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    Australia & the communal Seder

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Newsletter of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, Issue No. 113, September 2018.

    The community Seder is a widespread feature of Passover observance.

    Its Australian version began in the late 19th century – not for ideological but practical reasons, when the Montefiore Homes in Melbourne and Sydney found it necessary to cater for residents and their guests.

    Many years later, large Sedarim were instituted by synagogues – first, the Liberal Temples in Melbourne and Sydney, and then various orthodox congregations, as well as communal centres and organisations.

    In post war Sydney there were large Sedarim run by B’nai B’rith and the NSW Jewish War Memorial, in both cases drawing their officiants from the nearby Great Synagogue.

    Sometimes a Seder turned into a State occasion, such as one which the North Shore Synagogue in Sydney held in the Synagogue precincts to mark a congregational anniversary in the presence of the then Governor of New South Wales.

    In some cases, public venues were utilised, for example when Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne used the St. Kilda Town Hall for a large-scale Seder. For this occasion, the Temple issued its own Haggadah which was later revised by Rabbi John Levi.

    There were often grumbles about the quality and taste of the food when the (generally volunteer) Seder staff did not use certain families’ time-honoured recipes. Before the advent of professional kosher caterers, the food (in those days generally fried fish) was prepared by ladies from the community. Often, especially, in World War II, the catering was done under difficult conditions when some food items were scarce. At times there was even a shortage of matzah.

    When kosher catering firms developed, most caterers koshered their kitchens for Pesach and supplied take-away items such as gefilte fish, matzah balls and charoset. The Kashrut supervision, however, was not always easy. One Pesach, though the food for a congregational Seder at the Sydney Great Synagogue had all been prepared under hashgachah (rabbinic supervision), the rabbi walked into the kitchen and found the non-Jewish chef and the synagogue janitor sharing a bottle of beer (which Jewish law forbade on Passover). The people gathering in the shule hall wondered why they heard the rabbi shouting in the kitchen and causing a delay whilst corrective actions were taken.

    It was customary for Jewish schools and part-time classes to hold model or demonstration Sedarim for children (and their parents) to train them in the songs and procedures of the Seder. It was found that these were sometimes the only Seders that some families had that year or at all. Zionist youth organisations frequently held a third Seder on Chol HaMo’ed (the intermediate days of the festival) with an amended Haggadah that linked the occasion with Eretz Yisra’el.

    Australian Jewry picked up another precedent when, like elsewhere, people went away for the festival, often to hotels at holiday resorts, at which places large numbers shared a Seder in the main banqueting room whilst some families insisted on a private Seder in a room of their own.

    Colloquially termed “Pesach Away”, these events at first met with considerable criticism. Some rather cynical critics grumbled about it being a confidence trick to enable housewives to avoid the hard work at home, but before long the critics changed their tune and admitted that group Pesach celebrations began in Biblical days with groups joining to eat the paschal lamb and ponder the Exodus.

    By Mishnaic times there must have been a form of communal Seder, since the rabbinic sages debated whether one might go from one company (chaburah) to another on Seder night.

    Community celebrations seem to have taken place on a regular basis in Babylon and Spain. In Ashkenazi countries some families brought in experts to run their Seder, which incidentally disproves the common view that every Jew was learned in Hebrew and orthodox-observant in olden days. Sometimes every one repeated each word after the officiant, who would go from house to house to guide families in their festival observances, then returning home for his own Seder.

    There is telling evidence of community Sedarim when the Jerusalem Talmud states at the end of tractate B’rachot, “He who has heard Hallel in the synagogue on Seder night has fulfilled his obligation.” The words “in the synagogue” could possibly be interpreted broadly to indicate a public form of observance.

    In the 14th century the liturgist David Abudarham refers to a Babylonian or Spanish usage of a Seder in the synagogue precincts for those who were unschooled in the festival procedures. Possibly it was not a full Seder in the synagogue but an entree, after which people would go home, eat a vegetable hors d’oeuvre (karpas), say the blessing “Who has redeemed us”, drink a second cup of wine, and proceed with the rest of the Seder. This evidence indicates that there were always people whose Hebrew knowledge and Jewish skills were poor.

    It was regarded as important that no-one, child or adult, would be denied a Seder because of ignorance, age, illness or disability. One of the historical features of Australian Jewry has been the disappearance of the early country congregations and their recent re-emergence in different places and different forms. The new Jewish groups arrange Sedarim in locations as disparate as North Queensland or the NSW Central Coast.

