In The New Year: Glimpses of the Future at Auburn Rd Shul

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series In The New Year

I have written previously about the crises facing our community – assimilation, disaffection, substance abuse, among many others.

But I had another fear: that generations X and Y are either not inclined or incapable of taking the reins from the baby boomer generation. I have worried that our community is becoming so atomised, and our young people are so disenchanted with communal structures, that there may not be a new generation to take over from their parents.

Recently, however, I realised my premise was faulty: why does the community even need a monolith representing it?

There will never be consensus among the sub-communities – or even among individuals – on political, social, or religious issues. What if – quietly, but determinedly – the younger generations are already taking the initiative in their own ways?

In the same way that Albert Dadon managed to bypass the bluster and politicking of the existing organisations in order to pull off the coup that brought Julia Gillard to Israel, we are starting to see a similar florescence in other areas, initiated by younger people.

Malki Rose, for example, has begun a charitable foundation in memory of her grandmother, and is using social networking to get the word out.

Ittay Flescher, meanwhile, runs informal Torah study classes for secular young people. Fleshcer’s approach is to invite academics to provide guest lectures and conduct discussions in an informal environment.

Particularly exciting, was Auburn Rd Shul (Synagogue) over Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year).

Yoram Symons, who has guest posted on this blog, had been Auburn Rd’s Magid (speaker).

He’d told me about this new congregation on a number of occasions, and while it sounded interesting – it’s small and innovative – I hadn’t been inclined to go.

But as Rosh Hashana drew nearer, and I was considering my alternatives, it occurred to me that going to a shul in which one of the Rabbis is both Australian and around my own age (Generation X) might be interesting.

I will digress at this point to admit that apart from the 20 minutes I spent at a shtiebel (smaller, less formal synagogue) a few years ago, I hadn’t attended Shul since I was 12. That was the age at which I could no longer get away with hanging out in the men’s section.

No longer could I get into the lolly-catching rugby scrum. I was  forced upstairs to the ladies’ section to throw the lollies, rather than to catch them.

For all the injuries sustained, as rock-hard boiled lollies whacked me in the temple, it was, to my 12-year-old mind, the best thing about being Jewish.

Instead, I now had to sit in the steaming, unventilated women’s section upstairs.

I was also unimpressed by the Rabbi.  On one of the last occasions I attended a service, he spoke about how there was no such thing as a bad Jew. Only good Jews and better Jews. The Rabbi later proved himself quite wrong, but that is a story for a different blogger.

Back then, I figured that if God was indeed everywhere, he was as much outside shul as in, and there was no need to be bored, annoyed, hot, and a thrower of lollies.

And that was that.

Until last Friday night.

I nervously approached Bialik College and made my way towards the hall. A woman walked beside me. She smiled and wished me Shana Tova. There were a number of other women over the Rosh Hashana holiday who were similarly friendly.

Inside, the young Rabbi Yaron Gottlieb (presiding with the venerable Rabbi Steven Link) startled me.

I hadn’t expected someone so like others my age, who joked about Monty Python during the sermon. When he spoke, there was no urge to flee the building.

The low hum of talking Jews filled the hall, but there were also many who were praying.

For the benefit of this blog’s non-Jewish readers, shul is, with only a few exceptions, as much a place to chat  as it is to pray. In my childhood shul, the only people praying were the cantor and the rabbi.

At Auburn Rd, however, young families, older people, and teenagers observed varying degrees of concern for the prayer and I felt much more comfortable in such an environment than in either the intensity of the shtiebl, or the completely irreligious shul of my youth.

So I returned on Saturday and again on Sunday.

Anyone who knows me, knows that despite my belief in God, religion itself had never featured strongly in my life. So when I write that the Sunday Musaf service was a revelation, I write as someone who is still somewhat surprised, herself.

Once more, the friendliness of the congregants and the balance between observance and social or family matters contributed to the experience.

When Rabbi Gottlieb spoke, ostensibly, he said nothing revolutionary: simply that Musaf was about to start and that chatting needed to cease.

