Looking Up Down Under: How Australia’s Largest Jewish Community Coped Better Than Most With COVID

Australia’s long months of COVID-19 lockdowns may have tested the community’s resolve in Melbourne, but its synagogues were never busier – even if it was only virtually

Gabrielle Briner
Gabrielle Briner
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The Fearless Girl Statue looking at a "Please stay home" sign in Melbourne last month.
The Fearless Girl Statue looking at a "Please stay home" sign in Melbourne last month.Credit: SANDRA SANDERS/REUTERS
Gabrielle Briner
Gabrielle Briner

Purim 2021 was the first holiday Melbourne’s Jewish community celebrated together in nearly a year.

After the southeastern Australian state of Victoria imposed a snap five-day lockdown early last month, following an outbreak of the hyper-contagious U.K. variant at a Melbourne hotel, Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann at the Ark Modern Orthodox synagogue started researching the halakhic validity of a Zoom megillah reading. But the state government lifted the lockdown on February 17 and Kaltmann hastily prepared for a hamantaschen bake, two megillah readings and a Purim party – all socially distanced, of course.

“The atmosphere was electric,” Kaltmann told Haaretz after the hamantaschen bake launched the festive celebrations last month. “Everyone was so happy to be around other people.”

While Jewish communities worldwide suffered immense losses from the coronavirus, Australia’s largest Jewish community in Melbourne, home to over 50,000 members, was largely spared. In Melbourne’s case, its integration within the wider community was the key to its success, the former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Dr. Danny Lamm, told Haaretz.

“The Jewish community had to respond in the same way as the wider Melbourne community, there was no difference,” he said.

The hamantaschen bake at the Ark synagogue in Melbourne last month.Credit: Gabi Kaltmann

Due to its isolation, Australia was able to act quickly and decisively, enforcing a strict hotel quarantine regime, world-class contact-tracing methods, and prioritizing zero community transmission. This helped to somewhat preserve a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy, Federal Member of Parliament Josh Burns said. Burns’ Melbourne district of McNamara is home to around 15,000 Jewish constituents.

“The decision to force everyone coming into the country to quarantine for two weeks slowed down the introduction to the coronavirus early on,” Burns said.

But in June 2020, an outbreak traced to a hotel quarantine error saw the virus spread aggressively through the city. Authorities enforced a harsh lockdown, which ultimately lasted over 100 days.

“We saw makeshift morgues being built in Central Park in New York, we witnessed hospitals triaging patients in Milan, we saw what happens if you let this thing run rampant and what the consequences could be,” Burns said.

Jewish community leaders saw no other option but immediate action. “Obviously we had to act, because saving lives is a Jewish value.” Kaltmann said, referring to the principle of pikuah nefesh.

“We had seen other places around the world get locked down, but for us in Australia, so far away, there was just a general feeling of shock around Melbourne,” Kaltmann added. “I had a steady stream of congregants calling me up, asking for pastoral care, a word of reassurance, and I realized we had a serious situation with job loss, mental health issues, parents not being able to cope with homeschooling, and the like.”

The most heartbreaking part, he said, was the impact it had on death rituals: Only immediate families could attend funerals, which were limited to 10 people. “The family couldn’t sit shivah properly, and couldn’t find that comfort and solace surrounded by loved ones due to the restrictions.”

Despite the lockdowns and restrictions that cast a shadow over the city for much of 2020, Jewish community leaders were pleasantly surprised to see more community members than ever seeking involvement and connection – even if it was over Zoom. “People were yearning and searching for a sense of camaraderie and unity,” Kaltmann said.

Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann in Melbourne.Credit: Gabi Kaltmann

‘Huge problems’

Dr. Philip Bliss, president of Progressive Judaism Victoria, said that Temple Beth Israel, the largest progressive synagogue in Melbourne, logged 24,000 participants during the High Holy Days period – far more than would have joined in person.

“The lockdowns and the whole of 2020 created huge problems, of course, but with technology, also gave us some exciting possibilities,” Bliss said. He added that Progressive Judaism Victoria offered its community alternatives to regular online prayer services during lockdown by hosting several educational sessions on a range of topics, including Jewish responses to climate change, Israeli politics and culture. These drew attendees from all over the world, at times rising to over 900 participants. “The numbers that attended these sessions were way beyond our expectations,” Bliss said.

