The two major branches of Chabad-Lubavitch in Australia are in the grip of separate crises that threaten to tar the movement's reputation and undermine much of the work the Hasidic organization has invested in the six decades since it began operating here.
In Melbourne, a judge last week set the date for the trial of an Orthodox man who stands accused of 41 counts of child molestation at a Chabad-run school as several other separate child sex abuse cases continue to embroil the organization.
David Cyprys, a former security guard contracted to Yeshivah College, the Chabad boys school in Melbourne, has been ordered to stand trial next July. He pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include several counts of child rape allegedly perpetrated on students in the 1980s.
In a statement, principal Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler expressed his sympathy to the victims and said the college was cooperating with police. The college "loudly and clearly" condemns sexual abuse, he said, and has "robust policies and procedures that govern staff and student interaction."
And in an unrelated case in Sydney, Chabad's chief rabbi, Pinchus Feldman, who was sent here from Brooklyn by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1968, has been desperately trying to stave off a financial crisis that could force the closure of several of its operations in the Harbor City.
A spokesman for the Sydney Chabad organization, Rabbi Eli Feldman, confirmed to Haaretz that without a multimillion-dollar injection it would be unable to meet its mounting debts, which comprise A$13 million (roughly equivalent to the same number of U.S. dollars ) in mortgages plus unconfirmed amounts owed to individuals.
He also confirmed that the organization is still in discussions with the federal government over an A$400,000 grant for the expansion of the Chabad school that has not yet been completed.
Rabbi Eli Feldman said that current economic hard times had a serious impact: "Servicing those mortgages only became a problem at the onset of the global financial crisis and we are grappling with that now."
While he conceded it was a "difficult time" and acknowledged the "stress caused by the large mortgages on our buildings," he said the organization was not in panic mode.
"Our activities continue to go from strength to strength," Feldman said, pointing to thousands of people in the city and beyond whom the religious, educational and outreach organization helps annually through its variety of programs, which include the Yeshiva Synagogue, the rabbinical college, the school, Chabad Youth, Young Adult Chabad and Yeshiva Welfare.
But amid the storm hovering over Chabad's headquarters in Sydney, one ray of light is generating positive press. Our Big Kitchen, a charity-based food initiative, has won acclaim inside and outside the Jewish community since its doors were opened in 2007.
"Food is the common denominator," said Brooklyn-born Rabbi Dovid Slavin of his kosher cook-for-a-cause kitchen, which was also registered as a Muslim halal facility in 2009.
"Mandela's life very much reflects what we do every day in Our Big Kitchen," said Slavin, who was approached with the idea by two former South Africans now living in Sydney. "We also want to empower people and food has that ability."
Among those who have visited the kitchen include Kevin Rudd when he was prime minister; Governor-General Quentin Bryce; Jewish kids who were caught with drugs and sent there for community service; and former criminals who came to the kitchen to begin rehabilitation. It's one of the few places where Jewish and Muslim schoolchildren meet.
But now its future is uncertain because the industrial-sized kitchen is housed in the basement of Chabad's headquarters in Bondi. "The very real risk is that the building could be lost," Slavin conceded. "That could be a very real problem."
This is not the first time Chabad in Sydney has faced a crisis. In 1994 it owed the bank about $20 million. Among those who bailed it out was Rabbi Pinchus Feldman's brother-in-law "Diamond Joe" Gutnick, a Melbourne-based mining magnate and Chabad rabbi who is best known in Israel for bankrolling Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial 1996 election campaign pitch, "Bibi is good for the Jews."
But in 2003 a bitter battle erupted over whether Gutnick's $5 million was a charitable donation to Chabad or a loan. The family feud wound up in the Supreme Court, with Supreme Court Judge Peter Young eventually ordering Rabbi Feldman to repay the loan, which had grown to $15 million with interest and costs.
The Feldmans now face another financial crisis. "Yes, it is indeed a difficult time," Rabbi Eli Feldman said. "But the spirit of Chabad is to persevere despite the challenges that we face."
In the unrelated Melbourne case, meanwhile, the alleged child sex abuse scandal that exploded into the public arena last year continues to drag Chabad's name through the courts. On July 13, a County Court judge set next July 29 as the date for the trial of alleged child molester Cyprys.
At pre-trial hearings, the 44-year-old pleaded not guilty to the charges, which were allegedly perpetrated over two decades ago on 12 students - three of whom now reside in the United States.
Only two of the alleged victims have spoken publicly. In a statement, one of them expressed relief last week that "the wheels of justice are finally in motion." But he added: "There are many victims who are still suffering."