What was so extraordinary was hearing this directive coming from such a young man, hearing the authority with which he gave it, and that it contained no arrogance whatsoever.

He was simply a man who took Musaf on Rosh Hashana seriously.

And the congregation actually assented. For more than three quarters of Musaf, I heard no one speak.

Gottlieb himself led the Musaf prayers.

The rabbis of my youth were performers as much as they were men of God. Rabbi Gottlieb, on the other hand, seemed utterly absorbed in prayer. There were no theatrical flourishes, only an intensity that I’d never before seen in shul.

The prayer seemed to have meaning.

This confirmed my belief that Generations X and Y have little patience for the empty ritual of some of the older, more established shuls. That’s why those buildings are emptying and the shtiebls are filling with young people.

We want our religious leaders to believe in what they are doing, and to be able to communicate with us without being patronising or banal.

The carapace surrounding some among the older generations, that repudiates religious devotion and emotional engagement in prayer, is not what younger people are searching for.

What I saw over Rosh Hashana was the emergence of new ways that may make the older crumbling edifices quite obsolete.

Series NavigationIn The New Year 2: Thoughts After Yom Kippur»
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  1. In The New Year 2: Thoughts After Yom Kippur
  2. Michael Fagenblat’s Presentation at the Seven Jewish Children Reading
  3. 8 minutes of terror
  4. A Brief History of The Sensible Jew
  5. The New Direction

19 Responses to “In The New Year: Glimpses of the Future at Auburn Rd Shul”

  1. Failure to Launch says:

    SJ, your really post struck a chord. I’m a refugee from both the old-style Melbourne shuls where banality, emptiness, fashion and gossip were the norm, making R”H and Y”K the Days of Awful, rather than the Days of Awe. I’m also fed up with the overblown hysteria of new-wave “passionate prayer” where theatrics overshadow spirit and there’s no escape from the service till long after it was supposed to be over because the service leaders are so involved in their own performances. So Auburn Road sounds amazing. It seems to have found the middle ground: intensity combined with common sense. Come Y”K, I might just have to give it a try

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  2. fractal68 says:

    How good were the lollies? Do they still do that? I havent gone to shule for, not since I was an adult anyway. I fall asleep as soon as I hear the rabbi talk.

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  3. David Grinblat says:

    Like you I have found that I love the shtibl over the big schul but the great pity of it all is that rabbi’s don’t come cheaply and to find enough money to pay for a rabbi the congregation must grow and that means a bigger schul. Need I go on in this depressing cycle. I am a a ‘baby boomer’ and I wish you luck in your quest.

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  4. Morry says:

    Thanks for a wonderfully upbeat post, SJ. What you describe are simply the mechanisms by which a very vibrant society moves, changes and developes. It didn’t start with the baby boomers. They simply added their interests to the mix that existed before, and changed some. Groups are born out of new interests, often see the need for a public voice, join the JCCV, or replace it with something else, fade away when there is no interest … it’s all part of a wonderful dynamic, and now you describe how Generations X and Y have taken hold of the reins and are putting their mark on the process of growth. I think it’s wonderful. Don’t be too harsh on what is being replaced, for it served those generations well … that is the reason it was instituted, but nothing is cheerier than this change, an idicator of just how healthy this community is.

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  5. I don’t see “just how healthy this community is” quite the same way as you do. Please take a moment to read this letter from Dr Lynne Hillier of La Trobe University. There’s a deep, troubling cancer in the community and the sooner everyone wakes up to it the sooner we can treat it.

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  6. Edders says:


    While I see the issue that Dr Hillier is addressing, as a youth, it is not only a J Com issue, as much as it is an Australian issue. Not that this is any excuse for Jewish treatment, Dr Hillier does not sectionize the community. You will find that most of the Homophobia in our community is inspired from certain conservative and religious sections of our community. If you’ll have noticed, the trend towards accepting homosexuals into the Jewish community has started at a secular level, through very liberal sections, now reform has taken it on in certain areas.