Rabbi Ralph Genende, who heads Melbourne’s largest Modern Orthodox congregation, said he was blown away by the number of people who joined his synagogue’s pre-Yom Kippur Kol Nidrei Zoom service in late September.

“Yom Kippur was really a struggle, because it’s such a communal experience, and it’s the only day where our synagogue is overflowing,” he said. But the virtual turnout was larger than expected, and he saw among the faces people who “hadn’t attended synagogue in a really long time, and saw it as a way to touch back in.”

When the lockdown eased in October and gatherings of up to 20 people were permitted, Kaltmann couldn’t accommodate the level of demand from his congregants. “I had people ringing me up, begging me to come to shul. People who I hadn’t seen since the previous Yom Kippur were banging down the door. Did they find God? I don’t know. I think they just wanted to see their friends to talk about the weather and football scores,” he said.

Youth group leaders saw an opportunity to fill a void of social interaction caused by homeschooling, said Eli Libson, director of the Australian Zionist Youth Council. Australia is home to seven Zionist youth groups, whose numbers once made them a formidable political and social force. In recent years, they’ve seen a sharp decline in popularity, which Libson attributes mainly to social media. But the coronavirus seems to have changed this, too.

“All of the youth movements saw a rise in numbers and, miraculously, we were able to run sleepaway camps in nearly every state in Australia – which is crazy because nearly all other movements globally were forced to close,” Libson said. During lockdown, the movements moved to Zoom, running virtual Israel tours and competitions for participants over social media.

Even the Jewish International Film Festival, one of the Australian Jewish community’s largest cultural events, kicked off last month after a few months’ delay. Despite limits on cinema capacity and social distancing, some 300 people showed up for opening night in Sydney alone, said the festival’s creative director, Eddie Tamir.

“Despite everything, people are coming to the cinema, and it’s a beautiful thing,” he said.

The empty streets of Melbourne during the five-day lockdown last month.Credit: SANDRA SANDERS/REUTERS

‘Faith is a very good tool’

Melbourne is home to around 2,000 members of the ultra-Orthodox community. Lazer Lowe, who owns a kosher catering service and is a member of the community’s Adass Israel Synagogue, told Haaretz how his family and business had both been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was very difficult, especially during the festivals. Thanks to our belief in God, we are doing fine. Faith is a very good tool,” he said.

His family, including his children, also managed to adapt. “They were doing their schooling via teleconference because their school is religious and doesn’t offer Zoom,” he said.

Yeshivas and synagogues also used teleconferencing to carry out “shiurim,” or Torah study lessons, and Lowe told Haaretz he prayed alone at home for months, following the regulations despite the hardship.

An empty departure hall at Melbourne's airport last month.Credit: WILLIAM WEST - AFP

For ultra-Orthodox communities around the world, social interactions form the foundation of their way of life, which led to widespread, devastating losses in these communities in Israel, the United States and Britain.

These communities are generally known for their isolation from mainstream society, but Lamm, the ex-president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said this isn’t the case in Melbourne. He noted that the city’s ultra-Orthodox leadership works with the wider Jewish community on many issues, and is in constant contact.

“The Haredi world in Melbourne is a totally different world to Bnei Brak,” he said. “For example, the principal of the ultra-Orthodox school frequently meets with the principals of other Jewish day schools. There’s just a different level of engagement.

“Of course there’s going to be a few people congregating despite the restrictions, but that’s everywhere – not once did we have a rabbi in Melbourne calling on congregants to defy the restrictions and gather,” Lamm said.

Purim parties were a welcome reward for Melbournians, who hadn’t gathered with more than a handful of friends or family members for months on end. But the possibility of another lockdown is always looming. This prospect doesn’t particularly faze Kaltmann, who says his community is ready to roll with the punches.

“Us Melbournians are a disciplined and an obedient bunch. We know that the lockdown works, and now we’re reaping the rewards of it,” Kaltmann said. “If we need to go back into lockdown, we’ll go back into lockdown and deal with the situation as it comes.”

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