Staying Jewish Down Under

Australian Jewry seeks to fight assimilation.

A solidarity rally held by the Australian Jewish community in Sydney during Operation Protective Edge in 2014 (photo credit: ZFA)
A solidarity rally held by the Australian Jewish community in Sydney during Operation Protective Edge in 2014
(photo credit: ZFA)
 In July, a record six Jews were elected to Australia’s 150-member parliament – a sign of the strength of the Jewish community Down Under. Given its small size (0.5% of the population), the community appears to be robust and sturdy, but according to its leaders, it is battling rising intermarriage and assimilation.
“Assimilation is a real concern in a benevolent society, and intermarriage rates have risen alarmingly,” Dr. Danny Lamm, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, told The Jerusalem Post. “The rising cost of Jewish education is forcing families to enroll their children out of the Jewish day-school system, and alternative Jewish education modalities can only have limited impact on Jewish identification.”
Lamm estimated that the overall intermarriage rate is still under 20%, although a key study in 2008 found that the intermarriage of Jews between the ages of 25 and 35 was a whopping 40%.
Danny Lamm (right) with his family at the Australian Open (photo credit: Courtesy)
Danny Lamm (right) with his family at the Australian Open (photo credit: Courtesy)
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who visited Israel earlier this month, said the Jewish community can be proud of the six lawmakers who took office in August. They include three new faces, Julian Leeser (Liberal Party), Labour’s Mike Freelander and Senator Stirling Griff, who join incumbents Josh Frydenberg, Mark Dreyfus and Michael Danby.
“I hope that the Jewish community would be very proud that the members of the community contribute at so many levels and in so many ways to the fabric of Australian society,” Bishop said in an interview with Post diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon. “They are elected representatives of a specific constituency, but the fact that they are members of the Jewish community is also significant.”
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
There are about 120,000 Jews in Australia (which has a total population of 24 million), mostly concentrated in the big cities. Melbourne has the most (almost 60,000), followed by Sydney (45,000), Perth (8,000), Brisbane and the Gold Coast (6,000), Adelaide and Canberra (about 1,000 each). AUSTRALIA’S JEWISH community dates back to 1788, when eight Jewish convicts from England were shipped to Botany Bay, followed by another 800 by 1845. At the outbreak of World War II, Australia had about 30,000 Jews, mostly from Europe. After the Holocaust, the country took in some 27,000 survivors, and later became home to Jewish refugees from Arab countries as well.
In recent decades, the community was boosted by a significant immigration from South Africa and the former Soviet Union. (A Limmud FSU conference in Melbourne this month attracted 300 Russian-speakers.) Lamm, a dentist by profession who lives in Melbourne, is the son of Holocaust survivors (His paternal grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz.) He and his wife, Rolene, have three children (one of whom, Rafi, married in Israel this month) and three grandchildren.
He said he saw the community as “strong and secure, buoyed by a tolerant Australian society in a long-standing, stable democracy with a recognition of the Judeo-Christian foundation of the nation.”
“We have strongly rooted and effective roof body organizations in the ZFA and ECAJ [Executive Council of Australian Jews], which have both Jewish communal and government recognition,” said Lamm. “A full range of Jewish day-school education is available to Australia's two largest Jewish communities, Melbourne and Sydney, Perth also hosts an excellent K-12 Jewish school and Brisbane a primary school. Canberra and Adelaide too have good communal leadership and institutions.”
Synagogues are well-attended in all major cities and kosher food is readily available, Lamm said. Zionist youth movements under the aegis of the ZFA are strongly supported, and some 750 young people participate in programs in Israel annually.
“Most importantly, we enjoy bipartisan support for Israel from both the federal government and the opposition, and at state level also,” he said.
There have been isolated incidents of antisemitism, including the recent distribution of leaflets at university campuses in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra claiming that the Holocaust never happened. Despite these incidents and reports of Australian Muslims joining ISIS, Lamm said he was not worried about the security of the Jewish community.
“We take security seriously and are well prepared and mobilized to deal with issues and work in close collaboration with government and police agencies,” he said.
Dr. Ron Weiser, a past president of the ZFA who also happens to be a dentist and the son of Holocaust survivors, lives in Sydney. He said that about 10% of the Australian Jewish community have made aliya (12,000 people), while many others travel regularly to Israel on visits and various programs.
