Rabbi could sue his synagogue for religious discrimination

IF Whitefield Synagogue succeeds in dismissing Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag, the congregation could face legal action for religious discrimination, age discrimination and breach of contract.

Supporters of Rabbi Guttentag are warning that the shul is miscalculating the potential damage of massive legal costs. For the first time since news emerged that there were attempts by the executive to make the minister and Chazan Yossi Muller redundant, a source close to Rabbi Guttentag, 59, has spoken to the Jewish Telegraph ahead of next Thursday’s Special General Meeting.

The synagogue is claiming that it can no longer afford the salaries of the pair.

The accounts show that Rabbi Guttentag and his wife Debbie cost the shul about £100,000 jointly, but that figure is understood to include NIC, health insurance and other contractual add-ons.

The source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "It can be said to amount to religious discrimination to select an employee and/or dismiss him because of his religious beliefs which includes his orthodoxy.

“Furthermore, Rabbi Guttentag is also being viewed and treated as old and out of touch, which can be said to be stereotyped and amount to age discrimination.

"Again, this is against the law of the land, and there is likely to be a financial penalty against an employer who goes down this path.” Some members are said to feel that Rabbi Guttentag is too Orthodox for the congregation. “He is too right wing and strict in his interpretation of halacha, they suggest, to be the rabbi for our congregation with its largely middle of the road membership,” said the source.

Apparently they cite the establishment of a kollel, the introduction of an eruv and refusing to allow girls participating in Shabbat batmitzvah ceremonies to recite their pieces in front of the Ark.

They are said also to object to the fact that he refuses to allow women to sit in the men’s section on a Shabbat morning (which some Orthodox synagogues permit with a mechitza), although he made provision for two rows for those with disabilities who were unable to access the ladies’ section, with an allocation of a further two rows if necessary.

“It is quite unprecedented for a congregation or its leaders to seek to dismiss a rabbi, who is quite conscientiously carrying out his proper appointed role," added the source, who insisted that it was a group of only about 40 families who were supporting the executive's move. Rabbi Guttentag is said to be “disappointed and perplexed” by the Chief Rabbi’s Office and the Manchester Beth Din declining to become involved in the dispute, believing this to be an HR matter between employer and employee rather than anything contravening Jewish law.

Rabbi Guttentag’s supporters also dispute the synagogue’s claim that its finances are in a parlous state and that membership has declined.

They insist that the shul breaks even and that membership has increased from 620 when Rabbi Guttentag arrived 32 years ago to 750 today.

They say that those who have left for other communities have been replaced by newcomers.

Commenting on a letter 13 years ago from Rabbi Guttentag to five former presidents (published recently by the Jewish Telegraph), in which he asked for a pay increase to help cover the costs of his five children’s weddings and to set them up financially, the source said that nothing ever came of his appeal.

He added that, despite Rabbi Guttentag’s contract stipulating retail price index-related annual increases, he had not received them for the past 10 years and had not sought to enforce his right, showing “rachmones” to the shul because he believed its budget could not cover them.

The source said the executive maintained that only 40 per cent of the membership paid full fees and was unable to collect outstanding dues.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Whitefield Synagogue has 50 per cent equity in Rabbi Guttentag’s home and he, apparently, still owes £220,000 on the mortgage. “Little did he think though, that 10 years later his salary would be frozen at the exact sum as 2008 and that subsequent executives would wrongly claim that there had, in effect, been a variation in his contract, and that because he had worked on, had accepted that his contract with the shul had now changed and that his new contract would not entitle him to any pay rise whatsoever,” added the source.

He pointed out that, possibly unlike other congregational ministers, Rabbi Guttentag was contracted not to undertake any work outside the synagogue and had no way of supplementing his income.

He concluded: “The answer is not to simply dismiss key spiritual leaders of the shul and replace them with younger rabbis who are more in line with their views and their outlook and their standards.

“Rabbi Guttentag and Chazan Muller feel that they are being unfairly driven from their positions.

“It is crucial that members have all the information before them before they cast their vote at the Special General Meeting.”

The Jewish Telegraph has offered Rabbi Guttentag the opportunity to comment, but he has not responded to our request.

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