Obituary: Rabbi Raymond Apple

Modern Orthodox Rabbi from ‘down under’ who bridged gaps between all faiths


SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 6: Rabbi Raymond Apple of the Great Synagogue in Sydney prepares his memorial service 06 November for assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabbi Apple said that while he condemned the assassination, PM Rabin's actions had alienated a section of the Jewish people. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP via Getty Images)

His work bridged the UK, Israel and Australia, but the influence of Rabbi Raymond Apple, who has died in Jerusalem aged 88, was as towering as the miles he traversed.

Rabbi Apple served the London congregations of Bayswater and Hampstead between 1960 and 1972 before returning to the Australia of his birth, to take up the role of senior rabbi at the Great Synagogue in Sydney, which he maintained for three decades. He was one of Australia’s highest profile rabbis, regarded as a leading spokesman for Judaism and revered for his tolerance towards the Progressive movement.

Apple was noted for his “thoughtful, deeply committed brand of modern Orthodoxy”, according to the CEO of the executive council of Australian Jewry, Peter Wertheim, who told the Australian Jewish News:

“In an age in which extreme and polarising ideas increasingly intruded into religious discourse, Rabbi Apple stressed that the ways of Judaism “are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” Despite a formidable intellect, there was nothing of the demagogue about the soft-spoken man with a beaming smile who addressed audiences with insight, eloquence and wisdom.

Rabbi Apple demonstrated his understanding of immigrant communities, especially of Russian Jews, turning a blind eye to their lack of kashrut as long as they had halachic weddings. He said: “Holocaust survivors said I was the only rabbi who could understand them.”

Britain’s late Emeritus Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks considered him as a friend and a mentor, as did a number of senior clerics in the church. Although Apple did not betray any specific political leanings, one former New South Wales Labor front-bencher, Walt Secord, recalled a sermon in which the rabbi revealed his belief that Australia should eventually become a republic. This was in 1999, three years before the country’s republic referendum. “His views became front page news in London, where he was dubbed the ‘Australian Republican rabbi,” said Secord.

Rabbi Apple wrote a number of books, including The Jewish way: Jews and Judaism in Australia, an encyclopae and published numerous articles on related subjects. He authored a weekly Torah website and  an Ask the Rabbi forum. He answered unusual questions on J-Wire, an Australian and New Zealand website, on such diverse subjects as the origin of the matchmaker and the belief in astrology.

In his regular blog last November, he wrote: “Abraham’s self-description was ‘settler and sojourner’.

“Today the phrase. ‘the settlers’ resonates in anti-Israel sloganism. Jews who live anywhere in Israel are tarred with the ‘settler’ brush, even those who live in big cities like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. Hijacking the word ‘settler’, the critics imply that Israelis are usurpers.”

Raymond Apple was born in Melbourne and educated at Melbourne High School. He came under the influence of Rabbi Jacob Danglow and Dr Samuel Billigheimer, a refugee professor who could only find work in what he termed “anti-cultural Australia”, as a teacher, including at cheder.

Rabbi Apple recalled: “He built around him a nucleus of followers and students. I went to his house several days a week, first for barmitzvah lessons and then for O and Al level Hebrew.

“My family used to laugh when I went there on Shabbat afternoons. They said it was for the cake, not for the lessons. I said it was for both. His wife was a wonderful cook.”

But a key turning point came when Apple’s mother died when he was 16. It was Billigheimer who supported him through his “religious crisis”. He recalled: “I was always asking religious questions, delving into religion in libraries.”

Apple proved a promising student who graduated in arts and law, with vague thoughts of taking up a career in either diplomacy or law. He later reflected that he made use of those skills but in “a completely different context.”

After graduating from the University of Melbourne with a BA in Arts and Laws he continued at the University of New England in Australia, gaining a Master of Literature degree, followed by a Doctorate of Laws from the University of New South Wales, a doctorate from the Australian Catholic University,and an Honorary Fellowship of the University of Sydney. He also received a Distinguished Alumni award from the University of New England.

He moved to London’s Jews’ College,now the London School of Jewish Studies, to train as a Hebrew teacher, but soon set his sights on the ministry. He gained a teaching diploma and his rabbinic diploma (smicha) at Jews’ College. He married Marian Unterman and took up positions at Bayswater and Hampstead synagogues from 1960 until 1972, when he was headhunted by Sydney’s prestigious Great Synagogue. He was the Senior Rabbi there from 1972 until 2005 and served as a dayan (rabbinic judge) for the Sydney Beth Din.

The antipodean rabbi once compared ministering to the United Synagogue with being a leading rabbi in Australia: “Working for the United Synagogue is like in a chain store - all decisions are made by the head office. When I went to Australia, I was the head office. I could not pass the buck. In the United Synagogue I did not have to be unpopular.”

Apple twice held the position of president of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australia and New Zealand while retaining his role as the organisation’s rabbinic governor. He was active in every part of Australian life from the army to academia and proved a strong voice in interfaith work as patron and former joint president and chairman of the Australian Council of Christians and Jews. He was a leader of dialogue with Islam and with the Catholic, Anglican and Uniting Churches.

Some considered him the Australian equivalent of then British Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks. But he retorted: “There was no need for a Chief Rabbi. I was the Jewish voice to the public.”

His lengthy ministry saw international changes which affected Australian Jewry, too. Reflecting on his achievements, he said: “Pro-actively I developed a climate of positive, informed Judaism. Every Jew was precious to me, regardless of their opinion or level of observance.”

Apple was an Australian Army Reserve chaplain for 15 years, and in 1988–2006 became senior rabbi to the Australian Defence Force. He also served for two terms, as chairman of the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services, the first Jewish representative to hold this office. For this work he received a series of important honours. His activities on behalf of interfaith dialogue were recognised and he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2004. He also held the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Medal.

After retirement Rabbi Apple made aliyah in 2006 with his wife Marian. There he served as president of the Israel Regional section of the Rabbinical Council of America between 2016 and 2018.

Rabbi Apple died in Jerusalem. He is survived by Marian, his wife of 63 years, children, Shmuel, Riva, Adina and Benseon, 20 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.


Rabbi Raymond Apple: born December 27, 1935. Died January 19, 2024

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