    In some parts of Australia, the annual Seder gatherings, whilst not always fully traditional or strictly kosher, are social highlights for far-flung Jewish residents. Examples are Sedarim in the Northern Territory, where there has never been a formal Jewish congregation or community, and small clusters of Jews in other Australian regions and towns, sometimes comprising medical personnel posted to hospitals in regions which have hardly any resident Jews. To facilitate such gatherings, Passover requisites including Haggadot are supplied by the capital-city communities.

    The Chabad movement has recently taken responsibility for organising and conducting a number of Sedarim. In some cases (e.g. Launceston in Tasmania), such events are held at Chabad Houses. Wherever RARA (“Rural and Regional Australia”) find Jews they organise Sedarim, which, in their case, are always fully traditional and kosher. Nowhere in Australia, however, do they have the massive crowds that come to Chabad Sedarim in Nepal and other parts of the Far East.

    From time to time members of the Australian Defence Force (including military personnel from other countries) join local families for Seder, but in places without a Jewish community they mostly have to fend for themselves with Haggadot, Pesach food and guidance from the larger cities. Sometimes requests from military personnel are the first indication of the religious identity and even the existence of Jewish members of the ADF and where they are located. In the Northern Territory there are sometimes Jewish medical personnel at local hospitals who take Defence Force members under their aegis.

    Wartime Sedarim were conducted at Australian military bases by Jewish chaplains – Rabbi DI Freedman in World War I; Rabbi Jacob Danglow in both World Wars; Rabbi LM Goldman and Rabbi Louis Rubin-Zacks in World War II. In 1919, a large-scale Seder in Paris was conducted by Rabbi Danglow for Allied troops in the presence of Sir John Monash.

    During the Second World War a Haggadah (reprinted from an English edition) was issued under Rabbi Danglow’s auspices with the sponsorship of local patriotic funds. There was also a special High Holyday prayer book on similar lines which Australian troops used where necessary. Both publications were also utilised by American chaplains, although the Australian books were poorly produced and less attractive than the Siddurim published by the Americans themselves.

    World War II saw large contingents of American Jewish servicemen in Brisbane, where Rev and Mrs Joseph Wolman organised large-scale Sedarim for them.

    Recent years brought significant numbers of Jews to Australia from the former Soviet Union. Amongst community organisations that went out of their way to host Russian Jews for Seder was the Great Synagogue, which secured and distributed Russian-language Haggadot. The Synagogue found, however, that after the Seder meal was over many of the Russians had departed, as had the Haggadot. Hopefully this meant that the people concerned would have their own Sedarim in future, but it may be that the majority of former Russians, unused to Passover or any other Jewish observance, simply ignored the occasion.

    Australia has never produced very much local Jewish liturgical material. The Haggadah is an exception, but Australian versions are rarely works of great scholarship or art but user – friendly practical compilations. The only Australian version with significant artistic content was produced in Melbourne in about 1992, with calligraphy and illustrations by Victor Majzner. A Temple Beth Israel Seder was compiled and published by Rabbi John Levi, embellished with the rabbi’s own insights.

    A number of orthodox rabbis circulate thoughts and interpretations of the Seder, generally by means of email, though few have embarked upon publishing their own full Haggadot with commentaries – certainly not Haggadot with Australian artistic and other features.

    Throughout its history the Jewish people has valued Pesach over almost every other religious observance. Statistics show that over 90% of Jews participate in some form of Passover observance. For obvious reasons, the message of freedom has a special resonance for Jews, no matter where they are or which era they inhabit.

    Far-off Australia is an example of the “freedom” theme. Its message is, “Other places made it as hard for Jews as they could, but here we are free to be ourselves and follow our distinctive traditions.” This aspect of Passover attracted widespread media coverage in times of great Jewish immigration to Australia.

    It’s not only the “big” themes which arouse almost universal interest, however. The sights, songs and even smells of the festival evoke emotional feelings even for people who are otherwise distant from their traditions. Far away from the great pulsating centres of Jewish life, either in Europe before 1939 or in Israel and other countries after World War II, Australian Jewry has been part of this phenomenon.

    We might well adapt the famous words of Ahad Ha’am about Shabbat and say, “More than the Jewish people have kept Pesach, Pesach has kept the Jewish people”.

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