When Premier Colin Barnett addressed a Liberal Party reception for the Perth Jewish Community this morning, he noted two interesting points. The first was his acknowledgement that Jewish community sets a wonderful example to the wider community when it comes to caring for its people (educating its children, supporting its social needs, and care of the aged). The second point was that the influence of migration has been a very positive force for the Jewish community, and through professional contributions, the wider community around it.
On the way home from this function I was listening to the weekly Hebrew broadcast on SBS which this week focussed on the integration and participation of the Israeli community of Australia into the Australian Jewish community. If the strengths of our community are as the Premier perceived them to be (and I believe they are), then there are grounds for comparison between the yardstick measure by which our community is perceived, and the contribution to Australian Jewry by the significant portion of Israeli’s who reside amongst us.
The SBS program noted that there were around about 8,000 Israeli’s who permanently live in Australia, with concentrations in Sydney and Melbourne. The Israeli immigrants to Australia have contributed significantly to the hi-tech industry in Australia, and have generally made a very positive economic contribution. However the programs commentary seemed to suggest that identity and involvement with the Jewish community from local Israeli’s could be far stronger than it is.
While it is hard to generalise, it is fair to say that there are far more Israeli’s in Australia that are not affiliated to Jewish organisations, than there are of Israelis who do involve themselves. There are some places in Austrlia (e.g Hall St in Sydney) where you can walk down the street and hear Hebrew spoken with ease. There is a Shule in Melbourne (Hamerkaz Shelanu) that caters for Hebrew speakers. Most Shules and Jewish organisations will have Israeli’s involved at some level. Many of these Israeli’s have a strong traditional level of observance and family connections to Jewish living. These are the people we do see at community events. But what of those who do not feel comfortable with Jewish community living?
When living in Israel, little effort needs to be extended to live a Jewish ethos. The structure of the calendar, the way goods are prepared and provided, and the cultural focus of the nation is inherently Jewish. This is sometimes to the extent that the benefactors of this Jewish way of life are blissfully unaware of the Jewish observances that can be ingrained into everyday life. Non traditional Jews who exclude themselves and their families from Jewish education and practice (and on occasions rebel against Jewish tradition) are still well within the fold of the Jewish nation as their natural environment will carry them through.
Outside of Israel it is a different story. An Israeli cannot alienate themselves from a Jewish community and still retain anything other than a bare semblance of Jewish identity. Exclusion from a Diaspora community can mean the passing up of centuries of Jewish tradition that sits within that person’s family history. Some care more than others, and some are more conscious than others, but essentially any belief that one can maintain an Israeli identity in Australia, to the exclusion of a Jewish communal identity, are delusional.
Here in Perth the situation with non-affiliated Israeli’s is not as pronounced as it is over east, but there are nonetheless still many hundreds of unaffiliated Israeli’s in our State. I have walked through the streets in Mt Lawley, Subiaco, and Fremantle and have casually observed Hebrew conversation. I’ve come across Israeli’s through business; in one recent case a man who had his children in a non-Jewish private school, and plans not to provide his son a Bar Mitzvah.
Much of the Jewish outreach to Israeli’s in WA is centered around Chabad, and there are some occasions (Pesach, Yom Haatzmaut, Chanukah) where a strong Israeli presence can be found. This network has developed in recent years, and it is hoped that it will develop further.
Back to the inference of our Premier, that we are good at looking after our own people. I would like to suggest that although this may be so in some sectors, we are far more complancent with others. I would like to ask where is the community outreach in the Jewish community for former Israeli’s? Where is the plan? Where are the Hebrew presentations and social events, and the Hebrew columns in the Maccabean? What initiatives do we have in place to provide Bar and Bat Mitzvah for the children of Israeli’s who receive no Jewish education and are not positioned to attend Carmel School? Where are the hospitality facilities and networks to support Israeli travellers? Finally, what can we do to foster more involvement into community activities for Israeli’s; especially those who feel disenfranchised with Judaism itself?
I don’t have all the answers. However the irony of all this struck me when I constrasted this morning’s function with this morning’s radio broadcast. The head of our Jewish Community body stood up this morning and proudly claimed that our population is much higher than the cited estimate. If indeed we have such a high quantity of Jewish residents, then why is it that so many of them do not have the qualitative connection to the community that would support their participation and contribution towards community development? Moreso, why is it that we are so entrenched within (and sheltered by) our current community structure that we don’t see non-affiliation from Jewish people to be a crisis issue?
Surely it is time to take the Premier’s comments to heart, and to reach out to all of our own people. The starting point is to seek those people who for whatever reason feel intimidated by community affiliation, and find them a place within the Jewish community that allows them to discover the Jewish traditional life that can be delivered locally. We need to encourage our potential community members to mix socially, get to know people within the community and thereby grow their connections and friendships.
No Jewish person, no matter how far removed from the Jewish community, should be neglected or excluded. Rather than our Jewish organisations waiting for people to come to them, we could all be a little more proactive and reach out a little further. Maybe then, the next time our Civic leaders compliment us for looking after our own people so well, instead of postulating ourselves with self-congratulation and feel-g00d smugness, we could genuinely accept the compliment. A little harsh? Maybe. However I contend that Perth Jewry does too little to engage its membership in community focussed activity (fundraising excepted). Community is about both give and take, and the signal that is sent out to potential new members of the community is that of a one way street – all take, and no give.