    As for this being a youth issue, I agree with several of the points Dr Hillier addresses. Youth do not know how to address it. After all, sexuality is something of a taboo which isn’t openly discussed in any community. However, from what I’ve seen it has been the youth, and more specifically the youth movements who have taken on the responsibility of this change in attitudes.

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  7. Hi Edders,

    Habonim certainly have been very supportive to date, both in the USA and Australia. I was pleasantly surprised to see a strong Habonim presence in the 2007 New York Pride march and over recent years with Dayenu in the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras.

    The Union of Progressive Judaism has just released a statement of support, along with a letter they sent in response to the Tel Aviv attacks. Kudos to them for standing up against the hate. They continue to be a beacon of tolerance and acceptance within the Jewish community.


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  8. Michael,

    Last time I checked, this was a post about a positive RH shul experience. Our community has some good things going for it, and some challenges. It is possible to celebrate and note the positives without having to always bring up a specific negative, especially one that is completely off topic!

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  9. Morry says:

    From Alex: Apologies Morry. Your response to Michael came after the moratorium on GLBT discussion for this thread.

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  10. Edders says:


    On the topic of modern ways of expressing Judaism, I heard that you had dropped by Ittay Flescher’s Ayeka (the ten week torah course for secular jews). One of the members told me he was very surprised to see you there.

    I was just wondering whether you think that my generation will pick up the slack in regards to Judaism in time. I understand my previous posts have been very defensive in relation to jewish youth. However, I still retain a bubbling level of cynicism in relation to the majority of my generation’s Judaism. Most will continue to support Israel in one way or another. However, the jewish aspect especially among those from secular and traditional families is falling.

    Perhaps these new shules have come too late?

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  11. Ittay says:

    For the strongest reason as to why pluralistic Jewish learning is essential for the vibrancy of this community in the future, I recommend reading the introduction to the book “new under the sun” entitled “will the center hold?”

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  12. Edders says:

    SJ, I think you underestimate the fame this blog has brought you. I’m friends with one of the organizers who knows you from this blog, as many within my youth movement are avid readers of your blog.

    I’m just wondering how successful you think organizations such as AUJS, which ideally represents Jewish Students at a university level? And how AUJS could potentially reach out to more Jewish students. I agree, youth movements certainly don’t represent everyone, nor is the AZYC anything more then an umbrella organization for those in youth movements. However, I’m wondering whether the issue is due to “monolithic” roof bodies, as you phrase it, and not something with our generation itself.

    I feel as though instead of pointing fingers at unrepresentative bodies, sometimes our own apathy in not doing anything to change the situation is to blame. Surely if it was solely the organizations and their leadership would mean that they would be made redundant.

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  13. Morry says:

    This is such an important issue, SJ, I hope you’ll make it a topic for discussion. You’ve identified the problems very succintly. These are issues I’ve also put a lot of thought into without much resolution. I agree that the sustainability of secular Judaism doesn’t look good, because it doesn’t have an anchor. In Europe the anchor was Yiddish culture, but that was stripped away and is gone, and, as incredibly rich as it was, with Yiddish books, movies operas, songs, and poetry, I don’t think it would have lasted modern forces.

    “Religious knowledge without observance” doesn’t allow for it to be passed to the next generation. As much as children have wanted dad to skip the Haggadah reading and shown little interest and even contempt for the practices, it is something I’m at odds to try to explain, but when they have children of their own, whether it’s a role model thing, or simply rote learning, children seem to parrot what they learnt at home, take pleasure and even pride in passing on something from their parents. They begin to see it as important, perhaps because now they have the responsibility for a precious soul. I don’t have any definitive study on the subject, but have seen it often enough to recognise it as a truth. It is exactly here that the reliance on Jewish schools was such a failure. The school can only help understand what is practised at home, but cannot substitute for it.

    I take your point about the wonderful work being done by Ittay Flescher, and it would be wonderful to encourage more of it. I wasn’t there, but I’m sure that a large part of the success hinges on Ittay’s vibrant personality.

