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    Celebrating more Judaism

    An edited version of the following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared as a chapter in, The Australian Jewish News: 120 Years, published by Polaris Media, 2015.

    Australian Jewish News 120 years bookAustralia was a backwater of the Jewish world until a generation ago. Australian Jewry was small in numbers, far distant from everywhere, a remote outpost of the British chief rabbi’s ecclesiastical empire, and lax and laid-back in Jewish commitment. No wonder the pulsating centres of Judaism had hardly even heard of us.

    Yet those who go to the other extreme and think there was no Judaism here at all in those years are unaware of the that there were always davkaniks (contrarians) who would not attenuate their Jewishness, including strictly observant families that tenaciously held on to their principles and practices even as shopkeepers in odd places far from the nearest shule, sending their children on long train journeys or even coastal steamers to stay with relatives in the big cities in order to get Bar-Mitzvah lessons, and learning poultry shechitah to enable their families to have kosher chicken for Shabbat; the ministers who enjoyed Australia but would not compromise the old Jewish ways; and the idealistic teachers who loved their Judaism and tried to enthuse their charges. All are a positive part of the long Jewish story of the pre-Holocaust years.

    Victoria, always been known as a more dynamic community, is described elsewhere in this book. But in New South Wales too there were men and women whose service to Judaism deserves to be known. Many were exemplars of good citizenship – mayors, members of Parliament and Masonic Masters, commercial and professional giants, pioneers in a whole sheaf of areas of civic and national life who brought enhanced respect to the name of Jew. Probity – an elemental dimension of Jewish ethics – was a NSW byword: it is typical that there was a saying, “As honest as a Goulburn Jew”. Lysbeth Cohen’s “Beginning With Esther”, published by the Australian Jewish Times, tells the tale of the women. The men include giants such as George Judah Cohen, John Goulston, Sir Daniel Levy, Syd Einfeld and Sir Asher Joel. A NSW parliament even refrained from sitting on Yom Kippur because the Speaker and his deputy were both Jews.

    Almost all the Fathers of the Community were members (often presidents or treasurers) of the Great Synagogue. The Great held tightly onto the reins of community leadership, and, to its probable discredit, resisted the establishment of rival congregations, though eventually it gave way and assisted the formation of the new synagogues.

    A few Sydney Jews remembered the things they learned as children in a European cheder. However, hardly anyone kept Shabbat strictly in Australia, though some were particular about kashrut. Less than a handful had even heard of the Mikveh. Even the ministers found themselves making compromises. It took decades for really orthodox congregations to emerge. Who in those years could have imagined Chabad in NSW? Who would have thought that mainstream congregations would have Chabad rabbis? For that matter, who would have envisaged the emergence of Liberal synagogues and even an embryonic Conservative congregation?

    The ministers included a number of men of note such as that model of an Anglo-Jewish clergyman, Rev. Alexander Barnard Davis of the Great Synagogue, who was distressed in his old age to find himself flouted by an old-time rav like Isidor Bramson. Rabbi Francis Lyon Cohen, the passionate British patriot who succeeded AB Davis at the Great, was a bitter enemy of political Zionism who declined to take official note of the Balfour Declaration and was uneasy to have a colleague such as Rabbi Leib Aisack Falk, known as a “red hot Zionist”.

    Recent years have seen a new type of rabbi in Sydney who stood for more Zionism, more tradition and more learning, men such as Israel Porush, Eliezer Berkovits, and even the writer of this article. The “Rabbi Dr” model long dominated the scene, but now most rabbis are yeshivah-trained. The “Big Three”, the Great, the Central and the North Shore Synagogues, remain strong, though the community has now gravitated more to the smaller suburban congregations.

    Education – especially in the day school movement – has become a major feature of the community picture and its budgets, with a steady sprinkling of young people going overseas to leading yeshivot. Orthodoxy is now more orthodox. There are Talmud shiurim everywhere. Kashrut is stronger and the Mikveh has come to stay. Liberalism is a major presence. The fact that there is a Jewish secular group adds to the spectrum and indicates that theology is a serious subject for debate, especially now that Holocaust thinking is articulate and there are writers and thinkers on the Sydney scene who tackle the issues.

    Most of the old country communities have declined or disappeared, but there are new pockets of Judaism outside the big cities, not only in NSW but in other States too. Where once there were purpose-built synagogues in places like Maitland and Toowoomba, now there are Jewish groups like the Southern Highlands community that meet in local halls or homes to observe the festivals and even an occasional Shabbat. With cultural meetings that discuss Judaism and Israel. Some are mentored by the establishment rabbis; some prefer to live unnoticed by the rabbinate.

    In Western Australia the Perth community has become a great success story, enhanced by South African immigration. In Queensland the long-established Brisbane community is joined by a dynamic presence on the Gold Coast. In South Australia the numbers are down, but the community remains active. In Tasmania the historic Hobart Synagogue is shared – not always too harmoniously – by orthodox and reform factions. David and Pnina Clark have made their Hobart home into a Jewish Centre, whilst Launceston has a rabbi and Chabad House, with occasional services in the old Launceston shule. Canberra, a postwar arrival on the Jewish scene, is still largely self-reliant, though now it has both Chabad and non-Chabad rabbis. The Northern Territory has a community that comes and goes but has never had a synagogue or a rabbi. Perth has a significant kashrut system and Kosher Centre; the others often maintain synagogue shops which sell not only food but also books and religious requisites. For those who want kosher meat, Melbourne and Sydney are the major shechitah sources. There are several kashrut supervision authorities.

    There may be fewer Jewish mayors, but there is more Judaism.

    Australia is still a long way away from Israel, the United States and Europe, but, to borrow a phrase made popular by Rav JB Soloveitchik in a different context, “they don’t laugh at us any more”.

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