“The Australian Jewish community is one of the most pro-Zionist and Israelconnected in the world,” he said. “While there are examples of antisemitism, by world standards they are minimal, and although we face challenges on campus, again these are relatively minor compared to anywhere else. The general society is very positive to Jews, and both major political parties are well committed to fighting any antisemitic activity that may arise.”
Although the community is small overall, “It bats far above its weight and has made a well-recognized contribution to public life in Australia.
Indeed, two heads of state have been Jewish. But Jews are active contributors in all walks of life,” he said He added that intermarriage is rising exponentially, while large-scale migration to Australia has slowed and aliya has grown.
“All of this, combined with the high costs of living a Jewish lifestyle (housing, school fees etc.) and ergo lower birthrate, has led to predictions of a shrinking community. Most of the leadership now recognize these challenges, which is the first step in trying to tackle them.”
One such initiative has been to establish a new scholarship fund to give a voucher of 5,000 Australian dollars to each Jewish child in their 10th year of high school to go on a peer trip to Israel called Y2i – Youth to Israel.
“We hope that with this and other innovative ideas, we will be better able to instill in the next generation the desire to continue to be part of the Jewish family,” Weiser said.
Next year, the community will be celebrating the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the ZFA in 1927 by Australia’s greatest soldier, Sir John Monash, who was both a proud Jew and Australian, Weiser said.
GINETTE SEARLE, the executive director of the Zionist Federation, said the vast majority of the Jewish community remain engaged in Jewish life. The Jewish educational system in Australia is strong, with 20 day schools across the country, she said.
“Some 70% of Jewish children in Australia attend a Jewish day school at some point in their school lives. Seven Zionist youth movements thrive across five states. Together with the Jewish Agency for Israel, we have 18 long term shlihim [emissaries] in Australia, plus 34 short-term shlihim, who run ‘Zionist Seminars’ with our Jewish day schools and educational institutions,” she said.
“Only last month, the ZFA hosted 450 educators for our tenth biennial two day Jewish Educators' Conference in Melbourne. With 17 international guest speakers and 90 sessions designed to provide high-caliber professional development in Jewish and Israel studies, it was a wonderful example of the collaborations that exist and the desire to constantly improve. However, Jewish education, being in the private system, is expensive, and this remains a significant challenge,” she added.
Searle also voiced her concerns about the future generations of Jews.
“We are concerned about Jewish continuity,” she said. “Whilst the first generation post-Holocaust were highly likely to marry within the faith, this is changing in the next generation. Despite the strength of the Jewish school system and the range of programs supporting Jewish identity, young adults are less likely to marry other Jews than were their parents.
“We also face similar issues of retaining engagement of young adults with the organized community. Once they’ve finished with their youth or student movement involvement, many tend to disappear into the notorious ‘black hole’ until they have children.”
A survey of a representative sample of Australian Jews done in 2008, which is being replicated this year, demonstrated that 80% of Australian Jews considered themselves Zionist, and two thirds indicated that they felt connected to the Jewish community to a great or moderate extent.
“We certainly can’t be complacent about these figures, and while trends may emerge in the forthcoming research which may require us to recalibrate our strategies, we remain optimistic, creative and flexible, and committed to ensuring a sustainable Zionist and Jewish community,” Searle said.
The Mizrachi Synagogue in Melbourne (photo credit: COURTESY OF DANNY LAMM)
The Mizrachi Synagogue in Melbourne (photo credit: COURTESY OF DANNY LAMM)
Rabbi Benji Levy, dean of Moriah College – a co-ed modern Orthodox Jewish day school with over 1,800 pupils – believes that the issue of intermarriage is “one of the most poorly handled issues in communities throughout the Diaspora.”
Levy, a graduate of Moriah College, who is doing his doctorate in Jewish philosophy, is married with two young children.
“We treat intermarriage as the issue rather than a symptom of something much larger,” he said. “Most interfaith families do not remain within the community, with one third raising their children Jewish, and the decision to assimilate thus represents a decision to abandon any meaningful connection with Judaism. In truth, however, this is but an outgrowth of a much more serious problem – Jewish apathy.”
Although Australia’s intermarriage rates are still nowhere near those of the US, Levy warned, “we might get there in the next 20-30 years. “In our Jewish education system, we are trying to create meaningful encounters with traditional Judaism to ensure that our youth at least care enough to make an educated decision,” Levy said.
