party and enjoys a close relationship with Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Speaking for the yeshiva, Rabbi Yossi Sigelman told the media: “We will move forward. What’s happened today we can do nothing about. We are planning functions bigger and better than we have done before and I am sure the community will help us re-establish ourselves.”

Three of the properties have been sold, including the Chabad-Lubavitch center in Sydney’s northern suburbs. It has been bought by communal interests, and the synagogue, mikvah and kindergarten will continue operations as normal.

The two other buildings sold housed a dormitory for 50 rabbinical students and a synagogue for expatriate Israelis.

But the jewel in the crown, the yeshiva synagogue established in 1961, stands empty, its front gates heavily padlocked and protected by security guards.

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