The Hidden Gem of Perth
By Andrew Blitz
Some fifteen years ago I sat with my wife for one of the most important conversations of our lives. We had to decide where to bring up our children.
Our priorities were clear. The most important factor was access to a Modern Orthodox Jewish education for our future children, facilities that were sadly not available in our home town. Career prospects, affordability, lifestyle and social considerations all followed. We also decided that it was important for our children to grow up in one city, with a familiar education system, a single culture and established group of friends. This was important to us, having seen the impact of relocation on children from transient families that moved their careers and households through multiple cities during their school years.
Family options did not permit us to make aliyah, so we made the decision to migrate to Australia. We prepared for the daunting but exciting prospect of following our peers to Melbourne, but circumstances delivered us a different fate. Unanticipated, we ended up in Perth for a few weeks that then led into our pilot visit to Melbourne.
Prior to visiting Perth, we had been unaware that Australia’s third largest Jewish community had so much to offer the potential migrant. Relative to Melbourne, Perth was very affordable. The Jewish community was small, embracing, and within our age group predominantly comprised of other young migrant families who had also experienced the challenges of relocation and were able to support each other. The infrastructure within the community was outstanding, and the quality of life very attractive. We met many happy, positive and content observant Jewish families that were likeminded. Above all, the people we met were non-judgemental about our standard of observance.
Had the attraction of Perth not been enough to influence our decision, it was our experience of Melbourne during the weeks that followed that clinched our decision to move to Perth. Unused to the environment of a large Jewish community, we became lost within a crowd from the moment we arrived. Everywhere we went we felt that we were being sized up. The first question we were always asked was what business we were in, even before introductory pleasantries. Information was constantly being mined about how affluent we were, and what “yichus” we could bring to confirm our social status. As we started to explore schools and shules, it became evident we would be branded by the decisions we made. It appeared that our affiliations would limit, not enhance, the Jewish identity of our children, and that they would succumb to peer pressure based on who they were ahead of what they were. We were also unable to indentify community migrant support structures.
This was a harsh but honest assessment. All this happened a long time ago, and the situation may well have changed since that time. I frequently visit Melbourne and each time I see many positive developments. Certainly there are now a large number of small religious communities and a geographic dispersion that didn’t exist fifteen years ago, which provides for the same style of insular community focus that I enjoy from the membership of a smaller shule in Perth.
What I am able to reflect on now is the satisfaction of our decision to join the Perth Jewish community. Perth has only one Jewish day school option, which fosters an overwhelmingly healthy community dynamic. Within Carmel School there is a genuine and healthy respect between the students. Be they from families that are observant or non-observant, local or migrant, rich or poor, more than 500 children of the Perth Jewish community currently grow up together in the culturally hegemonic setting of a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school. The occasional tension is more than offset by the well balanced and healthy tolerance that evolves within the diverse Jewish community, where often it is the children themselves that set the example when it comes to respecting and understanding differences of opinion.
Since we arrived in Perth the community has flourished. During that time an Eruv and Torah Mitzion Kollel have been established. New infrastructure has been built, and kosher facilities have come and gone (as they seem to do everywhere). Maccabi delivers outstanding sports clubs, the Zionist Youth Groups are a source of inspiration, the shules are friendly and supportive, the aged care and social facilities are strong. New migrants continue to be supported, including subsidised access to community based accommodation on arrival.
Perth Jewry is not without its problems. The cost of living, driven by the domestic resources boom, has escalated dramatically and the once affordable accommodation is now on par with Sydney and Melbourne. Families have come and gone from Perth, including many observant Orthodox Jews seeking a yeshiva level day school education for their children. Whilst this style of education is not directly provided within the Carmel School curriculum, supplementary and extra curricular programs make yeshiva learning options available at the Modern Orthodox, but not more religious levels. Over the past few years a number of Perth Jewish youth have gone to Israel for further education. These include yeshiva and graduate students, and very proudly, Hesder participants that attest to the quality and seriousness of the pre-tertiary Jewish education initiatives offered by the Perth Jewish community.
If we had our time over, would my family have done anything different? I often wonder what might have been had we been able to establish our family in Israel. We still have plans to ultimately build our future in Israel, but it is perhaps our children who will lead us there. In the meantime, the quality of Jewish education available to my children remains, and I consider our family to be very fortunate to be immersed in Jewish community life in Perth, Western Australia.
Visitors to our home often remark that the Perth Jewish community is hidden away and awareness of what is on offer to prospective migrants is lacking. Indeed the Perth Jewish community is one of the Jewish Diaspora’s best kept secrets, often to its own chagrin. But don’t take my word for this alone. Just speak to the many current and ex-patriot members of the Perth Jewish community, or take the time to experience the vibrancy of Perth Jewish life for yourself.
Andrew Blitz has been involved in a range of Religious Zionist organisations including Bnei Akiva and Torah MiTzion, and has formerly contributed as a regular columnist to Jewish publications including the NZ Jewish Chronicle and the Maccabean.