Shul suspends its rabbi ‘for usury protest’

By Simon Rocker, August 6, 2009
Supporters of Rabbi Natan Asmoucha demonstrate outside Bevis Marks Synagogue on Monday

Supporters of Rabbi Natan Asmoucha demonstrate outside Bevis Marks Synagogue on Monday

The rabbi of Britain’s oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks in the East End of London, has been suspended over his participation in a protest against banks charging high interest rates.

Rabbi Natan Asmoucha, who arrived from Zimbabwe just a year and a half ago, faced allegations of gross misconduct at a disciplinary hearing on Monday convened by the mahamad (executive) of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation.

But angry congregants have attacked the executive’s action, claiming it was merely a pretext to carry out a previous proposal to make the rabbi redundant.

Around 20 of the rabbi’s supporters staged a show of solidarity at the synagogue when he came to the hearing, whose verdict remains unknown.

But an email seen by the JC on Wednesday suggested that Rabbi Asmoucha had rejected a compromise deal to leave put to him by the mahamad.

It was “entitled to review matters which are confidential in private”, according to Ronel Lehmann, the mahamad’s spokesman. “A full statement will be issued as soon as possible.”

Rabbi Asmoucha, who was unavailable for comment, took part last month in an anti-usury rally organised by the charity, London Citizens. A group of interfaith figures set off from Bevis Marks, after being shown around the historic building by the rabbi.

But he was suspended two weeks ago and then told he would face a disciplinary hearing that could lead to his dismissal.

He was alleged to have exposed the synagogue to potential risk by allowing demonstrators to enter it without security checks; and to have failed to get authorisation for being involved in a political event.

But the mahamad’s decision has engraged congregants, who have already voiced concern over the future of the synagogue in past weeks.

Sam Dias, a warden of Bevis Marks and former mahamad member, said: “It goes back to the earlier situation when the mahamad told Rabbi Asmoucha that, because of the financial situation of the synagogue, they would have to dispense with his services. That was put on hold until September because of representations from the committee at Bevis Marks.

“In the meantime, this situation arose and the mahamad immediately seized on it. In my view, it wasn’t particularly serious. He didn’t consult the right people and for that, he should have his knuckles rapped.

“But the severity of the mahamad’s action indicates that they are using this an excuse to implement their previous intention of removing him from his position.”

He said that the rabbi had faced a “moral dilemma” over participation in the rally. “If he hadn’t gone, people would have said that Jews are usurers and it would have revived the old allegations. He felt he had to join, to fight our corner.”

Doris Osen, 79, who said her family had been linked to the synagogue since its beginnings, was among those who turned up on Monday to show support for the rabbi. She said she would reconsider her membership depending on what happened to him. “It would break my heart to have to leave the synagogue I was brought up in,” she said.

“Rabbi Asmoucha is a good man… They have treated him very badly. For some reason, they want to get rid of him
and this was a good excuse. It was dropped into their lap,” she said.

Another supporter, Simon Greenberg, a 33-year-old filmmaker based in East London, said that the mahamad was “underestimating the passion of the East End Jews”, adding: “They will fight this.”

Last updated: 1:24pm, August 7 2009