From Dover Heights Chabad to the Pulpit of Sydney’s Great Synagogue



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    From Dover Heights Chabad to the Pulpit of Sydney’s Great Synagogue

    Rabbi Menachem Feldman was born and bred on Shlichus in the Dover Heights section of Sydney, Australia. Recently, he was chosen as senior chazan and assistant rabbi of “The Great Synagogue”. In an interview with Beis Moshiach, he tells us of his plans to soon sing a “Shir Chadash” at the coming of Moshiach • Full story

    Mendy Dickstein, Beis Moshiach

    In the Chabad community in Sydney, they were happy to hear the surprising news that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Feldman had been chosen to the prestigious position of assistant rabbi of The Great Synagogue and the lead chazan.

    The story of the young R’ Feldman is unusual. He is a fifth-generation shliach in Australia, the great-grandson of the shliach, Rabbi Chaim Gutnick a’h, who served as rav of the Jewish community in Australia and the grandson of the shliach, Rabbi Pinchus Feldman, rav of the Chabad community in Sydney. This is the first time in the history of Australia that a Chabad rabbi was appointed to the honorable and influential position of this grand, old shul.

    I spoke with R’ Feldman, wanting to hear about his new position and how this prestigious job came his way.

    Congratulations on being appointed to this special position. Please tell us a bit about yourself and your shlichus in Sydney.

    I was born in Yerushalayim 25 years ago, the oldest child. When I was a baby, my parents moved on shlichus to Dover Heights in Sydney and opened a shul and a Chabad House in an area where thousands of Jews live.

    It was actually a natural progression because my grandfather, R’ Pinchus Feldman, is the first shliach of the Rebbe in Sydney. He was sent to Australia in 5728 and began to build all the Chabad mosdos from the ground up. A little more than a year after my parents married, they came here and opened a Chabad House.

    I grew up here in Sydney and went to the Chabad cheder and mesivta. I then went to Tomchei Tmimim in Los Angeles, Argentina and Crown Heights followed by shlichus in Moscow where I learned for semicha.

    After I married I learned in kollel in Yerushalayim. About a year later, my father asked me to come and help him at his Chabad House. He put me in charge of shlichus with young people. I also teach in the local school and do various programs in the community such as teaching children for their bar mitzva and playing music at simchas and community events.

    That’s who I am: a shliach, teacher, musician and baal tefilla.

    EARLY START AT THIRTEEN

    R’ Menachem Feldman is not only a musician and a baal tefilla but is possessed of a highly developed talent for singing that he inherited from his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. “They were all musical and baalei tefilla with a unique and heartfelt nusach tefilla.” Young Mendy grew up on their nusach.

    Since he can remember, he has loved to sing, His genre was primarily general Chassidic music, Chabad niggunim, and chazanus. When he got a bit older he would sing not only at the Shabbos table but also in shul and at events.

    In yeshiva he was often asked to sing at Chabad House events, on yomim tovim, as well as during Adar. “It’s a talent Hashem gave me and I’ve always loved chazanus and song.”

    When did you become professional?

    “My parents did not send me for training. Their educational approach was that a child needs to be normal like all his friends in school and to learn diligently. The minute you become a ‘wunderkind’ or a performer, it interferes with your emotional and spiritual growth. This is why despite my talent, I never joined choirs and was never recorded.”

    The first time he was a shliach tzibbur was when he was in New York right after his bar mitzva. He was asked to be the chazan on Yom Kippur in a shul in Queens. He was only thirteen and he led all the tefillos from Kol Nidrei to Neilah.

    Since then, every year, he has been the chazan in shuls around the world, places where he had been a shliach as a bachur and in his father’s shul in Sydney.

    “My father and grandfather came to me after I married and suggested that I go for voice lessons. Since I was learning in Yerushalayim, based on the guidance of Chazan Naftali Hershtik I went to Machon Tel Aviv L’Chazanus, where a new and wonderful world was opened to me. I began to study music theory and to study the nusach ha’tefilla in depth in all its variations. I also learned a great deal about the masores of the nusach and mainly got a lot of personal guidance. That is where my journey into the world of chazanus truly began. I took it seriously, as a serious profession.”

