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    Great Synagogue rabbis & the British Chief Rabbinate

    When Rabbi Porush assumed office at the Great Synagogue in 1940 he arrived with the additional title of Chief Rabbi’s representative in Australia.

    1961 Archibald Prize winning portrait of Rabbi Porush by Wep Pidgeon

    Not that this gave him an easy ride in Sydney, especially when world-class rabbinic figures such as Rabbi Harry Freedman challenged Rabbi Porush’s claim to be the rabbinic spokesman of the community.

    Rabbi Jacob Danglow also challenged Rabbi Porush’s claim to seniority when it came to signing the Call to Australia, and in the end it was Rabbi Danglow whose name appeared on the document in his capacity as Senior Hebrew Chaplain.

    Nonetheless, Rabbi Porush was recognised everywhere as a man of immense stature, both because he was rabbi of the Mother Congregation of Australian Jewry and by virtue of his innate gifts of scholarship, intellect, personality and dignity, and no-one questioned my description of him as “the uncrowned Chief Rabbi of Australia”.

    Rabbi Porush’s name was automatically, and rightly, put forward as a candidate to succeed Rabbi Brodie as Chief Rabbi of Britain. While I was a great admirer and supporter of the eventual choice of Lord Jakobovits, I have no doubt but that Rabbi Porush would have been a great success had he been appointed. Perhaps one of the arguments against his candidacy was his age: he was then in his late 50s.

    Another Australian name mentioned in connection with the Chief Rabbinate was Rabbi Shalom Coleman, who was then rabbi of the South Head Synagogue and later the spiritual leader of the Perth community. Rabbi Coleman, now 90, has had a distinguished career and would also have occupied the Chief Rabbinate with distinction.

    The Great Synagogue was regarded for very many years as the leading colonial and Empire congregation, the antipodean bastion of Anglo-Jewry. Its ways were the ways of London; its loyalty to the Chief Rabbinate was axiomatic. No appointment was made to the Great without the Chief Rabbi’s sanction and generally his recommendation.

    The Synagogue paid towards the Chief Rabbi’s Fund and it was only because of inefficiency in London that the financial bond was severed. Indeed in 1978 when I was visiting London the then president of the Great asked me to see the Secretary of the Chief Rabbinate Council about somehow renewing our official links, and though I was promised that they would get back to us with a suggested arrangement we heard no more.

    We therefore have no constitutional allegiance to the Chief Rabbi’s office, though we have always retained great personal respect for those who occupied the Chief Rabbinic chair. Many other congregations lack our historic ties with Britain and look elsewhere for their rabbinic guidance.

    The Chief Rabbinate itself, never a bed of roses, has become a much more difficult responsibility than ever before because a chief rabbi is only as successful as the degree of allegiance he attracts, and in a community which is no longer homogeneous the office is a daunting undertaking.

    No wonder that an Australian rabbi is said to have told his wife, “If ever I show the slightest interest in being Chief Rabbi, hit me hard over the head!”

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