A Decade in Review

With the Gregorian calendar about to enter a new decade, it is worthwhile pausing to consider just how much Perth Jewry has changed since the turn of the Century.

Ten years ago we spent Shabbat evening contemplating a new era as the calendar ticked into the year 2000.  Back then we were grappling with Y2K, and the technology we used did not impact our lives as it does today.  Email was not a mainstream mode of communication, social networking hardly existed in the form that we now embrace.  Not everybody carried mobile phones, and news took a lot longer to travel.  There was also less of it, and it was more positive.

The Perth Jewish community entered this decade with a lot of potential and hope.  Indeed, much of that potential has been realised, and the community has progressed in many areas.  However there are also some areas where the opportunity for Perth Jewry to consolidate its growth has not been capitalised upon, and there are some areas of Jewish life in Perth that far from adequate in terms of securing a community for this future.

I have reflected on what I think the five most positive and five most negative trends and developments have been for Perth Jewry during the past decade.  These are one bloggers viewpoints only.  You may feel differently and are welcome to use the comments facilities to put your own thoughts forward.

Here are my top five most positive accomplishments:

1)  Capital Development

The Perth Jewish community is fortunate to have the legacy of a number of capital assets, including land that is not debt ridden, to house our various organisations and institutions.  We are the envy of Communities many times larger than our own when it comes to possessing facilities. 

Hardly any of these facilities have remain untouched.  Carmel School has built an early learning centre, a new drama wing, and is now rapidly planning a sports centre.  The Maurice Zeffert Home have built a dementia wing, a new kitchen and renovated their facilities.  Maccabi have restored their Tennis facilities and have almost concluded construction of new change rooms.   The Jewish Centre has upgraded its interior.  Noranda and Dianella Shules have completely rebuilt, with upgrades made to the PHC. 

The physical cost of all this activity would collectively represent far more than $10 million worth of construction and works.  To achieve this within a community of 8,000 people is a remarkable effort, and testament to the generosity of major donors.

Whilst this is presented as an accomplishment, it also tags a warning.  Infrastructure and assets require maintaining and come with a cost of ownership.   Our ability to sustain and support these assets into the future is by no means guaranteed.  Also, the scale of this investment may not be proportionate to the requirements (or appropriate to the priority areas) of what is needed by this community.   Nonetheless, a lot of hard work, effort, and impressive project management has delivered many of our key community organisations new and high class physical facilities, and this has to rate as one of the top outcomes of our decade.

2)  Perth Yeshiva

The significance of the Yeshiva as an institution is in itself a lone mark of accomplishment as it sends out a signal that the Jewish community of Perth has matured its approach towards Jewish education.   Beyond this, the success of the Yeshiva program over the past few years has been nothing less than spectacular.  The senior school children and young adults of this community have responded to the opportunity to learn with modern orthodox Israelis and to connect with the contemporary values of religious Zionism. 

At the start of the decade, Perth did not have a Yeshiva.  We end the decade with a the knowledge that each day a group of Torah Scholars, locally supported, keep Jewish learning alive and engage in Jewish outreach. 

3)  Eruv

Ten years ago young families with children found it logistically difficult to move about on Shabbat.  Due to the intensive efforts of Rabbi Eli Lewis, an eruv was constructed in early 2003, and has remained operational since.

The Perth Eruv attracted international publicity, notably as it was erected some weeks before the one in the City of London.  The Perth eruv was regarded by experts as being to a high halachic standard.  It was also arranged with less than a year of planning and at a modest cost.

Members of the community hardly bat an eyelid on Shabbat when it comes to recalling the pre-eruv days.  We seemingly take our eruv for granted.  Like the Yeshivah, the eruv is a momentous development and an essential sign of support for religious Jewish living. 

