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The Diaspora Divide

December 5, 2010 – 9:21 pm4 Comments

By Keren Tuch

The Sydney Jewish community has just farewelled the great Jewish educator, Steve Israel.  Steve, who is well known to any youth movement madrich (leader) who participated on Machon (a 4 month program designed to teach and train future youth movement leaders in Jerusalem), graced us with his presence for the month of November.  He was brought over from Israel by Encounters@Shalom, the education department of The Shalom Institute, to run courses and participate in Limmud-Oz Fest.   A fellow machonik told me that she had an “intellectual crush” on this man for his vast knowledge and soothing story telling voice.

At his last appearance in Sydney, he addressed an audience full of ex-machoniks across the ages.   He talked about why he made aliyah (moved to Israel) 35 years ago (and it was not so his last name would match his country of residence.)  Steve had grown up in the UK, and decided that there was a cultural dearth in the Jewish community.  It was dull, boring and the only way to express one’s Judaism was to attend a shule service.  Steve made aliyah because he believed that Israel was where Jewish history was taking place, and he wanted to be a part of the action.

Although Steve still lives in Israel, he has since retracted the idea that Jewish life can only happen in Israel, and does not believe everyone should pack up and make aliyah.  He sung praises for the Sydney Jewish community and the different avenues for engagement here.

There’s Shir Madness, which premiered in Sydney this year showcasing our great Jewish music talent. There’s Jewish Aid projects, where Jews and Sudanese are forging great relationships.  And then there’s Limmud-Oz and the first ever Limmud-Oz Fest which occurred last weekend.   Limmud-Oz Fest was a weekend retreat in the Central Coast of NSW which attracted 150 people across all ages and offered an array of learning opportunities from ‘Angels in Kabbalah’, to the ‘Ashkenazi/Sephardi divide’ to Israeli dancing.  It is one of the few events that unites the community instead of dividing.  Judging by the euphoric atmosphere when Monsieur Camembert was belting out Klezmer tunes and by the Facebook status updates of attendees, it was a resounding success.  Perhaps I am mincing his words, but if Steve had grown up in Sydney today, I wonder if he would have felt so compelled to leave.

Although the Sydney Jewish community is flourishing (and I imagine he would say the same thing about Melbourne too), there are important questions about other Diaspora communities.  At what stage does one ‘give up’ on a community or decide to strengthen it? For example, the Macedonian community consists of about 100 ageing Jews. Investing time and resources in rejuvenating this community is a lost cause.  But then there’s the Indian community of approximately 5000 Jews?  Do you encourage them to make aliyah to lead a Jewish life, or do you strengthen their community?  And what about the Turkish Community of 17,000?  It’s still quite a sizeable community that has the potential to continue for generations

Though Sydney lacks the vibrancy (and population) of NY, there is little reason to lament a lack of opportunities either.  It is tenable to lead an enriching Jewish life here, and we don’t need to discuss an evacuation procedure to resuscitate our Jewish community.

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  • Andrew says:

    Keren, I reckon that as long as the community itself is interested in staying put, they should be supported. Regardless of opinion of the rest of the diaspora. Doesn’t matter if it’s Blida or Bondi. Or Manado: http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1201975.html

    For those of us (myself inclusive) who are so inclined, stick that link in http://translate.google.com for a rough idea of what’s going on.

    Size alone is far from an indication of vibrance, depth or value.

  • Keren says:


    I like thour idea in theory – support the small local communities to strengthen and retain the Jewish identity if it is important to them.

    But the practical question remains as to who will foot the bill? To my understanding, all Jewish communities are supported by philanthropic donations to be able to build Montefiore Homes, meeting halls, educational activities etc. I’m not convinced the cost benefit analysis is favourable to invest in tiny communities.

  • Andrew says:

    Hi Keren,

    I think that these small communities are supported on an as-needs basis, taking into account the cost-benefit of any financial support.

    It’s true that many communities are supported by philanthropic donations. Often these are donations by expat community members who have made it big elsewhere, such as in the case of the expat support of Krasnaya Sloboda in Azerbaijan; in the case of just about every Jewish community of the former Soviet Union, Bukharian-Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev has supported them all through the FJC. The American Joint Distribution does similar work, as do many and varied other regionally specific or culturally specific organisations, like the World Sephardi Federation, and private individuals, like its former president Nessim Gaon.

    Small Jewish communities do not present business cases. They’re about the collective cultural heritage of the Jewish people, and supporting every Jew’s right to self-determination and domicile.

    Supporting these communities, for me, is part of being Jewish. There will always, I believe, be philanthropic funds available to do so. And it’s important to remember that you can’t go back — once a community has properly crumbled, and no-one’s left to remember what is no longer there, it’s finished.

  • Joel says:

    My thoughts tend towards Andrew’s and more.

    What seems to be the main point of discussion here is funding. And the only conclusion I can come to is – what harm can come of trying? One might say “that money could have been used more effectively in a larger, more established community that at least has a future (it’s anyone’s guess how far ahead of the present constitutes a ‘future’).

    But in reality, philanthropists donate many to causes that mean something to them. It would be far too specualtve to suggest that if the Estonian Jewish community were to crumble, that the single big ex-pat Estonian Jew, whose been holding up those financial pillas on his shoulders for decades, would suddenly begin funelling his funds towards Israel, UK or the U.S. He loves Estonia and that’s where he finds meaning to be a philanthropist. So while individuals are still willing – let them give and keep the history alive.

    REgarding the preservation of culture, when I found out in my study of Aboriginal history that there were some 600 hundred live Indigenous languages spoken in Australia and that there are now close to 250 (and spoken by very few people) – I came to understand that with that those cultures have lost the capacity to be expressed in their purest form. No academic journal can re-create the culture passed on through language.

    So too would be the case for every Jewish community that packed up and made a life in Israel – their children would be encouraged to learn English and Hebrew as key languages; to ‘make it in the world’. And if by some rare and immense effort they managed to maintain some of their language at home, the next generation of their kind would be scratching their heads at this foreign mumbo-jumbo if they ever came across it on the street. They would become foreign to themsleves.

    If you throw too many vegies into a vegie soup – it just turns grey.

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