Hanukkah Down Under is arguably the most public of Jewish festivals, an eight-day blitz of festivities across the continent.
Cherry pickers hoist rabbis high above the crowds to light giant Hanukkah menorahs in public spaces; inside the Westfield chain of shopping malls – founded by Holocaust survivor Frank Lowy – menorahs jostle alongside Christmas decorations; on the beaches and in the bays, in parks and even in parliament, Hanukkah is a hive of activity.
But in the Outback, the Festival of Lights would be consigned to virtual darkness were it not for a bright red-and-yellow Winnebago emblazoned with the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s face on the back.
This kosher synagogue on wheels – dubbed the “Mitzvah Tank” – is armed with Hanukkah menorahs, doughnuts and dreidels this week, as Rabbi Eli Loebenstein and his wife, Goldie, head into far northern Queensland, home to many more deadly saltwater crocodiles than far-flung Australian Jews.
Married in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, just a month ago, the young couple in their 20s are the latest emissaries to hit the road on behalf of Chabad of Rural and Regional Australia (RARA), a unique wing of the outreach organization that sends students into the Outback to visit the 7,000-10,000 isolated Jews believed to be living beyond the main centers.
Having spent the third and fourth nights of Hanukkah in Townsville, a small coastal city renowned as the birthplace of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, they headed further north to Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, for the fifth night.
Now, they’re on the long road back to Melbourne, a 3,000-kilometer trek during which they’ll hopefully unearth lost-lost members of the tribe.
“We’re carrying mezuzahs, tefillin, Jewish books, kippas, kosher food, shofars, charity boxes – all the different things you need,” said Goldie Loebenstein. “We're going to visit different homes to light menorahs in people’s houses.”
Her husband, Eli, who was born in Melbourne, further explained their mission, saying that when the Lubavitcher Rebbe was alive, he "sent out different rabbis to go all over the world to find every single Jew to make sure they have what they need for every holiday. That’s what we’re doing.”
The brainchild of Melbournian Saul Spigler, who travelled Australia in a campervan in 1977 in search of isolated Jews, RARA was founded in 1999 and has more than 3,000 rural Australian Jews listed in a database.
“One of the cardinal tenets of Judaism is that are all Jews are one regardless of geographic distance,” Spigler wrote on the RARA website. “We’ll go anywhere to visit anybody.”
A lawyer and forensic geologist who has reclaimed estates taken from Jews by the Nazis, Spigler’s students have travelled hundreds of thousands of kilometers, accruing some remarkably improbable stories: the priest on the island of Tasmania who asked to put on tefillin; the pig farmers in northern New South Wales who turned out to be Jews; the elderly man in Darwin who had no connection to Judaism but lit candles every Friday night; the man who was smuggled out of Auschwitz as a baby and never had a bar mitzvah until the RARA rabbis discovered him in the phone book; and, most recently, the 44-year-old son of a Jewish mother and Aboriginal father who donned tefillin in front of Uluru, the spiritual heart of Australia, to celebrate his bar mitzvah.
The impact that Chabad has had on Outback Jews is immeasurable, according to George Koulakis, the unofficial coordinator of the Jews of Townsville.
Koulakis, 44, a former pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force, was born in Darwin, in the Northern Territory, and has spent most of his life in remote places that have no formal Jewish community.
“There wouldn’t be a community here in Townsville without Chabad of RARA. There would not be a coming together of Jews,” said Koulakis, who hosts a local Jewish blog that helped promote last Saturday night’s Hanukkah party.
“Of the 105 Jews in Townsville only about 55 participate in events,” Koulakis said, adding that a local property owned by an affluent philanthropist doubles as a Chabad house. (The nearest rabbi, kosher shop and synagogue are in Brisbane, some 1,300 kilometers south.)
“We now have a sense of community,” he told Haaretz. “We are one of RARA’s success stories.”
Koulakis also maintains the Mitzvah Tank so that the Chabadniks can drive into the Outback, where they trawl through phone books, sift through cemeteries, quiz police and cold-call people who may be Jewish.
“They’re like Jewish detectives,” Koulakis said. “They’ve got a very good formula for finding Jews,” he adds, even if not every Jew necessarily wants to be identified.
“For every 10 calls they make sometimes only one Jew agrees to see them,” he said.
That's not stopping Eli Loebenstein and his wife, as they make their way south this week from tropical Queensland to Melbourne, where they hope to rekindle the spark of Yiddishkeit among some of Australia’s Outback Jews.
“Wherever you find Coca-Cola," Loebenstein said, "you’ll find Chabad."