    Until recently, Mendy was a chazan in shul with his father where he davened on Shabbos and Yom Tov as well as at weddings and simchas in the community. During corona, there were draconian lockdowns in Australia and he produced clips to boost people’s morale.

    A NON-CHABAD COMMUNITY CHOSE A CHABAD CHAZAN

    The Great Synagogue in Sydney was founded in 5635/1875, over 140 years ago. It was built by the first Jews to arrive in Australia and is considered the first and oldest synagogue in Australia.

    The shul is a magnificent building built in the Victorian style which was popular for shuls in Europe at the time. It is considered one of the most beautiful shuls in the world, having 1200 seats and excellent acoustics.

    This shul is intricately woven into the fabric of life of the Jewish community in Australia. Many families are connected with this shul for generations. Jews have married there, had their sons circumcised there and, l’havdil, funerals have departed from here. Also, the administrative aspects of the community such as the first beis din and the chevra kadisha began in this shul.

    The shul and community has a membership of about 800 Jewish families. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the shul is full. The chazan is accompanied by a professional choir of twenty members with a tradition of European chazanus. Many people who are not religious attend this shul because of the chazan and choir which bring back memories from their childhood homes.

    THE REBBE’S ANSWER TIPPED THE SCALE

    With such a rich history, how were you chosen to be the lead chazan there?

    (Chuckling): The truth is only G-d knows why I was chosen. It’s really not a given that a non-Chabad community would choose a young Lubavitcher such as myself. It’s a position that more experienced chazanim than myself contended for and I saw how it was Hashem’s doing.

    They were looking for a professional chazan who would also serve as assistant rabbi. The board realized that chazanus is not enough; you need to work with people and be mekarev them. They were looking for someone who would draw families to the shul, who would invite balabatim for Shabbos, arrange Purim and Chanuka parties, and engage in Torah activities with the youth. All that in addition to being a professional chazan who would know how to work with a choir.

    I realized that after a lot of research about me they called and said they heard I was a good chazan, “and we know that you are involved with youth and you are a shliach and have energy – we are looking for someone just like you.”

    How did you respond?

    At first I was frightened by this major offer but on second thought, the idea began to appeal to me. I consulted with my grandfather and he said it was a rare and special opportunity that would be a shame to forgo.

    I consulted with my mashpia and ‘knowledgeable friends,’ and wrote to the Rebbe. The answer that I got from all of them was identical: There is something special about a shliach of the Rebbe having the opportunity to work in such a large and symbolic place. It’s an extraordinary platform, and shlichus in such a place will have an impact on hundreds and even thousands of Jews; an impact that the typical shliach would have difficulty achieving.

    OPPORTUNITY TO BE MEKAREV THOUSANDS OF JEWS

    How do you manage with the nusach?

    Years ago, the Rebbe told my grandfather, “Sydney is very different than many other places.” The Rebbe said, “Uhn der shaar blatt,” i.e.  it’s a place where you can work without the official title of Chabad.

    That is how my great-grandfather, R’ Mendel Feldman, was a rav in a non-Chabad shul in Baltimore and that is what R’ Chaim Gutnick did in Melbourne. My grandfather opened a yeshiva and in the early years he began with nusach sefard and then nusach ashkenaz.

    When you have the opportunity to be mekarev thousands of people, you can forgo the nusach in the tefilla of the chazan, although in my personal tefilla I use our nusach.

    It should be noted that everything there is run according to halacha under the local beis din of rabbanei Lubavitch. In general in Sydney, all of the Yiddishkeit is thanks to rabbanim, shochtim, mechanchim and shluchim who are Chabad Chassidim, some of whom work without the official label of Chabad. It is actually the greatest form of conquest; the community does not feel that you are competing with them; rather, that you support them from within. This is how an entire city is transformed.

    SHLIACH OF G-D TO CONNECT JEWS TO PRAYER

    Tell us about your shlichus in the shul.

