Cunin Helps Save Shul Down Under

A Californian white knight has stepped in to solve a dispute between two warring Australian brothers-in-law.

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch, recently organized a consortium of philanthropists to come up with a $700,000 down payment to purchase Sydney properties costing $9.5 million AUS ($6.59 million U.S.) to give back to Sydney’s chief Chabad rabbi, Pinchas Feldman. Cunin will hold the properties in trust, but will allow Feldman to continue on in his role as communal rabbi.

Feldman lost the properties, which included the Yeshiva Synagogue and day school campus, after New South Wales (NSW) Supreme Court ruled in July that he needed to pay Joseph Gutnick, his Melbourne-based brother-in-law, $15 million AUS ($10.4 million U.S.) by Aug. 11. Feldman failed to pay the money by the date, so Gutnick sold the properties to non-Jewish investors, essentially closing down the Yeshiva Synagogue and school.

According to Australian press reports, in 1994, Gutnick gave Sydney’s Yeshiva Synagogue $5 million AUS ($3.47 million U.S.) to protect it from bankruptcy. In exchange, Gutnick received the mortgages over the properties. In 2001, Gutnick demanded repayment of the monies, plus $3 million AUS ($2.08 million U.S.) in interest. Feldman, who is married to Gutnick’s older sister Peninah, refused, charging that the $5 million had been a donation, not a loan.

Gutnick sued and won. The NSW Supreme Court awarded him $15 million, which included repayment of the loan, plus interest and court costs.

The Gutnicks are Australia’s premier rabbinic family. Joseph’s father, Chaim, was rabbi for many years at Elwood Synagogue, one of the oldest shuls in Melbourne. Of Chaim’s six children, two are rabbis, two are married to rabbis, one works in community service and Joseph, a businessman, is a world-renowned philanthropist who has donated millions of dollars to Jewish causes.

Speaking to The Journal from Australia, Joseph Gutnick confirmed that a deposit had been put on the properties and that Cunin was a friend of his brother-in-law, but said he knew nothing about Cunin’s involvement in the affair beyond what he read in the papers. "As you can imagine, I am not on the best terms with my sister and brother-in-law," he said.

Rabbi Chaim Cunin, public relations director for West Coast Chabad Lubavitch and the son of Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, told The Journal that the money donated to Sydney did not come from telethon donations or California Chabad funds, but were private funds donated expressly for the Australian shul by families involved with Chabad on an international level.

"This was a rescue effort," Chaim Cunin said. "West Coast Chabad put [the deal] together with five families, but the great majority of the funds came from one family. At this point [the donors] have chosen to remain anonymous."

Cunin said that his father arranged for the money to be donated after he heard the properties were sold to non-Jewish developers, because he promised at the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s funeral in 1994 to never let a Chabad institution close down.

"My father would do — and has done — the same thing in California, and not just in California, but all over the world," Chaim Cunin said.

However, there are some members of the Sydney community who are not happy that the Feldman will continue to be the spiritual leader of the community charging that his 30-year leadership was characterized by gross financial mismanagement.

"The [day] school had debts in excess of $30 million [$20.8 million U.S.]," said Daniel Hayman, who had previously sat on the school board. "In a normal organization, the person [who was responsible] would step down. He has run the place into the ground, and he is still trying to take control back."

Hayman, who spoke to The Journal from Australia, is now the treasurer of the Tzemach Tzedek congregation, a breakaway shul he helped form after the Yeshiva Synagogue closed down. Hayman said that 80 percent of Yeshiva’s members had joined the new congregation, and it is unlikely that they will return to Feldman even though he has his buildings back.

"The vast majority of the congregation does not want to daven with him," Hayman said.

Hayman was upset that Cunin’s intervention reinstated Feldman as rabbi, saying that the buildings had been bought with communal funds and did not belong to Feldman.

"The only thing that the community is upset about is that the buildings should be returned to the community, and not to Rabbi Feldman," he said. "[Cunin’s] intention is for Rabbi Feldman to go back as rabbi, but the community doesn’t want him."

In a statement, Feldman said, "We look forward to soon being able to pray in the Yeshiva Synagogue once again and continue the services that Yeshiva has traditionally offered the community with a renewed vigor. Now more than ever we need the support, both financial and spiritual, of our local community to complete this process and to lay the foundation for an even brighter future for the community of Sydney."