In another “moment in time” for the Perth Jewish community, yet another monumental literary work by Rabbi Shalom Coleman was launched tonight. A large crowd attended a very dignified launch function at the PHC, where the transcript of “They Gave of Their Time – A record of volunteers shaping the Jewish community” was released in electronic format.
In his launch address, Professor Keith Shilkin noted that it was 47 years to the day since Rabbi Coleman arrived in Perth. It was also noted that the account of Rabbi Coleman as author of the work was modestly recorded. On perusing the text and exploring Rabbi Coleman’s previous autobiographies, this turns out to be quite an understatement.
Rabbi Coleman is without question one of the most fascinating and influential people I have met. He represents for me a link to a generation that carried yiddishkeit from the rebuilding of the Holocaust, the establishment of Israel, to the renaissance of Jewish education. In his book “Life is a Corridor” you can read with fascination about his first hand encounters as a student Zionist leader with the founding leaders of Israel including Ben Gurion and Weitzman. Rabbi Coleman’s encyclopaedic knowledge of history, Egyptology, Talmud and his love of Jewish prayer all became an infectious influence on me during my teenage years when I was privileged to be his student shortly after my Bar Mitzvah.
Beyond Perth, Rabbi Coleman’s Rabbinic Career has extended from the UK to Bloemfontein, Sydney, and New Zealand. His Rabbinic standing in Australia is marked by his honorary life presidency of ORA, and by the respect that Rabbi Coleman commands from his Rabbinic colleagues.
Outside of the Jewish community Rabbi Coleman’s influence has extended far. To cite but a few examples, Rabbi Coleman has been a Rotarian member, President and Governor, patron of the Family Association of Western Australia, Murdoch University Senator and UWA educator and recipient of an Honorary Doctorate, Chairman of the Perth Dental Hospital Board, and vice President of the Save the Children Fund. He has edited the “Listening Post” journal as part of his contribution to the Returned Services League (he was an RAF Radio Operator in World War 2 for the British Army).
From his work to free Russian Jewry, to his Chairmanship of the Bangladesh Cyclone Warning Project that saved the lives of some 40,000 people, Rabbi Coleman has touched the lives of many people who do not know him, and thousands upon thousands of more people who do.
What is however most remarkable is that on any given Shabbat, you can still daven at the Maurice Zeffert Home and experience the pleasure of Rabbi Coleman’s chazzanut and the power of his drashot. Into his 94th year he demonstrates an energy and a perseverance that is unlike any other.
The transcript that was released tonight is an important biographical record of a number of people who have assisted to build the Perth Jewish community, past and present. It was noted that there are few biographical resources of this nature available to contribute to the historical record of Perth Jewry, and that this publication assists to close a big gap.
It will take some time to read through (or listen to the audio recording) of the CD, but it is already evident there is much to learn from it. The electronic format is also a technological leap particularly considering that the work was authored and edited by a nonagenarian. The sound extract was produced by a facility that aids audio publications for the blind. It is worth noting that this is poignant as one of Rabbi Coleman’s most influential teachers at Jews College in London during the 1950’s was blind, but could recall the teachings of Judaism by heart.
Perhaps the greatest reflection regarding Rabbi Coleman’s use of technology is to put some further context around the generation he has historically contributed to and recorded, and the generation to which he gifts this transcript. Rabbi Coleman was born shortly after the end of the first world war (his parent’s gifted him the name Shalom in deference to the peace of the armistice). This was before the time of cabled telecommunications.
As I write this post, my children are perusing the CD and reading about people they know. The technology that my children are now using for their Jewish education is a quantum leap from what we had available even 12 months ago. Today, my eldest went to cheder with homework assigned through a dropbox of an ipad. Their learning is interactive, and they have a comprehensive and searchable library of Jewish source texts at their fingertips. They can jump across sefarim, translate and search the text, link to bibliographical profiles, and access audio recordings in the accent and nusach of their choice. The same technology is being used in their classroom at school. There is no more ability to “pull one over the teacher” when it comes to Hebrew reading homework. They have to record themselves reading and the audio file is emailed to their teacher for review and assessment.
To observe that thousands of years of Biblical and Rabbinic source text sits at the fingertips of my children on a screen the size of a standard piece of paper, and to watch them skilfully use their interpretive powers to apply this knowledge to the issues that are important to them, is to see nothing less than an entire new dimension of Jewish survival.
Whilst sentimentally caught up in the middle of all of this, paralysed by a hermetic and technological generation gap on both sides, I am awestruck by the greatness that sits above and below me.
I marvel at Rabbi Coleman, and everything he represents. How he carried communities through a period of sustained growth and upheld a tradition that was not always embraced by his peers, and how his leadership gave a stature and kavod to the Rabbinic profession in a manner that is not commonly seen today.
I also marvel at the young children I see that hold a world of knowledge in their hands, and access educational opportunities and resources that I could only dream of. How these children positively influence their Jewish identity, research their heritage and challenge ideas with the use of unlimited information sources accessible from anywhere in the world.
Tonight these two contrasting images were brought together and combined. A senior author with boundless energy, delivering Jewish heritage through the use of modern technology, and a junior student, also with boundless energy receiving Jewish heritage through a powerful technological medium that two years ago did not even exist. All the while, I stand as an observer, unequipped with enough technological knowledge to even record a television program onto a video, or DVD, or thumbdrive, or whatever they use these days.
In bringing this together, I was able to show my children that the medium of access to knowledge is one thing, but that the knowledge itself is something else. It is the latter that must carefully be guarded. The topic of Rabbi Coleman’s book is about volunteers and what they have gifted to a community. As Rabbi Freilich noted in his launch remarks, we learn from the experience and example of those who came before us. The collective values of the volunteers who have been profiled by Rabbi Coleman are the essence of our community. Whether it is by ink on a page, or electrons on a screen, we need to digest the importance of the recording of this work, learn from it, and use its inspiration it to shape our own values of community identity and involvement.
Thank you Rabbi Coleman for this wonderful publication. May you go from mi’chayil li’chayil, strength to strength, as we continue to benefit from your masterful knowledge and virtuous middot.