4)  Kashrut

The facilities for Kashrut have been greatly enhanced over the past decade.   There are several very high quality sources of kosher meat and groceries, and a  number of catering options.  A decade ago the Maurice Zeffert old age home was only embarking on their kosher journey.  Today they boast a certified facility that also makes quality catering and meals on wheels available to the community.  The importance and significance of this is yet again a statement; that kashrut is an important value and standard for a Jewish community. 

Outside of the dedicated commercial facilities a far larger range of general groceries now carry kosher certification.  Our supermarket shopping is made easier by the availability of many items that were previously not kosher.

5)  Public Relations

The Jewish Community Council has a challenging task, to represent the community and deliver to it with almost no resource or revenue base.  Until such time (and there is no such opportunity in the forseeable future) that the JCCWA becomes a professional peak body of the Jewish community, we are dependent on the goodwill of its voluntary officers.

Over the past decade the JCCWA has enhanced its public relations, become proactive, and has does a wonderful job of raising the public profile of the Perth Jewish community.  It has also maintained strong relationships with the Civic and political leaders of Perth. 

There is a strong crossover between the public relations role of the JCCWA, and defending Israel from the growing chorus of ignorant, unfair and on occasions anti-Semitic critics who slur and distort the good name of our Jewish community.  It is an uphill battle, and whatever gets done will never be enough.  Sadly, we end the decade with a greater need for Hasbara.  However we also end the decade fortunate enough to have leaders who will pick up the task and put forward a stellar effort. 

 

Here are my top five negative attributes of the past decade of Perth Jewry:

1)  Assimilation

This topic is often not politically correct, even taboo in some areas.  However the reality is not only have we failed to emphasise the perils of intermarriage, we have lost many future generations of community members by failing to convince young Jews to embrace Judaism.  We have not been able to allow them to become a link the chain of Jewish heritage and tradition, and to secure the continuity of their families Jewish identity.  The passive attitudes we hold are a danger and send out tacit (and occasionally overt) signals of acceptance.  We delude ourselves that the children of mixed marriages will embrace Judaism, when the reality is that their home environment will be one of mixed messages and religious tension.  Whilst there are no statistics that provide an exact measure of this issue for Perth, statistics themselves are not needed.  Every young Jewish person who chooses to marry out is a mark of failure for the community.  Yet few resources are directed to this matter and the cautious and dismissive attitudes that prevail in many parts of the community do nothing other than to exacerbate the problem.  There are few facilities to support Jewish dating and relationship development.  Whist assimilation has always been a problem, I sense we end the decade with a far greater rate of assimilation, and a more casual attitude towards the communal consequences of this, than we did a mere ten years ago.  

2)  Jewish Media

It gives me no pleasure in opining that, as much as the Jewish community needs a strong medium of communication, we sadly do not have a paper that is up to the task.  Our local Jewish newspaper falls short of filling its role as a newspaper, a chronicle of history, and a medium for exchanging viewpoints.  It does not drive topics of discussion or promote an agenda for the community.  It does not produce its own news (locally, it waits for news to find them, and elsewhere it just reproduces the news of other publications.)  It does not critically or independently investigate communal activity.  The paper provides no editorial stance, nor any accountability to the community.  It has been exposed by this blog for plagiarism yet failed to even acknowledge that fundamental journalistic ethics were compromised.  We have a paper that delievers photos and messages of congratulation to Jews who marry out, carries advertisements for non-kosher establishments, contains articles that misrepresent Jewish values, and completely omits news coverage of a huge amount of activity that takes place in our community on a daily and weekly basis.  Unfortunately the Maccabean does not reflect the values, activities or the potential of all that the Perth Jewish community represents. 

There are no alternatives to the Maccabean.  As far as the Australian Jewish News is concerned, Perth hardly exists.  The AJN is also a paper that does little to foster the distinguishing values that are centrally important to Jewish communal life.  Its focus, unlike the Maccabean, is commercial, which, while lowering the level of expectation, does not excuse it from its role of publically representing matters of importance to Australian Jewry.

