Rabbi Ephraim Bryks (left); Rabbi Yaacov Simmonds

By BERNIE BELLAN It’s somewhat of a tradition for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, our primary news source for world news, to conduct an assessment of the year just past at Rosh Hashanah.

Frankly, we haven’t printed that review in quite a few years as it delves into so many events that one would hardly consider consequential that - well, it’s just too boring. But, as I was glancing at the JTA’s review of the year 5778, it occurred to me that there is one especially significant aspect to what has happened within our community here this past year that is certainly worth dwelling upon:  For the first time ever we have four rabbis who grew up here and who are now leading (or co-leading) major congregations in this city: Rabbi Yossi Benarroch at the Adas Yeshurun Herzlia Synagogue, Rabbi Shmuly Altein at the Chabad Lubavitch, Rabbi Matthew Leibl at Congregation Shaarey Zedek  and, the most recent addition – Rabbi Kliel Rose at Congregation Etz Chayim.

Add to that the fact that Rabbi Anibal Mass at Shaarey Zedek has lived in Winnipeg since 2002 and there is a sense that our Jewish community is now being led  by rabbis who have long had roots in this community. As well, Rabbi Bill Tepper of Temple Shalom will be conducting high holiday services at that Temple for the third time, so he too has developed a keen understanding of our community.
It also goes without saying that Rabbi Alan Green’s retirement as Chief Rabbi at the Shaarey Zedek after 18 years there (and following his previous eight years as Rabbi at the former Beth Israel Synagogue in Garden City), was another momentous event in our community’s history.

While the significance of having rabbis with Winnipeg roots leading congregations here is certainly something noteworthy, at the same time some other darker aspect relating to rabbis here should not be overlooked. Earlier this year, for instance, it was revealed that a total of eight criminal charges had been laid against Rabbi Yacov Simmonds by the Winnipeg Police Service, all relating to sex crimes that he is alleged to have committed, but that he had fled Winnipeg prior to a warrant having been issued for his arrest. While Rabbi Simmonds had been previously employed by the Jewish Learning Centre, it is important to note that none of the charges laid against him had anything to do with his employment there.

As the Rabbi Simmonds story unfolded, we were told that allegedly, he had fled to the United States. We were also told that his family was in Detroit, where his wife’s family is from, but that Rabbi Simmonds was allegedly in the New York area. Then the rumour mill had Rabbi Simmonds having fled to Uruguay, where he had previously spent time with the Lubavitch movement there.
Now we have learned that, according to a website called Jewish Community Watch, Rabbi Simmonds is allegedly living in Kiev, Ukraine, with his family. Canada does not have an extradition treaty with Ukraine – so Rabbi Simmonds is presumably safe so long as he remains there – if he is actually there.

What got me thinking about Rabbi Simmonds again  though was a phone call I received from someone in Toronto (whose name did not appear on call display). That person asked me whether I was aware of the latest news about Rabbi Ephraim Bryks.
For those of you not familiar with Rabbi  Bryks, he was probably the most controversial rabbi ever to live in Winnipeg. Without going into details about the sordid allegations of pedophilia that were leveled against him in 1988, suffice to say that Rabbi Bryks also left Winnipeg with his reputation in tatters. He eventually resurfaced in New York where he ran a yeshiva for children from the former Soviet Union. It wasn’t until 2003, however, that Rabbi Bryks’ past actually caught up with him, and it was only then that he was forced to resign from his position.

The Toronto caller said to me that I should Google Rabbi Bryks along with another name... (whose name is being witheld). When I did do that I read another horrendous story alleging that Rabbi Bryks had taken advantage of this woman under the guise of offering to help her obtain a “get” from her uncooperative husband. As the story continued, Rabbi Bryks had forced himself upon the woman (to the point where he pushed her on to her bed and lay on top of her).

So – here we have another allegation of deviant behaviour leveled at the same rabbi who left Winnipeg years ago, but the victim, as is all too often the case when it comes to complaints about unsolicited sexual advances from clergy, no matter the denomination, found her story ignored by people who were in a position to act upon her complaint. One wonders whether there are other victims of Rabbi Bryks who are either reluctant to come forward or who may have very well come forward but had their stories ignored.

In point of fact, there is a plethora of information on the Internet about rabbis who are alleged to have committed misdeeds of one sort or another. It seems that almost any week that I read the news briefs sent to us by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency there is a story about a rabbi accused of some type of grievous offense. But – rabbis are only human, after all. Frankly, I have tremendous admiration and respect for anyone who would want to be a pulpit rabbi in this day and age.  There is constant pressure put upon them, not only  to behave as role models – but to build their congregations. And, as we’ve become all too aware, trying to stem the tide of declining synagogue memberships is one tough battle.

On top of that, the stories that appear from time to time of rabbis being accused of unacceptable behaviour invariably reflect upon other rabbis – unfair as that may seem. Yet, in my own dealings with current Winnipeg rabbis, I have found them all to be immensely likeable, innovative, and approachable – each in his own right, no matter whether they are Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform. (And I note that I’m forced to refer only to male rabbis here. Since Rabbi Karen Soria’s departure from Temple Shalom, we haven’t had a female rabbi in Winnipeg.)

We’ve had enough of a parade of rabbis in Winnipeg over the years to know that this is no easy city in which to serve in that role. Perhaps now we’ve arrived at a point where individuals who have grown up here and gone elsewhere for rabbinic training, but who have decided to return here to serve as rabbis, will offer us a greater continuity within the rabbinate here than we’ve had. In retrospect, however, the true strength of any congregation derives from the commitment of its members, not its rabbi or rabbis, as the case may be.