I have a confession to make – I am not Habad*.
The reason for this is that I do not believe in certain elements of their ideology, and that is fine. They would say the same about me and that is the reason that they are Habad and not religious-Zionists.
However, I have over the years had a number of interactions with the Habad movement, and have a tremendous amount of respect for them and the work they do.
This brings me to the point of this post, which is less about Habad than it is about all the other Orthodox Jews in the world.
How is it that everyone else has managed to drop the ball so comprehensively that the religious elements of the Melbourne community have been outsourced almost exclusively to the Habad movement?
The Beit Din (Jewish court of law), Kosher food certification, and a majority of the shules (synagogues) and communal institutions all have the stamp of Habad on them. In fact it is rare for an organisation not to have some element of Habad on its clerical team.
For that, Habad should be congratulated. And all other Orthodox Jewish groups should be condemned.
I would like to focus for a moment on the religious-Zionist and modern-Orthodox movement (I am still unsure how to divide them). When was the last time that they produced a rabbi or religious leader in Australia? Why do they need to put on a black hat before they can consider becoming a rabbi? Is the belief in their ideology so weak?
Why is it that there are shules and centres run by Habad popping up all over Melbourne, while the other communities are still loath to leave the Caulfield/East St Kilda area?
Why are there so many shules that claim to be Modern Orthodox, yet their clergy are almost exclusively Habad? And of the few rabbis that are Modern Orthodox almost none are Australian born or raised.
There is an apathy that seems to run through the Melbourne community. No one wants to be the first, no one wants to stick their neck out.
Through this attitide, we have gifted our spiritual legacy to people whose religious beliefs are not ours. Granted they are still Orthodox and Jewish, and I am not suggesting that by appointing Habad rabbis we are leaving our religion, but I would want certain non-Habad ideals preached to me and my family by my rabbi.
There are a number of ways however, that we can redirect our efforts to succeed in changing the course of events.
1) Schools: The Jewish school culture needs to shift from an obsessive focus on elite university courses to a wider variety of vocations. A carpenter, plumber, electrician or even a rabbi need to be presented as legitimate vocations. There should not be a fear of the unknown, rather we should embrace the possibilities and how great our communities could become.
2) Community: We have no reason to fear living outside of the Jewish enclaves. Before opening various bush shules, we can start with areas closer to home. There are significant Jewish communities in all of Caulfield’s surrounding suburbs but few other than Habad are willing to set up shop there.
3) Money: Talk is cheap. If we want our children to believe that we genuinely want them to participate in communal life, we have to prove it. Communal professional positions need to have prestige. We should be giving scholarships to those who wish to follow this path (there are some schools who are beginning this process), and most importantly, such vocations need to be able to compete with other professions in terms of desirability. If a person wants to be either a rabbi or an accountant, the position of rabbi has to compete favourably in conditions and wages.
4) Action: Most important of all is to act. From numerous discussions with many people, I know that many people will agree with the sentiments presented here. But without concrete action to change things, this will become just another article.
If we really believe in our religious traditions, the schools, institutions and families need to be encouraging our youth to pick up the slack and see communal work as a vocation rather then a bit of volunteer work that needs doing.
And it needs doing here. There is no point running off to Israel – which is thriving Jewishly – while there is a leadership void in Australia that threatens continuity.
The only way we can truly judge our religious education is through its outcomes in adulthood. And outside of Habad, our education in Australia has proven itself to be incredibly selfish. It is now up to us to change it.
*Habad is an ultra-orthodox movement within Judaism.