    If we assume that youth tied to synagogues, and those in Zionist movements have no great Jewish identity crisis (outside possibly Hashi, the movements haven’t replaced Jewish religion with zionism, but rather see zionism as an essential component of Judaism. To the best of my knowledge, teaching Judaism remains integral to them all), then it’s the secular, unafiliated that you must see as not being catered to. Are they likely candidates for courses like Ittay’s, as in would they be interested (they clearly need it)? Outside such courses, how would you see them being catered to?

    One of the things that has troubled me for a long time is the number of parents who send their children to Jewish schools with absolutely no interest in their child learning anything Jewish, no interest in their spiritual health at all, but in the belief that being exposed to other Jews will better their chances of marrying Jewish. I have always wondered exactly what’s the point of marrying Jewish when you have absolutely nothing to pass on and preserve that Judaism. That’s why I have taken so strongly to the things you’ve said here. They are important and need to be explored and built upon if there is to be any Jewish survival in the generations to come.

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  14. pamela says:

    Lovely… this reminds me or if i can use the analogy of a greek-orthodox service in Malvern where the priest is progressive compared to most standards in the greek community.

    During the service he allowed my sister and i to talk right through it!!

    Your rabbi’s seem to be a bit more progressive and highly qualified these days which is a testament to their congregations and members of the jewish community like yourself.

    Great stuff!!

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  15. Ilana Payes says:

    Reading through the blog this evening I stumbled upon Morry’s comment from Sep. 24,

    “One of the things that has troubled me for a long time is the number of parents who send their children to Jewish schools with absolutely no interest in their child learning anything Jewish, no interest in their spiritual health at all, but in the belief that being exposed to other Jews will better their chances of marrying Jewish. I have always wondered exactly what’s the point of marrying Jewish when you have absolutely nothing to pass on and preserve that Judaism.”

    These words hit me with a surge of Jewish guilt. And I’m not even a parent (well not yet). But I fit exactly in that in-between age, old enough and young enough, for these words to really matter. How ‘Jewish’ is my life? Will Judaism seep through into my home and to my children, or will it stop with the (token) mezuzah at the door?

    I am a child of privilege, born at the right time, in a safe and wealthy country, and to good and loving parents. I attended Mount Scopus and then Bialik. But my Jewish education seemed to me to consist of singing Hebrew songs and trying hard not to trip over my own feet during Israeli dancing. Surely my parents thought I was getting a well rounded Jewish education (whatever that means), but I don’t think it was their primary concern. So I think Morry is right, to some extent. I think my parents wanted me and my sister to have Jewish friends, to feel like we belonged in our community.

    My young cousins currently attend a somewhat more religious Jewish day school, where religion flows much more smoothly from school to the home. My cousins and their friends meet up on Saturday at shule, walk to each other’s houses for Shabbos lunch, they wear kippot, have dinner in each other’s family sukkah, and so on… They also learn much more Hebrew than I ever did, because it is of much greater use to them. That is to say, they actually need to know Hebrew for more than simply getting their Hebrew homework right.

    Now for Morry’s perhaps more sarcastic point, “To marry Jewish”. We’ve all heard ad nauseam the Jewish mother’s mantra for daughters, “Marry a good Jewish Lawyer, or Doctor, really the choice is all yours… and who are his parents!”. Or the other insinuated pressure which seeps into our collective consciousness by gossiping Yiddishers who slander anyone who marries out. Mother says marry Jewish. And we say, why?

    Morry paints a heartbreaking picture of children who want their dad to skip through the Haggadah reading – And really, who doesn’t know that feeling. But last Pesach, my beautiful little cousins each sang the full Ma Nishtana on their own, and my family was clearly moved and very proud. Even my dear, atheist mother had tears in her eyes! But through this pride, I felt profoundly ashamed. At that moment I understood what we had to lose. I felt a real longing for a future where my children will want to sing the Ma Nishtana, and not only for the attention! They will want to sing it because they’ll know what it means and its significance — because we, the adults, will have unequivocally understood why we never, ever, want them to forget it.