    With chazanus, it depends on how you look at the work of a chazan. If you look at it as a performing artist and think about the publicity or the money, obviously, that’s not what it’s about. If you know that Hashem gave you this talent to be a real shliach tzibbur, not merely an artist, a person who helps Jews who come to shul feel something and connect them to the words of the tefilla so that they feel the tefilla, this is a shlichus. This can happen not only on Shabbos and Yom Tov but also at weddings or, l’havdil, at funerals.

    The Rebbe taught us that it is possible to use everything, every talent. The Rebbe himself taught chazanim that they need to use their voice as ‘kabeid es Hashem mei’honcha’ (honor Hashem with your wealth); don’t read it as ‘honcha’ but as ‘geroncha’ (your throat). For example, the Rebbe encouraged the chazan Malovany and the singer, Mordechai ben David to travel to Russia at the end of the communist reign and inspire Jews. This is what a shliach tzibbur is, one who inspires people in their davening.

    Aside from being a representative of the tzibbur, you are also a shliach of Hashem to get people to connect to the tefilla and to Yiddishkeit via the nusach, the tefillos, the singing and the emotion.

    Obviously the other part of the job, serving as assistant rabbi, is a shlichus in every sense of the word. Although there isn’t an official Chabad House, in my position I am in touch with hundreds of Jewish families. I learn with them, invite many of them to Shabbos and Yom Tov meals, attend bar and bas mitzvas, arrange activities for youth, children, students, and seniors.

    HE ENJOYED THE DUET AND STARTED COMING EVERY SHABBOS

    R’ Feldman has stories about people who were inspired thanks to his singing and tefilla. People approach him and thank him, “You moved us so much. It’s been so long since we felt as we did now with your tefilla.” This happens not only on the Yomim Noraim but on regular Shabbosos or even at weddings.

    “There was a man who never came to shul because he never related to it. At a certain point, someone shlepped him to shul. That Shabbos, I sang a duet with my father during Musaf. The man enjoyed it so much that he said, if this is what it’s like in shul, then I’m going every week! He has been coming every week since then and when his son became bar mitzva he asked me to prepare him for this milestone. The boy became completely religious and the entire family has gotten closer to Yiddishkeit thanks to him, and it was all because of that duet with my father.

    “The Baal Shem Tov says that a neshama comes down to this world and lives seventy-eighty years, in order to do a favor to a Jew. If there was only this story, dayeinu. I know of other Jews to whom I’ve given a meaningful Jewish experience.”

    TO DAVEN FROM THE SIDDUR, NOT FROM THE NOTES

    How do you combine the professionalism of chazanus with authenticity in tefilla?

    It’s a big challenge. Being a professional chazan means to daven in sync with the choir, to sing complicated compositions, to use your voice properly and hit the right notes, to practice with the choir along with notes and with all this, to make sure it’s tefilla and not a concert.

    How is this done?

    You really need to daven from the siddur and not from the musical notes. As my teacher, Chazan Naftali Hershtik always taught us, the notes are only for rehearsals; in the shul you cannot think about them. In shul, you look only in the siddur and you must think of the meaning of the words and have the proper intention even more than when you daven alone. Why? Because you need to convey the meaning to others who know nothing about Yiddishkeit and may not even know how to read from the siddur. They too should be able to hear from you what you are trying to express in the tefilla; they should sense the depth of the tefilla.

    To properly have in mind the meaning of the words means to learn Chassidus before davening, to go to the mikva, to be a Yid, to be a Chassid, to try and prepare properly before davening. Concentrating on the meaning of the words means not to think about yourself but to constantly think about ‘before Whom you stand,’ as Chassidus teaches us. This is my greatest challenge in this job.

    I can be candid with you; there is a concept of ‘to daven by yourself between the compositions,’ i.e. to meditate a bit about the inner meaning of the davening. When that is the case, I can sense that these deeper levels find expression in the musical compositions as well.

    I had always had a dream of seeing Mordechai ben David in live performance. When I was a bachur learning in America, I was able to do so. I got special permission from the hanhala to go to his concert when they realized it was very important to me.

    With a pounding heart I went behind the scenes before the start of the concert and told MBD that I am a fan of his. “Please tell me, what is the secret to your success? I want some tips from you for a young man who loves to sing.” He said with a smile, “Just keep a connection with the Ribono shel olam and the rest will be okay.”

