When you are living in the midst of a changing environment, it is sometimes difficult to see the change.
Perth is a changing city. The Jewish community of Perth is a changing community. In both cases there are attributes of change which are for the better and others that are for the worse. Some of the change is very positive, and some of the change is not desirable.
Much of the social change in Perth, both within and beyond Jewish circles, is due to rapidly escalating costs of living. There is a pronounced and extending schism between those who are materially wealthy, and those who are living week to week in an effort to balance their budget, if at all. For the latter, the flow on effect is that the ability of people to contribute in a philanthropic and/or voluntary capacity to the wellbeing of their community is stifled.
The Perth Jewish community has seen tremendous physical growth in recent years. There have been at least six major infrastructure developments relating to community institutions, with capital works collectively totalling into the millions. There has been a proliferation of Jewish organisations, activities, facilities, and resources. This is all very positive.
However there is also a paradox between the physical strengthening of the Jewish community and membership of the community itself. If we compare the state of the community today against how it looked ten years ago, the facilities are better. However, do we have more Jews in Perth? Do we have more committed and observant Jews in Perth? Are more Perth Jewish families maintaining a kosher home? Are a new generation of Jewish community leaders stepping into leadership roles? Are there the same number of professional positions within Jewish community organisations, and is there the same level of funding to sustain those positions? Can we afford to collectively own, operate, and renew so much infrastructure in a sustainable manner, and into the longterm for the benefit of the next generation? Even more challenging as a question is the issue of whether young Jewish people are meeting locally, marrying, building their futures here and providing to us the next generation.
I beleive that until relatively recently, the overwhelming answer to all the above questions has been an unqualified “yes”. The community has grown in qualitative terms and there has been strong development towards positive Jewish living in Perth. However in more recent times, I have sensed a bit of a plateaux. We have reached a level of complacency regarding the status quo, and have not actively invested enough into pushing further forward. The risk of this, is that we start to slip back without realising it.
Another reality is that net migration of the Perth Jewish community has trended in a very stagnant manner over the past few years. A lot of very talented and active community members have left the Perth Jewish community, mostly for Israel, which should also be considered as a sign of community strength and pride. A few people have arrived, but, as with previous experiences with waves of migration, new arrivals have to focus on establishing their homes and careers, and it is some years before it is reasonable to anticipate that migrants will seek active involvement in voluntary community roles.
Some of the issues regarding resource constraints and long-term Diaspora sustainability are not unique to the Perth Jewish community. Whilst currently flamed by economic pressure, there are other factors that also impact people’s willingness to contribute to the community. They concern everything from the ability to have leadership roles respected in such a way that they can be effective, through to the sheer joy and pleasure of making a difference. Whilst plagued by a lack of unity of purpose, and crippled by the burden of apathy, our community leadership roles are hardly an attractive proposition.
At the end of the day a community is about people, not facilities and chattels. Perth Jewry is very fortunate to have some very competent contributors who have delivered wonderful benefits to us all. My concern and motivation for this post is that the continuity factor does not seem to be strong. The community has polarised so that we now find ourselves with some people who are very involved, some people who affiliate in very marginal terms, and very little middle ground.
I believe that both the exacerbation of the problem, and more importantly the solution, rests with the Synagogues and religious institutions of our community. None of the Shule’s in this city are doing enough to reach out beyond their ken, to provide enough in the way of a stimulating experience to attract non-regulars. There is a distinct lack of variety in approach. Several hours of shule on a Shabbat morning is not the formula for everybody. Yet there is no alternative options, with an educational or social focus. There is no egalitarian orthodoxy in Perth, and few facilities for those not familiar by rote with tefillah to learn, understand and appreciate the importance of participating in a minyan as the prime focus of Jewish community participation.
The gap between the religious and non religious members of the Perth Jewish community seems to be widening and polarising the way in which people participate. In this scenario, for every person that is “pulled in”, there is somebody else who is “pushed away”.
Not everybody has to be religious, but a Jewish community without a strong religious core has a finite lifespan, particularly in an Australian town or city. In Perth we are fortunate enough to have that religious core, but we are not optimising the opportunity that this represents, and we are not leveraging the strength of that community for the broader good as a means of securing our future.
Constructive dialogue that assists us to define and recognise the problem, followed by a greater level of engagement between the observant and non-observant sectors of the community would be a great place to start.