Jewish Journal

Jewish Kiwis Thrive at Bottom of Earth

by Rabbi Arnold Rachlis

Posted on Dec. 4, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Downtown Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo by Douglas Low

Downtown Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo by Douglas Low

New Zealand has never been considered a center of Jewish life, but since our congregation, University Synagogue, was visiting Australia, we decided to hop over (1,200 miles) to this incredibly beautiful country.

We landed in Christchurch, an old English town. If quaint is the perfect word to describe this slower and more laid-back country, then even quainter was Christchurch. Many of us went punting on the Avon, which is relaxing as a gondolier rowed us down the river that winds through the town.

Then it was off to the International Antarctic Center -- New Zealand being the closest country to the South Pole -- where a wind-chill machine in a frozen chamber recreated the weather. (Foolishly, I wore shorts, although they lend visitors parkas, gloves and boots.)

The next day, we were deeply moved at the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation -- named after the county so as not to be called the "Christchurch Synagogue" -- where our hosts, Dr. David Cohen, a local professor originally from Fresno and a graduate of UCLA, and Dr. Ali Wegner, originally from Buenos Aires and Chicago, introduced us to their synagogue. They moved to what many would consider yenne velt (the end of the earth) to live at a slower pace with serenity and security.

They became the young generation of their synagogue and are in the process of transforming it from Orthodox to liberal. The present compromise is liberal on Friday nights and Orthodox on Shabbat mornings and holidays, with three seating sections -- men, women and unisex.

University Synagogue in Irvine recently sent them 70 sets of liberal Shabbat and High Holiday prayerbooks, because with only 60 members, they don't have a lot of funds.

They were extremely grateful for our visit, and they joined us for Havdalah with tears in their eyes. Their pride in being Jewish and their realization that they must take charge of their Judaism, because there's no one else to do it for them, was truly admirable.

The day before our visit felt like a takeoff on the movie "Desperately Seeking Susan," only this time, it was "Desperately Seeking Cohen." I had Cohen's e-mail address but no phone number, and I had to finalize the time of our visit.

I looked in the Christchurch phone book, assuming it would be easy to find his number. After all, how many Cohens could there be?

There were only three. The first two weren't home, and the third, Mrs. Cohen, laughed. "Oh, we're not Jewish," she said, "but from time to time we get calls from Americans asking where the synagogue is. My husband's family hasn't been Jewish since his grandfather married a Scottish woman, and neither family accepted them. And sorry, I don't know David Cohen."

I wasn't going to give up, but there were no more Cohens. So I called Goldstein.

The next day it was off to Queenstown, one of the loveliest spots on earth, with powerful winds sweeping across the plains; snow-capped mountains; clear, bright skies; purple flowers; rushing rapids, and sheep everywhere. In New Zealand, there are 3 million people and 57 million sheep.

We arrived in Queenstown on Christmas Eve, but since the sun didn't set until 9 p.m. and most things remained open until 10 p.m., we hit the streets with plenty of energy.

On Dec. 25, we and an Orthodox group sat together on a boat cruising through the fjords of Milford Sound and, after some initial hesitation, we became quite friendly. We ended our time together with our cantor (yes, they've heard of women cantors, they said humorously) leading us in singing "Shehecheyanu" together, expressing gratitude for sharing this yontif (holiday). They were amazed that the 25 of us belonged to one shul, because their group, also 25 people, came from all over North America.

The fjords were amazing: tall cliffs and waterfalls, seals on rocks and more snow-capped peaks.

The next day began again with water, taking a fast-moving, quick turning jet boat through river canyons. It was an adrenaline-pumping, fun-filled, memorable experience. The rest of the day was at leisure for shopping, strolling or, in one case, visiting lots of places where "Lord of the Rings" was filmed.

At night, we traveled on a coal-burning steamship to a restaurant with a sheep-shearing show. Our last supper as a group was on Christmas Day, and Santa joined us at the restaurant.

Declaring to the crowd, "I like your rabbi," a joyous and possibly inebriated Kris Kringle wished us a happy New Year, asking, "Do you observe New Year rabbi at the same time that we do?"

We marveled at how low key and non-commercial Christmas was there, as compared to the States. Neither in Australia nor in New Zealand did we feel as much a non-Christian minority as Jews often feel here at Christmastime. By the way, some members of the group did go to the movies and a Chinese restaurant on Dec. 24.

After dinner, we were educated to the crucial role of sheep dogs, the sheepishness of sheep and the sheer excitement of sheep shearing (OK, it's cheap sheep humor.) A true Kiwi character narrated every moment of her shearing a sheep and, although the sheep wasn't bleating with joy, the animal didn't look too unhappy. After all, it'll grow back.

In Auckland, Chris Schiller gave us a tour of Congregation Beth Shalom, where two rabbis -- a Reconstructionist rabbinic couple -- had served for several years before they left for Adelaide, Australia, only a month before. But truly a surprise was that the synagogue's previous rabbi was Californian Phil Posner -- the cousin of David Shore, one of our travelers -- a circuit-riding motorcyclist who visited youth hostels and taught Judaism throughout New Zealand. Apparently, he was quite a beloved character.

Of New Zealand's 7,000 Jews, 3,000 live in Auckland, but there's still a significant Orthodox - liberal split. Schiller was quite accepting of the status quo, feeling that liberal Judaism will eventually be adopted by the majority.

We also visited a small but powerful Holocaust exhibit at a major museum called the War Memorial and saw how New Zealanders are trying to integrate their various cultures, including the indigenous Maoris, after treating them and immigrants no better than the comparable experience in Australia.

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 at University Synagogue in Irvine.

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