Being Jewish down under

Picture sparkling black sand. The crystal blue sea gently laps at your toes, as you stroll arm in arm along a pristine South Pacific beach in New Zealand. What possibly could be missing, except a maybe a nice kosher pickle?

Life as a Jew in New Zealand has many joys and many frustrations. This small island nation became home to many Jews, from 19th century whalers and gold prospectors, to those seeking sanctuary and anonymity after World War II.

Sanctuary and peace were easy to find here, but Jewish culture was not.

The idyllic beauty of this nation is like something out of a dream, with its green velvet pastures, rain forests, volcanic mountains and fjords. It is a land untouched by the terror of the great wars, a land blessed with natural beauty and splendor that rekindle hope, even within the soul of a Holocaust survivor.

As Jews found their way in this new home, they learned that the New Zealand people are warm and welcoming, but many to this day have no clue what a Jew is.

Jews have lived in New Zealand for many years. If you look, you will find old Jewish cemeteries in Hokitika and Waikumete. In Dunedin, you’ll find Olverston Castle, the home in the late 1880s of a prominent Jewish resident, now open to the public. New Zealand had a Jewish prime minister, Sir Julius Vogel, elected in 1873 and again in 1876. But by and large, Jews in New Zealand today go unnoticed.

Anonymity does have its advantages. There has been little anti-Semitism in this nation where most people don’t even know Jews exist. Most of the new arrivals had no interest in telling anyone they were Jewish, and their new found obscurity suited them just fine. They blended into the generally secular-Christian culture, and got on with the business of building their lives. The lack of a minyan (10 people gathered for prayer) became less of a concern than building a family. Many simply became secular ethical Jews.

When I wear a yarmulke in public, I get some interesting reactions. Many people are enthralled to meet their first Jew. Sadly, many tell me that their family was once Jewish, but their grandmother told them not to tell anyone. They have married Christians and go to church now, but remember lighting candles when they were young. They ask me if there are any other Jews in New Zealand.

The Jewish community in New Zealand is small but vibrant. There are six active synagogues and an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 Jews among the 3.5 million residents of our 1,300-mile-long island. Beth Shalom, the congregation of Auckland, serves every progressive Jew for about 250 miles.

In his first month on the job here, Rabbi Ed Rosenthal got a quick lesson in what diversity can mean. He was asked to officiate at a funeral for a Jewish New Zealander who had been married to a native Maori woman. While the service he was asked to conduct was strictly Jewish, all the surrounding rituals and family gatherings were conducted in the traditional Maori custom by the man’s widow and children.

While the small size and diversity of the congregation make for a really wonderful, close knit community, it also means that we don’t have the resources to draw on that Jews in other parts of the world enjoy. We frequently include Judaica shopping sprees in our international travel, to enrich our homes and synagogue. In a place where personal contacts with other Jews are often rare, physical symbols are important in maintaining our sense of connection with Jewish life.

The greatest physical symbol in any Jewish community is, of course, the Torah. Sadly, at present, we at Beth Shalom do not have a kosher Torah scroll of our own and use one that has been generously loaned to us. In this turn-of-the-millennium year, we are hoping to take advantage of some of the unique features, including the geographic location, of this wonderful land to purchase a Torah.

The year 2000 begins on Shabbat. What better way could there be to mark the occasion than by being the first person called to the Torah in the new millennium?

New Zealand will be the first country with an established Jewish community to catch the dawn of Jan. 1, 2000. Jews will be called to the Torah here two hours before Sydney, 13 hours before London, 18 hours ahead of New York and a full 21 hours ahead of Los Angeles.

Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, will be at its spectacularly beautiful mid-summer best, with the bonus of the Americas’ Cup yacht races taking place in our harbor.

Our plan is this: The lucky benefactor who makes a tax-deductible donation of $100,000 for a new Torah scroll will be invited to visit this lovely place at this special time and receive the unique honor of being the first aliyah (person called to the Torah) in the new millennium, 23 Tevet, 5760 (Jan. 1, 2000).

To this end, we have pre-booked two round-trip, business-class airplane tickets from Los Angeles to Auckland (leaving Los Angeles on Dec. 27, 1999, and returning there on Jan. 5, 2000). We have also reserved a 24th-floor luxury penthouse apartment in an exclusive waterfront hotel.

Throughout the stay, the benefactor will be the guest of our congregation, and we will show our benefactor and a companion the sights in Auckland and the surrounding areas, including truly memorable beaches, spectacular harbor cruises and world-class sport and leisure facilities.

And our benefactor will attend the biggest party in town on New Year’s Eve.

Dr. Leonard N. Bloksberg is chairman of the Ritual Committee and the Fund Raising Committee at Congregation Beth Shalom in Aukland, New Zealand. Anyone wishing to donate the $100,000 (or a smaller amount in excess of $1,000, which entitles the donor to be honored in absentia) should write to: Beth Shalom, 180 Manukau Road, P.O. Box 26-052, Epsom, Auckland, New Zealand. The congregation also may be contacted by telephone at 011-649-524-4139 or e-mail at bshalom@ihug.co.nz.

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