Amid Aftershocks, New Zealand Jews Rebuild

Following a deadly earthquake in 2011, the Jewish community of Christchurch, New Zealand remains united.

Dan Goldberg
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Dan Goldberg

SYDNEY – On the outer edge of the Diaspora, about three times as far from Israel as from Antarctica, a tiny Jewish outpost sits astride a deadly fault line. So deadly, in fact, that last year an earthquake along the fault killed more than 180 people, including three Israelis, reducing most of the city center to rubble.

Kia ora, as the local Maoris say. Welcome to Christchurch, New Zealand, home to the about 250 Jews, most of who belong to the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation – the southernmost Orthodox community on the planet.

Unlike so many other local buildings, the congregation's synagogue, Beth-El, survived the February 22, 2011 earthquake, which had measured 6.3 on the Richter scale. That's because work to reinforce it had been completed just days earlier.

Still, after the temblor, the building was deemed unsafe for use. Its doors were shut and the tower was leaning. The Torah scrolls had to be removed before the tower was dismantled, brick by brick. The synagogue remained in a state of disrepair for almost a year and a half while the community waited out aftershocks, insurance bureaucracy and geology reports.

The synagogue can be repaired, Beth-El's president Bettina Wallace told Haaretz. But it could take months and certainly won't be ready for Rosh Hashanah.

In the meantime, she says the community is suffering.

“The devastation is enormous. Eighty percent of the buildings in the city center will be demolished and the earth is still 'jelly,'" she said. “We have no community member who does not have some damage. In some cases, the damage is such that the likelihood of their house being demolished is greater than it being repaired."

By Wallace's count, 15 families lost their houses. Five moved to new homes, four moved to New Zealand's North Island or Australia and the rest are living in temporary accommodations.

And then there are the aftershocks – remarkably, there have been more than 10,000 so far.

“They have had a tremendous effect on all of us, in particular on the sick and the elderly,” Wallace said.

Shortly after the quake, the congregation rented a small house to use as a shul and community center, mostly thanks to donations from the American Joint Distribution Committee and the American Jewish Committee.

“We’re cooperating with the Jewish community to ensure that people on the ground can start to rebuild their lives,” JDC CEO Steven Schwager said at the time.

The two-bedroom “Shul House” allows the 147-year-old congregation to continue holding services and to “come together in a safe environment to share and discuss our experiences,” said Wallace.

The community, which includes about 40 children, has rallied in the face of adversity.

“The spirit is quite resilient," said Wallace. "We are closer than ever. We have come to understand how important our shul and our community are to us."

One sec while I get under the desk

Indeed, while the synagogue's vice president Tonny De Vries was speaking to Haaretz from her office at the University of Canterbury, she suddenly stopped mid-sentence and said, “Hang on! I’m just getting under the desk.”

An earthquake measuring 5.0 was shaking the South Island’s largest city.

“I’m just keeping an ear out in case we need to evacuate,” De Vries said.

She then continued to explain that while other communities “could collapse under this kind of pressure,” Canterbury Hebrew Congregation is determined to survive.

The support the community received from the Diaspora – including America, Australia, Israel and especially North Island, where most of the country’s 7,000 or so Jews live – was heart-warming, she said.

“We’ve been living this way for nearly two years. We’re nowhere near done," DeVries said, adding that another major earthquake could happen at any time.

“It makes us feel connected and less distant. It encourages us to carry on and to make sure that our community will survive for future generations,” Wallace said.

It is true that some people have left Christchurch. But others are arriving.

“Christchurch needs people to rebuild and … new arrivals are coming from the U.K., the U.S. and also Israel,” she said. “We are in a state of transition. The community will be stronger in 10 years’ time.”

When Udi Dvorkin, the World Zionist Organization community emissary in New Zealand, travelled to the city last weekend, he was struck by the community's chutzpah.

“The mood is improving dramatically,” he said. “It’s a very positive community. The tragedy made them into a sort of shtetl. They’re like family for each other. They’re checking and bringing food to the elderly.”

The ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch Jews were more fragmented by the earthquake, which razed the city's Chabad house. Two Torah scrolls and more than a thousand religious books had to be salvaged by rescue workers.

“Until the aftershocks stop, we continue to encourage the backpackers to avoid any unnecessary stays in the vulnerable region,” said Chabad’s Rabbi Mendel Goldstein, who has relocated to Auckland. “We do hope, as conditions improve, to reopen a Chabad house in Christchurch.”

When an Israeli victim identification team, in Christchurch to offer aid after the quake, viewed the remains of Ofer Levy, Gabi Engel and Ofer Mizrachi, there were allegations that the one of the Israeli victims had been a Mossad agents. But New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said an investigation found no evidence to suggest they were anything other than backpackers.

“There is a covenant of blood between Israel and New Zealand,” Rivlin told Christchurch mayor Bob Parker while speaking about the memorial. “Many Israelis felt genuine pain, not just solidarity, when we saw the terrible images.”

The Beth-El synagogue's tower was dismantled after the earthquake, and its Torah scrolls removed.
The interior of the synagogue, which was deemed unusable due to damage.



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