Sep
21
2009

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.

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Sep
29
2009

In The New Year 2: Thoughts After Yom Kippur

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

One of my grandparents never set foot in a concentration camp.

All four went through the Holocaust and all four lost most of the people they ever knew; but one – my paternal grandmother – managed to spend the war in Poland without being captured by the Nazis.

All such stories are intricate, complicated tales of foresight, luck, and almost always, involve the righteousness of Gentiles.

Nana’s father was an observant Jew in a very small town. From what I know, he was not an urban sophisticate whose social circle involved many non-Jews. But he was a businessman, and consequently had to venture beyond the confines of his community.

The short version of how Nana survived is: one of her father’s friends was a local Catholic priest. When the Jews were being rounded up, this priest somehow found the identification papers of a Polish girl my Nana’s age, who had died. Nana assumed the dead girl’s identity, and the priest took her to an aristocratic Polish family whose servants “adopted” her for the duration of the war.

The daughter of the aristocratic family was my grandmother’s age and they became inseparable. They are still in contact to this day, as are our families.

Many of us in Melbourne exist today because of such righteous Gentiles.

My other three grandparents went through the camps. Their survival – and the survival of others – depended on solidarity. They helped – and were themselves helped by – other Jews.

None of the four could have survived alone. A number of others could not have survived without them.

*********************

As Yom Kippur concluded last night, once again, I found myself in Auburn Rd Shul.

Once again, I delighted in the sincerity of Rabbi Gottlieb, and the gracious good humour of Rabbi Link.

Once again, I had no urge to flee.

As important, was the atmosphere generated by the congregation. There was no sense of insularity, no women forensically examining each others’ fashions – only smiles and friendly greetings. Jews whom I did not know greeted me.

Some prayed, others dealt with cute kids who were doing the High Holiday Vilde Chaya (Yiddish: Wild Animal) routine, some occasionally chatted.

I was there with my mother.

She boycotted my childhood shul long before I did, and neither of us could remember the last time we had been in Shul together on Yom Kippur. Every time I lost my place during tfilla (prayer), I had Mum there to point me in the right direction.

One woman walked in with a small child. My mother adores kids and grinned at them. The woman brought the little boy over to us and told him to “high five” Mum. They played around a bit before the woman and child resumed their seat.

“Have you ever seen anything like that in a shul?” I asked Mum. “A complete stranger! Smiling! Bringing a kid to you!”

*********************

Before Yom Kippur – the Jewish Day of Atonement – it is customary to apologise to others for having offended them over the past year.

Like any religious tradition, when done sincerely and in good faith, it is quite a lovely fusion of humanity and piety.

Sometimes, however, the fetid stench of hypocrisy lingers in the air long after the words are uttered.

There are so many Jews of good will and good faith in our community. It has been a pleasure to be among them during these High Holidays.

A few others, however, sully themselves and perhaps the name of God, by cloaking their nastiness in pious garb. They speak ill of non-Jews, they speak ill of fellow Jews.

We all know such people: those who claim they observe the minutiae of Jewish law, but who nevertheless indulge in proscribed “lashon ha’ra” (talking badly of others).

*********************

Despite what my primary school teachers tried to inculcate in us, I am certain that there is no imminent return of the Holocaust.

There is, however, a great chasm between the Holocaust and a Jewish Australian utopia. There are evils that others might visit upon us, but it is our responsibility to ask what evils we bring upon ourselves.

Our religion demonstrates time and again that although we operate under the canopy of divine will, beneath that canopy still exists human agency.

It is within our power to forge loving bonds with our non-Jewish neighbours. It is within our power to avoid mindless or cruel gossip that might harm other Jews.

Without each other we are nothing. Holocaust or no Holocaust.

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