Every other year, our congregation travels to a different part of the Jewish world to meet and, if necessary, help our fellow Jews. Having traveled to Israel, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union many times, as well as Turkey, Morocco, Spain, Argentina and Brazil, our experiences have mostly been with communities under political, demographic or economic siege. This trip was different.
Imagine this scene: We're in Sydney, Australia, in a neighborhood known as The Rocks, where in the 18th century exiled British prisoners disembarked and experienced their new home. Most were convicted of petty crimes -- poor people who stole a loaf of bread -- and some were political prisoners whom England feared. After 1776, the penal colony in Georgia was no longer available, so convicts were sent to Australia, both to get rid of them and for future colonization.
In Australia, one's yichus is enhanced by being descended from an exiled British convict. Everyone, if lucky enough, brags about it. Even in shul, on Shabbat, before we asked someone how long his family has been in Australia, a macher proudly kvells and shares his imprisoned family tree.
So, here we were, at The Rocks, chanting Havdalah, singing and swaying outdoors, with arms around each other, gazing at the incredible beauty of Sydney Harbor, proud and free as Jews. We were even joined by locals George and Adele who, though Jewish (at least George), hadn't seen a Havdalah service in quite a while. When we finished, a woman approached and asked from where we were visiting. When we answered "Irvine, California," she asked: "Do you know Natalye and Howard Black, because I'm their machatenester [in-law]!"
"Not only do we know them, but we brought them," we answered, "and they're right over there!"
It's a small Jewish world, much less than "six degrees of separation." A day before, the waiter at Doyle's Restaurant was curious about another couple on our tour, the Hemplings, and when asked by them what kind of fish does he recommend, the waiter answered: "Do you, by any chance, like gefilte fish?"
Voila -- another landsman!
Although there are only 100,000 Jews out of a population of 18 million, we managed to meet many of them in both expected and unexpected places.
Of course, our synagogue visits were delightful. For our first Shabbat in Sydney, we visited Temple Emanuel, a liberal congregation, whose rabbi, Jeffrey Kamins, is from Los Angeles. A week later in Melbourne, we met Rabbi Fred Morgan born in Syracuse, N.Y., who showed us his synagogue's incredible stained-glass windows that portrayed holidays and history. They were created by the foremost stained-glass artist in Australia.
At both synagogues, the services were familiar, albeit more formal. We were delighted that we chose liberal congregations, since most tourists only visit Orthodox synagogues since they're in the oldest parts of the inner city and tour guides can get to them more easily. The problem is, however, that tourists, who are usually non-Orthodox, rarely meet and worship with their religious peers.
At the Jewish Museum in Sydney, we were impressed by the beautiful Star of David design in the floor, ceiling and walls. Most moving, however, was Lotte, a Holocaust survivor from Bratislava, who spoke to us and emphasized what is now too familiar a story -- how a majority of European Jewish children perished. By killing them first, the Nazis hoped to put an end to future generations of Jews.
She spoke painfully , as if it were yesterday, of being called a "Jewish pig" and how ashamed she was, as a teenager, of having to undress in front of and be shaved by male Nazi officers.
Although she and other Jews generally feel safe in Australia today, they remember how only one group boldly advocated saving the Jews of Europe 64 years ago. It was a few weeks after Kristallnacht when the Aborigines League protested to Hitler's consul in Melbourne. A few weeks before we arrived in Australia, the Aborigines were honored for their heroism by the Jewish community at Melbourne's Holocaust Museum; Jews are now in the forefront of advocating on behalf of aboriginal land rights, including placing markers on Jewish buildings naming the aboriginal owners of the land.
Australia's Sept. 11 was Oct. 12, 2002, when its tourists were murdered by Islamic terrorists in Bali. Australians are strong supporters of the United States in its fight against terrorism and are worried about the J.I. (Jemaah Islamiah), an Australian Islamic organization that aims to create an Islamic state in Australia "even if it takes 100 years."
When we visited the U.S. consulate in Sydney, we were briefed in regard to Australia's strong support for the United States, as well as its ambivalence about our nuclear policy. Nevertheless, one gets the feeling that Aussies genuinely like Americans, without wanting to become like us. Their culture is slower, more laid back and easy going, in part due to an amazing amount of physical space -- only 18 million people on land the size of the United States.
Physically, Sydney looks like Vancouver, and Melbourne like Chicago, and each feels its rivalry with the other. Jewishly, Sydney is comparable to Tel Aviv with its cafes and nightlife, while the more staid Melbourne is like Jerusalem -- especially with the largest day school in the world (2,500 students) and a more observant population.
Historically, Jews were quite instrumental in the intellectual and economic development of Australia -- no surprise to us -- founding museums and universities, establishing newspapers and large businesses and finding prominence in the legal profession.
No trip to Australia would have been complete without cruising on a boat in Sydney Harbor, visiting the Opera House and strolling through urban parks, gardens and charming neighborhoods. Wherever we went, the food was delicious and plentiful, even in modest restaurants, and people were incredibly unpretentious, gracious and friendly, with a lovely self-deprecating humor.
Of course, another not-to-be-missed visit was to an animal sanctuary, where we held and watched baby kangaroos hop in and out of pouches and where we fed koala bears. The animal and plant life of Australia is vividly colorful and fascinating in its diversity.
So, too, when we traveled to the Great Barrier Reef, we were mesmerized by the bluish green clarity of the water and the fantastic fish. Some of us also met Golan Ayalon, one of the few Jews and the only Israeli in Cairns, one of the towns near the reef. He's one of the major distributors of Aboriginal art and a friendly hippie type who liked Cairns, because it reminded him of his hometown of Eilat -- full of water sports, muggy and relaxed. In Cairns, we also met a Jewish couple from Kentucky; the man's brother belongs to a Reconstructionist synagogue in Philadelphia.
When we visited the Aboriginal village of Kuranda, we passed through forests and by waterfalls galore, captivated by birds and butterflies of every imaginable hue. We walked through rainforests, learned about making fire, listened to Aboriginal folklore and playing of the didgeridoo.
The sad history of the indigenous people of Australia was truly heartbreaking. Like our own Native Americans, they were pushed further and further inland to make way for "civilized Europeans." Then, as a "favor," they were converted to Christianity, but still treated in a segregated, second-class way. Disease and violence destroyed too many lives and families and there was forced separation of children from parents in order to "educate" them. It has left permanent societal scars. (The 2002 film, "Rabbit Proof Fence," details this misery through a true personal story describing an arrogant social policy that only ended in 1970.)
The xenophobic anti-immigration policy of Australia, only modified in recent decades, created a smug, racially insensitive and insular society that many Australians now realize was a mistake. The challenge to Australia today is accepting that, over time, it will continue to become a more Pacific Rim, less Eurocentric country, with diverse religions and races, and seeing this development as a strength.
In our closing circle, at the end of our 16-day journey, many spoke of the incredible physical beauty of the land, the vastness of each country and the genuine warmth and kind humor of the people. We shared a deep feeling for the importance of meeting Jews from all over the world -- especially in these less visited Jewish communities -- and how instantly we bonded with our fellow Yidden. Even more, we understood the time-honored Jewish maxim that "all Jews are responsible for one another."
Arnold Rachlis is rabbi of University Synagogue in Irvine.
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