Rabbis are not simply clergy. They are scholars and teachers as well as pastors and presenters. They deal with ideas as well as with people.
Born in Melbourne in 1935, Rabbi Raymond Apple studied and worked in London but returned to Sydney, where he became senior rabbi of the historic Great Synagogue, and a leading public figure as Australian Jewry’s best-known spokesman and ecclesiastic diplomat.
The Great Synagogue is an Orthodox congregation that is located in Sydney’s business district that itself traces its registered historic heritage to 1878.
As it is the oldest and still one of the largest synagogues in Australia, being the head rabbi at the Great Synagogue is both a huge honor and a huge responsibility. In addition to overseeing the 800 families in the congregation, many look to the synagogue’s rabbi as a guide to the entire Jewish community in the region.
Holding the post for over 30 years
Apple held this prominent and profound post for over 30 years. While this is surely enough of a role for anyone, he has also enjoyed a list of appointments and honors that would make any Jewish mother kvell! Among these is the role of senior rabbi to the Australian Defense Force (ADF), and also chairman of the Religious Advisory Committee to the Services (an office in which Apple was the first Jewish representative).
In addition to supporting Australia’s brave soldiers, Apple is also involved in education, having served as vice president and honorary director of the NSW Board of Jewish Education. While serving as headmaster of the United Jewish Education Board in Melbourne, Apple created a correspondence course program for children living in the outback.
In addition to being a trustee and former master of Mandelbaum House (the Jewish college at Sydney University, where he has also lectured), Apple is chairman of the Judaica press known as Mandelbaum Publishing.
Though his life has been deeply devoted to Judaism and the Jewish community, perhaps surprisingly, Apple says that his family upbringing was not particularly observant, and that he came to his calling through other means.
“My family was not particularly Orthodox,” he notes. “I was always interested in religion... [and] I admired our rabbi and was influenced by my Hebrew teacher.”
“I was always interested in religion... [and] I admired our rabbi and was influenced by my Hebrew teacher.”Rabbi Raymond Apple
Apple explains that it was this “German-Jewish intellectual” who convinced him that “preaching and teaching would be my career.”
After he “ransacked the Judaica section” of the local library and read all he could about Judaism, Apple decided he needed more resources and so traveled to England to study and engage further.
“These days I would choose Israel,” he says.
After working for a time with the Association for Jewish Youth in London, Apple became a synagogue rabbi. Even as he became more focused on the roles of a rabbi, Apple still kept a broad perspective of what he could do in the community. In addition to working with area youth and becoming involved with such interfaith organizations as the Council of Christians and Jews, Apple’s interest in ethics led him to Freemasonry. As he was appointed to a leadership position in the organization over the years, Apple became senior rabbi of the senior synagogue in Australia. In this capacity, he also began outreach to aboriginal communities and other community causes.
“As senior rabbi to the ADF,” Apple recalls, “I [also] developed top-level contacts in the defense community.” This work led Apple to be honored with a Reserve Force Decoration and the Australian Defense Medal.
As he has been able to bridge the military with civilians and Jews with Christians and Muslims, Apple was named Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1979, and Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2004. He is also a patron and past president and chairman of the Australian Council of Christians and Jews, a founder of the Christian-Jewish Luncheon Club in Sydney, a long-time member of the Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Jews and Muslims, and a lecturer at the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) in Israel.
While working in multiple capacities and serving in a number of leadership roles, Apple decided to create a new means of community outreach that would also help explain and spread the words of the Torah. The result was OzTorah (www.oztorah.com).
Starting in 1995 as a weekly pamphlet that was distributed to congregants, the OzTorah went online in 1997 and has since built an international audience of thousands. Named both for the nickname for his beloved Australia and also for the Hebrew word for “strength,” OzTorah now consists of two parts: an exploration of the weekly portion, and an “Ask the Rabbi” forum that allows and encourages readers to talk back and engage more fully.
“I was always good at writing,” Apple recalls, noting that he has also written many other pieces on Jewish and Masonic history and thoughts and crediting his younger son, Benseon, with expanding his readership and outreach.
Though he made aliyah in 2006 with his wife, Marian, to Israel (where he has a great deal of family), Apple remains connected to his native land, and has helped to bridge the Jewish communities in both nations. Based in Jerusalem, Apple served as president of the Israel region for the Rabbinical Council of America between 2016 and 2018.
While he has proudly been called “Sir,” “Saba,” and other titles, Apple says the title that “inspires me most is ‘rabbi’” and considers it “a privilege” to speak for the rabbinic tradition.
“I occasionally got annoyed with the rabbinate and even toyed with the idea of using my law degree to enter legal practice,” Apple says, “but by the next day I felt better and remained a pulpit rabbi for nearly half a century, hoping that the Almighty would approve my efforts in His name and even find me somewhat amusing. I always hoped he would forgive my lapses in judgment and my human weaknesses and say that He realized how hard it is to be a rabbi.” ■