Australian Jews emerge from lockdown and severe restrictions on Jewish life

During COVID-19, Australia has become know for some of the most severe lockdowns in the world.

 The Australian flag (Illustrative). (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Australian flag (Illustrative).
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

During the COVID-19 pandemic era, Australia has become known for some of the most severe lockdowns in the world, designed to keep the disease out of the country and prevent the local spread of contagion.

Last week, Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, exited a 78-day lockdown, and cumulatively was subject to more than 260 days of confinement since the pandemic first hit.

Meanwhile, Sydney ended a whopping 107-day lockdown two weeks ago and has in total endured 159 days of such restrictions.

This means Australian Jews have experienced longer lockdowns than the overwhelming majority of their brethren around the world.

For Jewish communities in cities such as Melbourne and Sydney, the largest Jewish centers, the lockdowns have been keenly felt, with what was hitherto normal religious and communal life grinding to a halt for long periods, as happened to numerous other Jewish communities around the globe.

Melbourne, Australia (credit: PIXABAY)Melbourne, Australia (credit: PIXABAY)

How did these lockdowns affect religious and communal life, and what will be their impact into the future?

Rabbi Dr. Ben Elton, the chief minister of The Great Synagogue in Sydney, said the community suffered significantly as a result of the prolonged periods of movement restrictions.

Weddings were postponed, funerals were restricted to just 10 mourners, and many bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies were forced online instead of happening with the young boy’s or girl’s friends and family.

In-person prayer services were obviously canceled during the week and on Shabbat. And High Holy Day services, the pinnacle of the Jewish calendar, were a complete write-off two years running.

Elton noted that this past Rosh Hashanah, the Australian Board of Deputies, a communal leadership organization, negotiated with the government to allow shofar-blowing in public parks, and 50 minutes of outdoor prayer over Yom Kippur.

“Thousands of people came to those events from across the city. It was the first real communal moment since June, and people had a huge morale boost because of it,” said the rabbi.

Earlier this month, Sydney and the state of New South Wales in which it is located, came out of lockdown, first in a restricted manner and then in accordance with vaccination targets with fewer and fewer restrictions.

Elton said that on that first Shabbat after the lockdown ended, with restrictions already easing, his synagogue was already nearly back up to pre-coronavirus levels of attendance, such was the desire of congregants to resume normal religious life.

And he noted that the flocking of congregants back to synagogue this time around is markedly different from what happened after previous lockdowns when he said people returned much more slowly, likely due to the fact that vaccines had not been rolled out at the time.

Indeed, it took a full year to get back to pre-COVID levels for Shabbat services, before new lockdowns were imposed.

He said several synagogues initially struggled to get a minyan, a quorum of 10 men, for weekday services and notes that one synagogue in downtown Sydney had to make its morning service later in order to ensure it had enough participants.

The rabbi said he expects that many lectures, classes and other events which moved online during the worst of the pandemic will remain there, but that he does not believe there will be a long-term impact on communal religious life given the requirements of Jewish law for Orthodox practice.

“Jewish life depends on being in the same place at the same time, at least in Orthodoxy,” he pointed out.

Rabbi Yonatan Sadoff heads Melbourne’s only Conservative synagogue, Kehilat Nitzan, and said that things in his community have changed a little bit more.

He said that in the face of the pandemic and the interminable lockdowns, his community was faced with a dilemma as to how to proceed in terms of prayer services over Shabbat and holidays.

Eventually, the synagogue made “a difficult decision” and began to live-stream its services to give his congregants the ability to reconnect with religious and communal life as best as possible.

Jewish law largely prohibits the use of electronic devices over Shabbat, something which many Conservative or Masorti congregations also abide by.

“We decided this was an emergency period for the Jewish people, and that we wanted to do this in the most halachically permissible way possible,” said Sadoff, noting that the live-streamed services were broadcast via security cameras and that congregants were given instructions as to how to log on before Shabbat so as to minimize infractions of Jewish law.

Sadoff said that these live-streamed services got good traction with members of his community, and even attracted people who were members of Orthodox synagogues but more flexible in their attitude toward Shabbat observance.

“Most of the Australian Jewish community is Orthodox or belongs to Orthodox synagogues, but they didn’t have anything for the Shabbat and the holidays,” he said.

“So we felt we were providing something for the larger community, and we opened it up for free to others.”

The rabbi said the lockdowns generated “high levels of stress, anxiety and psychological strain,” due to the prolonged isolation they caused, something which the synagogue tried to alleviate through an array of online programs.

Daily prayer services moved online in a limited format and, Sadoff notes, have remained there even after the lockdown was lifted, with his synagogue joining with the Conservative congregation in Sydney for weekday services via video conferencing.

Sadoff said that after the previous lockdown, attendance on Shabbat mornings reached up to three quarters of previous levels before new restrictions were introduced, but said people were now excited to return to in-person services.

Still, he believes that the effects of the pandemic on in-person synagogue attendance might be long-lasting, but that this would not necessarily be a negative phenomenon.

“When something is stopped in a fundamental way because of a certain situation, something about that gets broken, but it also allows for new things to happen,” said the rabbi.

“People are going to question synagogue and Jewish spirituality, and make new decisions, and maybe this will cause a shift to something more meaningful, meaning that people won’t accept things they have faked for a long time if prayer isn’t stirring at all and is just about what we’ve always done and what we’re supposed to do.

“People might think it has to move them in some deeper way, how it makes them a better person, function better, and be a contribution and blessing to the world.”

Not far away from Sadoff’s synagogue in Melbourne is South Caulfield Hebrew Congregation headed by Rabbi Daniel Rabin, although he is soon to move on to a new posting at a larger community in the city.

Like Rabbis Elton and Sadoff, Rabin too noted the strain the lockdowns put on communal Jewish life, and his efforts to keep the community together in some format through online programming, as well as online pastoral care through phone calls, emails, and social media.

He said his synagogue even experienced a growth in membership as previously unaffiliated people became interested in the array of programming available, and its ease of access.

But he also noted the fatigue that congregants experienced with online spiritual life. Rabin said that after the High Holy Days of 2020, he got dozens of messages from people in his community thanking him for the various initiatives he and the synagogue took to help people through the period.

After the recent holiday period, the novelty of that had worn off and people seemed more fed up with the situation than previously.

Having had doubts and “genuine concern” about how many people would return for in-person services, Rabin said his experience over last Shabbat, the first after lockdown, proved him wrong.

His synagogue quickly filled its quota of 50 congregants and hopes to fill this coming Shabbat’s 150 person allowance as well.

Rabin says that there might be some who are slower to come back due to safety concerns about living with COVID-19 as opposed to trying to keep it out, but that ultimately he sees religious life returning to normal.

“It was very special,” he said of last Shabbat, the first communal Shabbat since the lockdown ended.

“I could genuinely see the joy and feeling of relief that people were back together and praying as a community.

“People did suffer from having their religious services taken away. There is a real desire for human connection, and for many people that is synagogue and synagogue community.”