3)  Immigration

During the 1990’s the entire Perth Jewish community rallied around a program to promote immigration, predominently from South Africa.  It is also true that in the year 2000 the low cost of housing in Perth made this city an attractive destination for  potential migrants.  In the year 2010 this dynamic has changed.  Housing costs have at least trebled, if not quadrupled, over the past decade.  This aside, the level of focus and the community support network to assist with immigration has all but dissipated.  The networks set up to welcome, acculturate and offer support to new families are not what they once were.  There are no formal facilities to assist migrants (or those who have not newly settled) with employment or business development.  Within the Shule networks there are many people who are prepared to offer help, but this too differs from what it once was.  Both the promotion of the Perth Jewish community, and the structures within the community to support growth through immigration have, to our collective detriment, diminished in both prominence and effect.  

4)  Leadership Development

Look carefully at a number of our large organisations and institutions, and their governing bodies.  Many of the people who were involved in leading and organising these groups ten years ago are still there.  The committment and dedication of many people in our community is unwavering and we are much the richer for it.  However it is also a double edged sword.  Organisations need new leaders coming through the ranks.  These emerging leaders need opportunities and incentives to get involved.  It is very hard to do when the leaders of the past refuse to “let go”.

Each year dozens of youth from our community go to Israel based leadership programs through Zionist Youth Groups.  They return and inject much enthusiasm into their own movements.  However they do not seem to graduate beyond this.  How many shule boards, and community organisations have young bogrim involved, beyond the level of token representation?  We are lacking in continuity.  Worse still, on occasions the very people who complain about the lack of youth involvement are the ones who put up barriers and stumbling blocks.  There is a strong generational gap in our community, and absolutely no attraction for young people to get involved in community development.  

Occasionally there is a shining light that is directed to this problem.  During the past decade the best example of this was when Rabbi Rothschild of the Northern Suburbs Shule established a dedicated youth facility that was self directed and managed.  Sadly it was not to last. 

We end the decade with little or no progress.  The next generation of leaders are not being nurtured, and the experience and mentoring they need to take on community leadership roles is not being provided.

5)  Funding

Each year the cost of delivering services through our community is worth many millions of dollars.  We run a school, old age home, Shules, Maccabi and a Jewish Community Centre all of which carry overheads.  The collective amount of expenditure across this range of institutions costs millions of dollars annually (not including the aforementioned capital expenditure).  That is a lot of money to extract from a community of approximately 8,000 people.  Included in the committment are major charitable organisations who remit large amounts of funding from Perth to Israel (to then have but a fraction of this returned in the form of shlichim).  Put simply, the current “economy” of the Perth Jewish community is not sustainable, and many of our organistions will struggle to survive into the next decade.  In particular, the most important organisation in the Perth Jewish community, Carmel School, will lose students as the fee pressures mount to levels that are beyond the reach of young families.  Much can be done.  Resources can be redirected to deliver greater support for Jewish education.  Current resource duplication can be rationalised.  However unfortunately unity, capacity, and will, let alone a recognition of the true extent of this problem, means that much of the effort needed to arrest this problem will come too late, after much of the damage has been done.

There are two approaches towards delivering better funding to priority areas.  One is to rationalise and redirect resources.  The other is to grow the revenue base.  That comes back to the quality of service delivery, the size of the clientele base, and the perceived value of the customer.  It all requires sustained growth.

Conclusion:

The Perth Jewish community has enjoyed a prosperous decade.  It has invested and it has enjoyed high activity levels.  Ironically however, its future is by no means guaranteed.  There is only one area of growth in the community, which is that of religious observance.  Much of the balance of the community, in terms of size, attitude, and activity, seems to be stable and stagnant. 

As mentioned at the start of this post, this is the viewpoint of only one person, and will differ considerably from what other people think.  Through this post I submit that if we capitalise on those top areas of strength and growth, and arrest/address those areas where our scorecard is not positive, then we will be able to read this again in ten years time with a tremendous amount of satisfaction.

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