Britain’s largest Jewish organization has suspended its ties with the European Jewish Congress over the latter’s refusal to investigate allegations of misconduct against a Ukrainian-American rabbi, according to documents obtained by Haaretz.
The allegations against Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, who serves as treasurer of the European Jewish Congress and self-identifies as the chief rabbi of Ukraine, have not been independently confirmed by Haaretz. However, they were enough to cause a serious crisis between the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the EJC.
For several years now, unconfirmed allegations of misconduct involving Bleich have been circulating in Jewish organizations. Bleich has called these allegations “1,000 percent untrue.”
This May, the allegations against Bleich created a dispute between the Board of Deputies – an umbrella organization of the British Jewish community – and the EJC, which connects Jewish communities across Europe.
Emails obtained by Haaretz show that Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl wrote to EJC President Ariel Muzicant, telling him that unless he agreed to “carry out an internal investigation” into the allegations against Bleich, she would publicly announce that the board was suspending its partnership with EJC.
Two weeks later, that decision was announced in an online statement by the Board of Deputies, albeit posted without a stated rationale behind it.
Muzicant, who recently replaced sanctioned Russian businessman Moshe Kantor as EJC president, decided not to launch a formal investigation, informing van der Zyl that “going public is irresponsible.” He added that “the vast majority [of the EJC executive] does not want to get involved. … The investigation we were able to do so far shows there are no victims or firsthand witnesses which went to the police or to court."
Van der Zyl’s predecessor at the Board of Deputies, Jonathan Arkush, wrote to Muzicant in an email on June 1 that he disagreed with his reasoning for not opening an investigation. He countered that the only relevant consideration is “how long it takes to act once the allegations come to our notice,” and that “the correct action would have been to suspend Bleich immediately if he did not agree to step aside.”
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Arkush added that other Jewish organizations had done so, “and I regret that [the] EJC did not follow their example.”
Bleich is one of two competing claimants for the title of Ukrainian chief rabbi. A U.S. citizen, he currently resides in Monsey, New York, but frequently travels back to Ukraine. While the position of chief rabbi has no official standing in Ukraine, it does confer a certain amount of influence and both Bleich and his rival, Moshe Azman, claim the title, enjoying the support of different segments within the country’s Jewish community.
This is not the first time that allegations involving Bleich have caused tensions within European Jewish organizations.
Haaretz has learned that in 2019, a London-based rabbinical court judge was assigned by the Conference of European Rabbis to lead an investigation into the matter. That investigation included the creation of an ad-hoc rabbinic panel, which heard testimonies pertaining to the allegations against Bleich.
Yosef Blau, a senior rabbi at Yeshiva University who was invited to serve on the panel, told Haaretz that the panel heard a number of testimonies, none of them from those directly affected by Bleich’s alleged misconduct, but rather from friends of those individuals, who heard from them what had allegedly happened. Blau added that the investigation stopped after Bleich resigned from the Conference of European Rabbis.
A source with knowledge of the matter told Haaretz that similar allegations were also brought to the attention of the leadership of the World Jewish Congress in early 2021, shortly before the body’s plenary assembly, during which Bleich chose not to run for reelection as a member of its executive committee.
For his part, Bleich categorically denied the allegations. He said the issue had no influence on this decision not to seek reelection, which he attributed to his age: “Anyone in public life, over five to six years, you’re going to make changes, especially at my age, where I am less active,” he said. “If you come with something concrete, okay, but everybody who investigated said there’s nothing concrete behind these allegations.”
Bleich, who complained that van der Zyl refused to take his calls, also denied that he was forced out of any Jewish organizations because of the allegations.
According to him, the allegations were spread by the Karlin-Stolin Hasidic movement, with whom he has had a real estate dispute. Karlin-Stolin “spread stuff against me,” he told Haaretz, but “nobody went forth to complain to the police, nobody came forth with anything,” he said.
Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for the European Jewish Congress said it “regrets the decision of the Board of Deputies of British Jews to suspend its activities as an affiliate, and completely rejects claims that it has mishandled alleged complaints.”
She added, “The EJC views very seriously any breaches of ethical conduct and will always act immediately to maintain the highest standards of any of its associates. We will not be commenting further on this issue at the current time in order not to prejudice the outcome of any independent investigation.”
A spokesman for the Board of Deputies told Haaretz it would “not be making any further comment at this time.”