A Bixenspanner in the works

November 24, 2016 23:22

'Subject to contract," Shloime Yitzchok Bixenspanner will next year succeed Pinchas Roberts as rabbi of the Hendon Adass Yisroel synagogue . Unlike the very English sounding "Roberts," "Bixenspanner" does not trip easily off the tongue. But that should be the least of Bixenspanner's worries. What should concern him are the multiple fissures that have of late riven the synagogue over which he has agreed to preside and resulted in the exit particularly of younger members of the kehillah.

The Hendon AY synagogue was established pre-Second-World-War by Orthodox Jews who might have been expected to join the Hendon United Synagogue but who were alienated by what they perceived as weaknesses in its religious practices. The leading members of Raleigh Close were not for the most part Sabbath observant. The Raleigh Close building was constructed along Reform lines, with the Bimah right in front of the Ark (I hasten to add that the interior has long since been reconstructed). Worse still, Raleigh Close boasted a mixed choir! Prior to the construction of the Raleigh Close edifice, its congregation had worshipped in a building in Brent Street. So it was no doubt a source of satisfaction to the founders of the Hendon AY community that it was this very building plot that they purchased in 1940, and on which they constructed a house of worship that was kosher in every respect.

Pinchas Roberts has presided over this community for half-a-century. Respected rather than liked, over the recent past he has found it increasingly difficult to hold together a congregation deeply affected by demographic, social and political dynamics.

A constituent of the Union of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, the Hendon Adass threatened to part company with its parent body in 2006, following revelations that the Union had made grants to the viciously anti-Zionist Neturei Karta sect. The Union itself is now heavily influenced by busy conventicles of anti-Zionist Satmar Chasidim. While the Hendon Adass is neither anti- nor pro-Zionist, many of its members are zionistically inclined: there is an "unofficial branch" of ex-Hendon Adass members in Netanya, Israel.

In relation to Zionism, Roberts has trod warily. But, in the matter of the Barnet eruv, which carries the imprimatur of the United Synagogue's Beth Din, he made his opposition clear from the start. We need not waste time here trying to figure out whether Charedi opposition to the Barnet eruv was/is driven primarily by religious or by political considerations. The fact is that a significant segment of the Hendon Adass membership - especially young families - took advantage of the eruv and was for its pains castigated, ostracised and even publicly denounced. The synagogue has naturally lost members as a result: some have defected to the Federation of Synagogues, others to the growing variety of small, independent Orthodox congregations that have emerged in north-west London. In searching for a successor to Pinchas Roberts, the current synagogue management has, therefore, sought a "black hat" more attuned to the times in which we live. Such a person was not going to be found in the UK, but Shloime Bixenspanner, a Canadian who studied in Switzerland and Jerusalem, fitted the bill.

Apparently following the opinion of the late Rav Moshe Feinstein (who ruled, broadly, that if an eruv is already in existence it may be used), Bixenspanner has intimated that he has no objection in principle to his congregants making use of the eruv, though he has warned against making the synagogue a "buggy park."

Interestingly, Bixenspanner boasts an internet presence. He has made use of it to deliver talmudic discourses to international audiences. This will have endeared him to some sections of Hendon ultra-Orthodoxy but will have raised further suspicions among others.

Earlier this month, at an Extraordinary General Meeting, Bixenspanner obtained the votes of 101 of the 155 Hendon Adass members who bothered to vote. Not quite the two-thirds majority that the synagogue constitution reportedly stipulates. It may suffice for the moment but it's hardly an overwhelming mandate, is it?

Bixenspanner, in short, will have his work cut out just to retain the current Adass membership, let alone expand it.

November 24, 2016 23:22

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