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  16. Ilana Payes says:

    Apologies for commenting on my own comment, but a freind of mine who just read my previous comment wrote to me,

    “If there is some point you are trying to make then your writing is a little too waffly for my tastes and im not sure what it was!”

    And he is right. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to say. Except that I felt very bad about having had an extensive and expensive Jewish education, but came out knowing nothing of any real substance about being Jewish. (Apart from very bad Hebrew, marry Jewish, and Holocaust guilt).

    I guess I was trying to put an optimistic turn (as The Sensible Jew had done so gracefully)on a very grim prospect presented by Morry,

    “what’s the point of marrying Jewish when you have absolutely nothing to pass on and preserve that Judaism.”


    Just for thought, my freind also wrote, “I went to a public school and saved my parents so much money and I am more into Judaism than most of my Jewish school friends! but we did a lot at home… thats really the key.”

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  17. sensiblejew says:

    This thread is not about GLBT issues.

    This blog has never avoided the topic of homophobia and has always expressed support for inclusion.

    Please keep that in mind when I say, any further discussion on GLBT issues on this particular thread will be deleted.

    We have a rare chance to celebrate what is beautiful and cause for optismism in this community.

    There are plenty of opportunities for focusing on the negative, so I really object to the derailing of the essence of this thread.

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  18. sensiblejew says:

    Edders, you ask some really important questions…

    But first, wow. It’s kind of weird that your friend knew who I was. I didn’t know anyone at Ayekha except for Ittay and Michael Fagenblatt, who was giving the lecture, and I kept pretty quiet. Torah is not exactly my special subject.

    Anyway, our generations (X and Y) are of particular interest to me. I’ve been thinking a lot about the sustainability of secular Judaism beyond one or two generations and from most angles, it doesn’t look good.

    Most of the Jewish institutions devoted to our youth are profoundly problematic. Few young people I have worked with or spoken to have much positive to say about Jewish schools.

    The youth movements are not only suffering from chronic underfunding, but they have a built in self-destruct mechanism in that they cease to provide any services to people over the age of 20. There have been a number of abortive attempt at targeting young people who are past youth movement age, but they have come out of the big institutions and were quite disconnected from what their target market actually wanted.

    There are the shuls, of course, and while the bigger ones are dying, the smaller ones seem to be having some success, but it’s all very atomised and it’s difficult to measure exactly how many people are being drawn back in to the community by them.

    I see two major problems that are not currently being addressed:

    1) A total disconnect from the religion and its history among the non-orthodox. Religious knowledge (in which I’m quite deficient myself), even if it’s not accompanied by observance, is key to maintaining and bolstering identity in the long term. Without it, there is simply no anchor for identification.

    The reluctance of so many young people (and I was one of them until recently) to countenance any sort of religious education is largely due to negative experiences at Jewish schools, and the use of Zionism by our institutions to replace religion as a binding agent. Because Zionism could be a secular religion, as well as a compent of modern orthodoxy, it has been the easiest path for our leaders in fostering communal identity. But this has come at the exxpense of Judaism itself.

    2) The monolithic roof bodies have completely excised Jewish youth culture from their operations. The youth movement body, the AZYC, is the only representation young people have there. This is an extremely dangerous situation because youth movements do not encompass all Jewish youth, by a long shot. And young Jewish interests stretch beyond the movements’ Israel-focus. There is nothing that deals specifically with Australian Jewish youth culture.

    Personally, I don’t blame the young people for the disaffection and cynicism they feel. They really haven’t had many places to go, and they haven’t had any form of representation or a forum for their ideas from our central institutions.

    At the same time, whether it’s because of family, or because of something else, many of these young people still feel a strong bond to their Jewishness and I believe that given the opportunity, we can begin to flourish again.

    People like Ittay do amazing work. His way is exactly the sort of thing that will bring people back. But he’s just one person. Hopefully Ittay, like Malki Rose and Yaron Gottlieb, will be joined by others who go beyond the confines of what was, in order to revitalise the community.

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