The Working Group established by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in 2019 to inquire into and make recommendations regarding the administration, finances, governance, communal oversight and other matters concerning the Sydney Beth Din (SBD) has now brought down its final report.
The Working Group was established following a decision by Justice Sackar of the Supreme Court of NSW (upheld by a majority of the Court of Appeal), which identified serious Governance issues relating to the SBD, including finding the senior religious leaders of the SBD guilty of contempt of court. That decision generated great consternation within the Jewish community.
After conducting wide-ranging interviews with members of the Jewish community, Jewish clergy and the SBD itself, reading written submissions from these sources, and researching the practices and set-up of batei din overseas and in Victoria, the Working Group concluded that “substantive reform of the SBD is required for it to be restored to a position where it enjoys the support, confidence and respect of the community”.
The report’s recommendations are directed principally to the model and structure of the SBD. Key recommendations include:
- There should be a “restructuring” of the SBD providing for “the separation of the judicial and administrative functions of the SBD and credible mechanisms of governance and accountability”.
- “The financial and organisational management of the SBD should be overseen by a lay committee that does not include the dayanim and is broadly representative of the Orthodox community – including by having women on the committee. The Working Group regards this as fundamental to achieving a minimum level of appropriate governance and accountability.”
The report criticises the SBD’s “shambolic lack of administrative professionalism”, which it says “appears to be exacerbated by a lack of resourcing, but is not fully explained by that factor”. It finds that these deficiencies are also “no doubt facilitated by a lack of accountability of the members of the SBD to anyone but themselves”.
The Working Group concludes: “This further reflects the critical need for a lay Board, separate from the dayanim, to whom the dayanim are accountable not for their Halachic decision making but for the efficient and timely performance of their tasks. Indeed, we think it fair to observe that the Rabbis would be greatly assisted by a Board who could relieve the Rabbis of administrative tasks for which they appear ill-equipped or grossly under resourced or possibly both. This would permit the Rabbis to focus their attention on matters of Halachic expertise. The Rabbis must be willing to relinquish these matters to others, and indeed should welcome such a development.”
Beyond these recommendations, which the report describes as “matters of broad principle”, the Working Group has made twelve recommendations about the SBD’s “operational and procedural aspects” relating to the training of dayanim and financing and resources among other issues.
Commenting on the report, NSWJBD President Lesli Berger said “I urge everyone in the Jewish community to read the whole report. The standing and reputation of the Sydney Beth Din are important to the whole Jewish community and not only to those who are religiously observant.”
He praised the members of the Working Group for undertaking “a difficult and thankless task”.
“The Working Group has conscientiously sought a way forward that will strengthen the Sydney Beth Din, which would be very much in its interests as well as the interests of the Jewish community as a whole”, Mr Berger said. “It has taken meticulous care to hear from all interested parties and to consider all viewpoints. In its analysis, conclusions, recommendations and overall tone the report is well-informed, measured and balanced.”
Mr Berger called on the community to give the report and its recommendations its backing. “It deserves the support of all parts of the Jewish community, including the Sydney Beth Din itself.”