While proud that the Australian community is “one of the most privileged in the world, with a strong sense of Jewish identity,” Levy was acutely aware of the challenges ahead.
“Our challenge is to ‘future-proof’ our community in the face of Jewish apathy. Being content with our relative success can lead us down a dangerous path, whereby the next generation find themselves disengaged and disconnected from the community.
Blessed with an incredible standard of living in Australia, people need not cling to the community for security, because the entire country feels secure. Unlike some other Diaspora communities, which cleave to the notion of the community as a safe haven, in Australia the challenge is to see the Jewish community as an expression of pride and identity.”
Michael Misrachi is married with three children, lives in Sydney and works for an organization called Shalom, where he is responsible for a range of Jewish cultural programs, including the Sydney Jewish Writers Festival and Limmud.
He called on the Jewish community to adopt a more inclusive outlook, especially for the younger generation.
“The organized community is still largely conservative, which I think inhibits some of the dynamism and breadth of discourse which would otherwise take place. I think that can be off-putting for younger people, or those with different approaches to Jewish expression or Israeli politics.”
Asked what he saw as the main challenges for the future, Misrachi said, “I think there are major issues of affordability and sustainability which the community is struggling with.
Sydney is a very expensive place to live and the Jewish community is situated in the most expensive suburbs. When you add day-school fees, keeping kosher (for those who do) and all the other ‘expenses’ of living a Jewish life, I question how Jewish communal life as we know it can be sustained.”
Wendy Waller, a great-grandmother in Melbourne, said that the Jewish community is growing older, literally.
“The percentage of over-60 people, among whom I and my husband are, is much larger than it was post-World War II,” she said.
Waller and her husband, Louis, have three children, 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, of whom 17 now live in Israel. She too voiced concern about assimilation in Australia. “We hear about unions between Jewish and non-Jewish partners, in all segments of our community,” she said. “Sometimes the non-Jewish partner becomes Jewish. Conversion is, and will always be, a potentially difficult undertaking.”
Rabbi Dov Lipman, who visited Australia in August as a guest of the Zionist Federation of Australia, said he was very impressed by the strength of the Jewish community and its Zionism.
“I see the Australian Jewish community as perhaps the most Zionist Diaspora community I have come across,” said Lipman. “They have very strong youth groups and a very high aliya rate per capita.”
Lipman, who gave a keynote address at the Jewish Educators’ Conference, said there is a lot of “soul-searching” going on in the community “as they look to the future and fear assimilation, seeking ways to keep the Jewish youth engaged and connected.”
Isi Leibler, a former Australian Jewish community leader who now lives in Israel and is a columnist for the Post, said that although there is more assimilation and intermarriage than in the past, the rates are still lower than other Western Diaspora Jewish communities.
“During an era in which Diaspora Jewish communities are confronting massive challenges, Australian Jewry remains a beacon of optimism and is by far the most committed and vibrant Jewish community in the world,” Leibler said. “The fact that it represents the community with the largest proportion of Holocaust survivors and their descendants has imbued it with a strong Zionist foundation.”
Although mild compared to Europe, there has been a resurgence of antisemitism, and the pro- Palestinian lobby has made inroads at the universities, where they make their presence felt and seek to intimidate Jewish students, Leibler said.
“The long-term problem remains assimilation,” he said. “The Jewish day-school movement has had a major positive impact on creating pride and support for the community. But as the years pass and the Holocaust memory element fades, Australia, even with its day schools, faces the challenge of assimilation and intermarriage like all Diaspora Jews in today’s open societies.”
Australia’s Jews have done well in all aspects of life, and are said to donate more to Israel per capita than any other Diaspora community. According to Forbes, five of the 10 richest people in the country are Jewish: Anthony Pratt, Frank Lowy, Ivan Glasenberg, Harry Triguboff and John Gandel.
Asked how she explains the success of the Jewish community in Australia, Foreign Minister Bishop said: “It can be attributed to the dynamics of the Jewish community; their preparedness to contribute in so many different ways. The fact that we have members standing for parliament, in all the professions, in industry and business.
It is a very positive aspect of Australian society, and it is very welcome by the government.”
Herb Keinon and Gabriel Smith contributed to this report. This is the second in a series of Jewish communities around the world written in cooperation with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.