Apparently you CAN get further away on Channukah (see “There are no Maccabeans or Oil Lamps here”) by Julian Resnick

December 5, 2013 by jewish journeys

I was wrong, clearly I was wrong, you CAN get further away from Israel on Channukah (by the way, I just received a great list of 16 possible spellings of Channukah, I mean Hannuka or Hannukah or Xannuka – you had better believe it – or, Channuqa, the list goes on and on).

If you have never participated in a Shabbat morning Shacharit (morning service) down by a river looking at giant ferns and other lush and typical New Zealand flora, you have not experienced the full potential of reading Parashat Miketz yet. Bizarre really, to learn about Joseph’s dreams of the seven lean years while looking at the extraordinary beauty of the New Zealand country side down in Waikatere. For me Auckland was largely about an extraordinary weekend with the wonderful folks of the Beth Shalom Progressive congregation of Auckland. A weekend of celebration of being Jewish, of Channukah (my preferred spelling). 120 members and their children coming together to have fun (and we did), to learn (and we did) and to explore what it means to be a tiny minority in the possibly most dangerous of Diaspora situations today (if we are to accept Ari Shavit’s thesis in his new book “My Promised Land”), that of total acceptance and no threats at all.

Strange after my experiences in NYC, a city filled with Jewish culture, informing mainstream culture as much as it is informed by the majority culture. Here, there are Jews in handfuls; nobody has an exact number because it is so easy to disappear into New Zealand culture, but the number I heard most often was around 12,000 Jews (out of a population of around 4.5 million that makes 0.0025%). What was so special for me after my experiences of Habonim Dror in other countries, was the fact that here in New Zealand, there is a total acceptance of the fact that youth movements are absolutely critical to the survival of Jewish life. Your only chance of being a Jew in the coming generation, goes the local narrative, is if you are involved in either Habonim Dror (the strong movement here) or Bnei Akiva or (and this is unusual) both. The youth movements, aware of their responsibility, work together in fascinating ways, the most interesting decision being the decision to run their summer camps over different dates so that the young people can go to both which  means an even stronger Jewish Identity.

What were the highlights of my Shabbaton experience?  Clearly the Shabbat morning service. And I would be being less than honest if I did not mention my workshops  for it is gratifying to travel many thousands of kilometers and have people really enjoying your teaching. And above all the wonderful workshop I attended led by one Ezra, a former Israeli kibbutznik. And herein lies the rub. Ezra’s workshop was about a single line of Torah taught in the most beautiful way, but crucially dependent on one thing only, his wonderful deep understanding of the Hebrew language especially in its linguistic complications. Of course, taught in translation, as the only people in the room who could have understood this workshop which celebrated Hebrew in all its depth and beauty were Ezra, myself and another Israeli in the room. The big question loomed again as it often has in New Zealand: is any of this sustainable, or was I having a peek into the end stages of another Jewish community? I hope that before becoming angry with me my new found Kiwi friends will read on as they might still be surprised.

On to the first ever “Channukah in the Park”. Hundreds of Jews outing themselves in public in a way they seldom do in a central, open park space in Auckland. What an amazing evening. Imagine a group which constitutes 0.0025% of the local people taking over a central space with their bizarre customs involving fire, strange objects spinning out of control and weird incantations in a foreign ancient tongue. The longest line was for schwarma and felafel;  the orange- juice machine shorted the generator so was discontinued; the rabbi’s wife read Channukah stories; a Jewish magician performed arbitrary tricks with no connection to the holiday (and ran a quiz on Israel and Jewish topics, got many of the answers wrong, but who cares) and a Klezmer group played on. Bottom line, there is nothing that can stop a group of determined Jewish women who decide to create something for the community and beyond.

On to Christchurch and to a community which still lives in the shadow of the awful events of February 22nd 2011, the day which changed this city forever, the day the earth rumbled and lashed out in one of the major earthquakes of this century which unfortunately had its epicenter below the Central Business DIstrict of this once (and still) beautiful city. A visit to the earthquake- ravaged CBD is extraordinary, from the destroyed Cathedral on Cathedral Square once the icon of this city (remember the pictures of this cathedral which flashed around the world on that fateful day) to the new, brave, cardboard Cathedral which is all about hope and belief in rebuilding both buildings and lives, via the CTV (Canterbury Television) building in which 115 of the 185 who died in this tragedy lost their lives. Next to the building is a powerful temporary memorial. The loved ones of those who died were asked to give a chair which would recall them and these are all placed together, painted in a ghostly, but possibly pure white, recalling both Van Gogh’s empty chairs and the memorial in Ghetto Square in Krakow.

But for me, Christchurch will be the city in which I saw a recently rebuilt synagogue filled with local Jews who came together to celebrate Channuakh with a party timed to coincide with my visit. The sanctuary still smelling of freshly painted walls, restored stained glass windows and replaced carpets. Fully restored except for the Holy Ark which they cannot at this point afford to return to its place at the heart of the community. Doubly painful because there are nine orphaned Torah Scrolls waiting to return to the community, eight representing communities which once were dotted around South Island, but which no longer exist except in historical chronicles and in those scrolls which were once held aloft, dressed, paraded and read from with great devotion by Jews who had arrived here from other once proud communities. And the ninth, from Czechoslovakia, the famed Czech scrolls saved from the Nazis and read today in Jewish Communities around the world, giving their former keepers whose lives ended in Terezin and Auschwitz, an ongoing voice still heard around the Jewish world today.

But, I want to end with something really wonderful as I sit here in the departure lounge in Christchurch airport. The party was put together by the young (22 year old) Habonim Dror Shlicha Shani Goldstein. With the capacity that to be honest one learns from taking responsibility from a young age, Shani ran a great evening, warming the hearts of the eighty people in the room who were aged from around six months to over ninety. I think of Shani’s recent personal history, service in the IDF working as the emotional support for Bedouin soldiers; filled with a great passion for this shlichut (task) very much in the same way she talks of the soldiers she cared for. Shani demonstrates much of what we can be proud of among young Israelis: she knows what it means to serve, to give of herself, to take responsibility.

And, finally, the thought I take with me from New Zealand, more than any other thought will be this: perhaps this community will struggle with sustainability, but I am convinced that we as a Jewish People are richer for these struggles to remain Jewish in these and other distant parts. Our rich fabric is just that because of the edges as much as the core. The core is crucial as is strengthening it; in the same way, so are the edges. I want the richest possible Jewish People. For that to be possible, we must strengthen our edges.

Thank you Alison, Mor, Ezra, Rachel, Jack, Shani, Sapeer and all the other members of the New Zealand community for reminding me of that.

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