The Jerusalem Post

Australia sends her best

- • By RAYMOND APPLE The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.

Every edition of The Jerusalem Post or its weekend magazines seems to showcase ex-Australian­s. It’s strange when you consider how far away Australia is, and what a small segment of the population Australian Jewry comprises.

I can offer an explanatio­n only if I recall my student experience of moving from Melbourne to Britain.

In the 1950s I studied law and arts at Melbourne University. Coming closer to religion, I worked through the Judaica in the state and university libraries. By 1957 I had decided to make Judaism my profession.

These days I would have opted for Israel, but that wasn’t realistic at the time, so I went to Jews’ College, the London rabbinic seminary. I lived in the college dorm and frequented the Jewish bookshops, especially Cailingold­s, where the proprietor knew the content and location of every book. Though I expected to return to an educationa­l post in Australia, I never went back to Melbourne and took 15 years to come to Sydney.

Life in Britain was not unpleasant. I don’t recall antisemiti­sm, even in the Labour Party. The East End still had dozens of bombedout buildings. For a while I worked for the Associatio­n for Jewish Youth. I had an office at the Bernhard Baron Settlement on Berner Street, where the rulers were “the Gaffer” and “the Missus,” Sir Basil and Lady Henriques. I wandered through the neighborho­od – little synagogues on every corner, kosher butchers or bakers on every street. On Petticoat Lane there were herrings in barrels and pickled cucumbers in casks, with a street market on Sundays.

At Piccadilly Circus in those days there were giant posters about Australian fruit. They said, “Australia sends her best to Britain.” The Australian fruit included apples, but this Apple had a nagging suspicion that he should not claim to be “Australia’s best.”

Now that I live in Israel, however, and constantly come across Australian olim, I fancy changing the Piccadilly Circus poster to read “Australia sends her best to Israel.”

AUSTRALIAN ALIYAH seems to be a great success. You meet Australian­s everywhere in Israel – doctors and developers, caterers and kibbutznik­s... even rabbis. Most have learned to cope with Hebrew, though they keep their Aussie drawl.

Their success can’t be just because when an Australian finds Israel hard, it is such a huge effort to go back to the Antipodes. It has something to do with Australia and Australian Jewry.

Something like 10% of the Australian Jewish community has made aliyah. Fortunatel­y, a great resource of human potential still remains in Australia. Judaism in Australia is far from facing extinction.

What sort of place is Australia? Vast in size, laid-back in attitude. The sun, sea and surf make life easy. In contrast, the bush and the backblocks make life hard.

There is no shortage of problems; unfortunat­ely, a slew of intolerant opinions has come in with the immigratio­n waves, and there are sporadic outbreaks of racism and antisemiti­sm. The pressure and pace of modern living have not left Australia unscathed, and some find it hard to escape the rat race. On the whole, though, Australia is well described as “the lucky country.”

Many Australian­s are quite satisfied with the superficia­lity of football, beer, betting and horse-racing. Not that there is no science, music, education, art or economic entreprene­urship. Australian cultural and intellectu­al life is vibrant. The denigratio­n of Aborigines is a thing of the past. Australian universiti­es are among the world’s finest. Significan­tly, Jews are probably the best educated, best organized and most highly mobilized sector of the Australian people.

One of the most significan­t dimensions of life in Australia is the interfaith, intercommu­nity commitment to the shared challenge of building a quality society. One group sits with, talks with, shares with, the other. Jews are brothers to Christians; Christians are brothers to Jews.

Australia isn’t the sort of place that you would willingly desert. You have to be an idealist to move elsewhere, and that is one of the main reasons that Jews decide on aliyah.

Australia sends her best to Israel. Israel benefits from Australian brains and energy. Australian olim bring an array of ideas, skills and energies. They become Israelis and rarely complain, but they feel that the Israelis are not hooked enough on cricket; Israeli tea and beer are too weak; and the frustratio­ns of Israeli politics are the best argument for adopting the Westminste­r system.

Many Aussies make sure to attend the Australian Embassy’s Anzac Day and Beersheba commemorat­ions, where they can sing “Advance Australia Fair” together with “Hatikvah.” Some even wear their Australian medals at these events (I do, though for the rest of the year they repose in a drawer).

What can one say about Australian Jewry? It’s relatively small in size, 10th or so in the league of world Jewry. But it’s top of the league in terms of love for Israel and its determinat­ion to sustain Jewish identity. The Jewishness of the community is vibrant and engaging. Jewish education is a growth industry, and the communal roof bodies are powerful and articulate, though some machers need more control.

There are dynamic askanim, articulate writers and solid scholars in Australian Jewry. Unfortunat­ely, Australia has no leaders with vision and prophetic quality – but neither has Israel. Despite that defect, if you want to live Jewishly in Australia (even including Talmudic learning and Orthodox observance), you have every opportunit­y.

It wasn’t always like this; but even before the major changes of the 1940s, there were impressive people engaged in solid work for Jewish causes. The handful of internatio­nal Jewish visitors who came to Australia in those days could hardly believe their eyes.

These days, other communitie­s are moribund and hardly able to stay alive, but Australian Jewry is still growing and flexing its muscles. Australian Jewry has far more kiddush than kaddish. It is not perfect, but nor is it the sort of community to which one can apply the words of Abraham Carmel, “a vast army of the unattached marching from assimilati­on to apostasy.” It is not a community that you would willingly abandon.

Those who make aliyah from anywhere are highly motivated Jews and warm human beings. Israel is a lucky country, small in size, great in human resources. Aliyah has enriched it phenomenal­ly, not least from the English-speaking countries, including Australia.

When you come across Australian olim, you see the evidence: Australia sends her best to Israel.

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