    This is actually what Chassidus and the Rebbe teach us, not to think about ourselves, but to think about what Hashem and the Rebbe want of us. If we remain loyal to who we are and to our shlichus in this world, that is where lies the secret to success.

    HEALTHY CHILDHOOD

    What tip do you have for someone interested in chazanus who wants to get more seriously involved in the field?

    As I said, my parents did not allow me to sing or train in my childhood or as a bachur. The truth is that I did not like this ‘gezeira.’ I was always envious of kids in the Miami Boys choir etc. but today, in hindsight, I see that I had a healthy childhood, a normal life in yeshiva and that I was focused on the right things. You don’t lose anything by leaving the big things for after you get married. The Rebbe wants chinuch to be al taharas ha’kodesh which is why I recommend not starting professional training as a bachur. Maybe here and there a bit for mivtzaim and at a Chabad House but not to forget what is ikar (the main thing) and what is tafel (secondary). That’s what I did and, boruch Hashem, I see great blessing.

    And a tip for those who’ve already reached the age … If you really have the talent and you believe that you really want this, don’t let the opportunity slip away but go all the way with it.

    In America and Eretz Yisrael there are schools for chazanus with outstanding teachers who  provide many opportunities to learn and advance. It’s an entire world unto itself. The more you put in, the more successful you will be. There are no shortcuts; you must put in the work, learn, practice. That’s the only way to become truly professional.

    And, as I said, not to forget what is ikar and what is tafel; what Hashem wants of me and what my mission is in this world. Personally, I believe that I’m just starting out and I have a long road ahead of me.

    PREPARING THE WORLD FOR GEULA – FROM AUSTRALIA

    The shlichus the Rebbe gave our generation is to bring the Geula. How do you do this in your place of shlichus?

    There is a sicha of the Rebbe about Australia in which he emphasizes that Australia is a settled place in the lowest hemisphere of the world, and just as with a lever when you lift something from below it raises everything up with it, the same is true for the world. When something is done in Australia which brings holiness into the world and creates a dwelling for G-d down below, below which there is nothing, that affects the entire world!

    We ‘live’ with this point in everything we do. Every mitzva that a Jew does, every shiur, is permeated with the ultimate goal of ‘to bring to Yemos HaMoshiach.’ When we work with people who are often being exposed for the first time to Chassidus, another stage in Moshiach’s response to the Baal Shem Tov (“when your wellsprings spread outward”) is taking place.

    Boruch Hashem, we see how it gets people to start keeping mitzvos, even those who were completely distant from it.

    How do you broach the subject of Moshiach and Geula among people who are not Chabad?

    Your question is obviously not unique to us because there are thousands of shluchim and actually, every Chabad Chassid needs to illuminate his surroundings and enliven others on the subject of the only shlichus, to bring about the revelation of Moshiach.

    As for me, in every shiur and personal conversation that we have, we emphasize that the purpose of the world and the goal of creation, “G-d’s garden,” is to make a dirah ba’tachtonim. Surely the lowest tachton of all is Australia and the dirah for G-d is made by bringing the Shechina down in the complete Geula.

    When people who are in such a lowly spiritual state hear and understand that this is the purpose and goal, the despair over their situation actually spurs them to renewed inspiration!

    We also constantly reiterate to them the Rambam that every thought and deed can tip the scale for the individual and the world toward the good and bring the Geula.

    These messages are effective, even among those who did not live with inyanei Moshiach and Geula before.

    This message cuts through all demographics at every level of closeness and connection to Judaism. Hearts open and it is accepted.

    In conclusion …

    If any of your readers comes to tour in Australia, we would be happy to host them in shul for a special chazanus Shabbos and there is place for Shabbos meals too. Every Jew is invited and, with Hashem’s help, Moshiach will come and the Rebbe will revealed as such and we will be able to be together in our holy land and then we will sing a new song before Him.

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    The magazine can be obtained in stores around Crown Heights. To purchase a subscription, please go to: bmoshiach.org

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