Sephardi leaders have been accused of victimising the rabbi of Britain’s oldest synagogue, Bevis Marks, after demanding he face a second disciplinary hearing in a fortnight.
Rabbi Natan Asmoucha, who was suspended three weeks ago, was issued with a final warning by the mahamad (executive) of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation over his involvement last month in a march against high bank interest rates.
But members of Bevis Marks are in uproar after learning that the mahamad had extended his suspension on Friday and made new allegations of gross misconduct against him.
Rebecca Osen, a Bevis Marks congregant, said: “The Bevis Marks committee and yehidim (members) believe these allegations to be untrue and feel Rabbi Asmoucha is being victimised.”
Rabbi Asmoucha, who came from Zimbabwe to the East End of London a year and a half ago, took part in an interfaith anti-usury demonstration organised by the charity London Citizens on July 22.
In a letter circulated this week to the members of the Board of Elders, the governing body of the Spanish and Portuguese, their president Alfred Magnus explained the disciplinary action.
Rabbi Asmoucha had allowed the demonstration to leave from the synagogue without “authority from or prior notification” from the community’s spiritual head Rabbi Abraham Levy, the mahamad or the Community Security Trust, Mr Magnus said.
“He gave all the demonstrators access to the inside of the synagogue, in order to be addressed by him, as well as its hall and courtyard, without any security checks first taking place.
“He then accompanied and assisted the demonstrators with their goal of delivering a political message to the chairman of the Royal Bank of Scotland, that had not been authorised by his employer.”
Mr Magnus further disclosed that “the mahamad are summoning Rabbi Asmoucha to a second disciplinary hearing on Monday August 17 for gross misconduct, because of his alleged serious breaches of confidentiality and for making seriously derogatory public statements about the mahamad and Rabbi Levy, the outcome of which could lead to termination of the rabbi’s employment, either summarily or otherwise.”
The original suspension had already provoked outrage among supporters of Bevis Marks.
Adam Osen — Mrs Osen’s husband — who is on the executive committee of Bevis Marks, told the mahamad that he found it “abhorrent that an interfaith action that passed peacefully and brought attention to an issue that is a sore point for many people as individuals, and for this nation as a whole, could be remotely construed as grounds for a suspension”.
Another of the rabbi’s local supporters, Julian Green, called his treatment “an absolute travesty” and called for a meeting to remove the mahamad.
Another member of the Bevis Marks committee, David Nunes, in an email to the chairman of the mahamad, Gerry Temple, said two weeks ago: “I must express my serious concern at the mahamad’s mishandling of the whole Asmoucha affair. We seem to be descending into a spiral of self-destruction.”
Rabbi Levy said: “I am very saddened by what is going on but I am not able to comment at this stage.”
The mahamad confined its response to a brief statement via its spokesman, Ronel Lehmann. “The mahamad do not wish to prejudice the outcome of the disciplinary process and will not make any further statement before a decision has been made.”
Mrs Osen has queried whether the mahamad has acted within the rules of the congregation’s constitution, which state that a chazan (cantor) who neglects his duties may be suspended by the mahamad for up to a month and “in such event, they shall forthwith convene a meeting of the Elders”.
Only weeks ago, members of Bevis Marks rallied in support of Rabbi Asmoucha after learning that he could face redundancy because of the Spanish and Portuguese’s financial situation.