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A bubble within the bubble

Thursday, 10 May 2012

A sense of pride pervades Bondi’s Orthodox Jewish community, but that pride is tinged with a sense of anxiety. Moments after I sit down with Rabbi Eli Feldman, the chief rabbi at the Yeshiva Centre, one of Bondi’s largest synagogues, he informs me that the Jewish religion is the world’s oldest at 3323 years. That’s where the pride comes in. In the same breath Rabbi Feldman tells me that it is also the world’s smallest major religion, numbering only 15 million members worldwide, and that that number is gradually decreasing. And therein lies the concern. As the global number of Orthodox Jews dwindles, so too the importance of maintaining a traditional Jewish way of life, in all its outposts, becomes more and more important.

Orthodox Judaism is also called Torah Judaism, or Traditional Judaism. It isn’t a single movement, but rather many smaller movements blanketed by a loose title. Orthodox Judaism different from non-orthodox Judaism in that it tries to adhere more strictly to the teachings of the Torah, the Jewish Bible, than more liberal, modern forms of the faith.

There are apparently three reasons for the gradual decline in its membership. Firstly: persecution. Rabbi Feldman says that Hitler massacred a third of their number in a few short years during the Holocaust. Secondly: inter-marriage, whereby Orthodox Jews marry non-Jews and therefore they and their children are lost to the religion. Thirdly: they do not recruit. There are no zealous missionaries trying to convert non-believers into observant Torah Jews.

“As far as we are concerned,” Rabbi Feldman says, “everyone has a soul and goes to heaven…”

Without trying to recruit others, Orthodox Jews are happy to remain in their community, to marry within their community, to bring their kids up in that community and to keep largely to themselves. Loving, supportive and tight-knit it may be, but does this isolationism make cross-cultural understanding and the elimination of anti-Semitic discrimination more complicated? Just how integrated are the Orthodox Jews in Bondi? And why do they live in a suburb that is best known for its laid-back, flesh-baring promiscuity? Surely it’s not the easiest place to be devout.

“This is where we first settled 50 years ago, when it was not an expensive suburb,” explains Rabbi Dovid Slavin. “So a Jewish community was built up in Bondi. Now we are all paying high prices to live here. I’m paying a lot to live near the synagogue, but my neighbours are paying to live near the beach.”

The beach isn’t a place frequented by the Traditional Jewish community. Part of their belief system is that the sexes should be kept segregated until marriage, and as Rabbi Feldman explains, teenage boys and girls hanging around half-naked is hardly conducive to a pious life. He believes that there is a need to live in an environment where you minimize the risk of transgressions.

“You like ice cream ‘cos you’ve had ice cream, but if you never tried it you won’t want it or miss it.”

So I ask 18 year old Mordechai how he can keep away from the beach on hot summer days.

“I can go swimming, but preferably not at the beach. We prefer to go to empty beaches, or pools. Plenty of our friends have pools. We are well-connected!”

Well-connected they may be, but most youngsters in the Orthodox Jewish community have precious little time for pool parties or trips to remote, deserted beaches. Their principal focus is on studying the five books of Moses and other ancient Jewish texts, for up to ten hours a day.

Rabbi Berel Light is a young rabbi from New York, currently responsible for teaching the students at the Yeshiva rabbi training centre.

“Living here in Bondi has a relaxing, self-indulgent aspect to it, but it gives birth to something deeper. In New York, everyone is so busy that they dream of holidays and unwinding, but here in Bondi life is so much more relaxed that your dreams are deeper. Surfing is okay for Sundays, but what’s next? Like, what is my future and my legacy?”

Rabbi Light, only 29 years old himself, has started to specialise in equipping young Orthodox Jews with the tools they need to face the modern world. Facebook, Ebay and even IVF treatments are just some of the new concepts that need to be integrated into an ancient belief system. And it’s not easy:

“Ebay is generally fine… except on Saturdays, it’s our Sabbath and there should be no work, and no commerce at all. So there are complications if the bidding ends on a Saturday.

As for Facebook, it blurs the line between what is public and what is private… and one of the ideals of Judaism is that you have to keep private life private. You can’t pretend these things don’t exist, you just have to encourage young people to think about how to use them within the framework of our faith.”

IVF (In-Vitro Fertilisation) is even more fraught with complexity:

“The Jewish religion is matriarchal, so everything is passed down through the mother, but how do you define a mother? Is it the person who provides the egg or the person who carries it?”

Rabbi Light and his students wrestle with complicated issues like these for hours each day.

The segregation of the sexes is much more clear-cut: the opposite sex is a distraction and therefore unmarried, Orthodox Jews must be kept apart until they are ‘of marriageable age’. As Rabbi Berel Light explains:

“The boys are not encouraged to have female friends. Where do you draw the line? Men were designed to find women attractive. Platonic relationships, if possible at all, are bound with problems.”

Attached to the Yeshiva Centre on Flood Street, but run as a separate organization, is Our Big Kitchen: a community kitchen designed to bring people together, especially people in need, to cook a meal. Be they sick, elderly, single parents or even young offenders, people of all colours and creeds can come together and learn how to cook simple meals in a fun, informal environment.

As Rabbi Slavin says: “It’s much easier to open up and talk about your problems when your hands are busy, sharing a common task.”

The manager of Our Big Kitchen is Rebecca Jacobs, a vivacious and dedicated young Orthodox Jewess who passionately believes in her work and feels lucky to have a job that ties in with her Jewish ideals of helping people in greater need than her. But there is also an expectation that she will soon marry and have children of her own.

“Life is only complete when you bring another soul into the world, and I think most people would realise something is missing in life without a family…”

At twenty-five, Rebecca says only two or three girl from her school class of twenty-one are not married with kids.

“But I do know one woman of 33 who is unmarried, so there are other people worse off than me!”

As well as being chief rabbi at the Yeshiva Centre, Rabbi Feldman also heads up an organization called

“The young adult period (the period between school and marriage) can now span nearly two decades – from 18 to the late 30s, and the more it is extended, the harder it is to find someone. It’s easier to build that life together from a young age, a life that will then form around the partnership. So we try to match people up early…”

In the limited gene pool of the Traditional Jewish community, the longer the unmarried young adult years go on, the smaller the number of potential partners gets, and the greater the possibility that the partner will have to come from outside the community becomes. So, logically, pairing young people off reduces the risk of losing them to the faith.

As a result the role of ‘matchmaker’ is an increasingly important one. Indeed, in certain Orthodox communities it’s a bona fide profession. There are strict dating protocols for Orthodox Jews. First dates must always be in a public place, but not in a bar or any other place where there is an overt mix of the sexes. Rebecca says somewhere like a hotel foyer is the most common place:

“The matchmaker will tee up where the date is and do all the communication. After the date, where there is absolutely no touching at all, you give your feedback to the matchmaker who will then try to help decide if and how a second date should proceed.”

Rebecca is on several matchmakers’ lists across the world after traveling to Israel, New York and London specifically to meet matchmakers.

“I had to let people know who I am, to show I’m a good person. If I get a call from a matchmaker saying they have found someone, I might get on Skype to talk to them, and if that is okay I would get on a plane and just go. Why not? He could be the one.”

So I ask Rabbi Feldman whether this decreasing number of potential soul mates, coupled with the encouragement to marry within the faith, means people are compromising and not marrying for love. He pauses.

“Every worthy endeavor contains sacrifice, be it financial success, sporting success or marriage.”

When I spoke to Rabbi Slavin, he also picked up on the theme of sacrifice:

“Anybody who has achieved something has done so at personal sacrifice… from Olympic medalists to entrepreneurs, but someone who is driven with a mission or a real purpose, very rarely feels they are missing out on other pleasures. It’s not seen as a deprivation. “

This is a sentiment that seems to find its way through to the young Orthodox Jews at rabbi school too. As Mordechai says:

“There is physical pleasure and mental pleasure, and the mental type is supposed to be much greater. When you understand a concept you feel really accomplished.” He explains that the youth have passion: “A flame that can be dangerous, but needs to be channeled, and when it’s channeled you can achieve great things”.

If these “great things” are well thought-out projects that genuinely help society as a whole, then Mordechai is right. He is learning about discipline and dedication and then aiming to put it to use for the benefit of good causes, while always being true to his faith.

In a world of increasing differences between minority groups and beliefs, perhaps we all have something to learn from this. As Rabbi Feldman says:

“I’m proud to be Australian, to have a passport, to be born here. Australia has immense tolerance for people of all backgrounds and all faiths.”

By respecting people and allowing them to live as they wish, such tolerance can end up benefitting all of us. And that’s something we can all be proud of.


Words: Stephen Oliver

Photographer: Toby Burrows



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