Friday, July 14, 2006

Global and local themes at rabbinic conference

Sichat Yosef

THE recent conference of the Organisation of Rabbis of Australasia (ORA) that took place in Melbourne last week affords a fascinating perspective into the national Orthodox rabbinate.

Firstly, its membership. Clearly there is a preponderance of younger, rather than older, members; they completed their education in Australia, the United States or Israel; and there is a significant Chabad component including mainstream shul rabbis as well as leaders of Chabad congregations and houses.

Secondly, its concerns. Here it was clear that concerns ranged from the global to the local. A passionate debate took place on the theme of developing a united approach to the situation in Israel. Chaired by Sydney’s Rabbi Moshe Gutnick and including an address by Zionist Federation of Australia president Philip Chester, the session focussed on the appropriate reaction in the event of any future withdrawal from areas of the biblical heartland of our nation.

Clearly influenced by the approach of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, discussion canvassed both principles and pragmatism, resulting in a resolution that no matter what the views of individuals regarding withdrawal, violence and the refusal of orders by IDF soldiers were to be absolutely opposed.

Much time was also devoted to issues of local significance.

The tone was set right at the outset as representatives of each mainland state, as well as New Zealand, presented to their colleagues an overview of developments in their respective communities. All focussed on growth but there were variations. Perhaps the most outstanding growth is taking place in Western Australia, where the infrastructure of Orthodox Jewish life has made great strides, particularly in the areas of kashrut and education.

Perth is also on the way to establishing a beit haedrash/kollel involving mentors from Israel who will study with local interested persons (in a manner similar to the beit hamedrash in Melbourne’s Mizrachi community).

At the other end of the spectrum, despite some growth in numbers, the Adelaide community clearly needs assistance to maintain and improve the status of its educational facilities.

Participants listened with concern to a presentation I gave with my United Jewish Education Board colleague Helen Zeimer on children across Australia who do not attend Jewish schools. The point was made that for many of these children, providers of part-time Jewish education serve as the only point of contact between their families and Judaism.

While some outreach-oriented communities are making progress in attracting such families to become more involved, much more attention by the rabbinate to this segment of the community is needed if the Jewish future of such families is to be assured.

A further issue in the area of communal continuity that received much attention was the inability of many young people to find a Jewish partner. Programs designed to assist in this regard were the topic of presentations by both Rabbi Mendel Kastel of Sydney, who previewed his new J.Junction initiative, and Rabbi Dovid Freilich of Perth.

Of course what is a rabbinic conference without halachic presentations? The most outstanding was from Melbourne-based, world-renowned halachic expert Rabbi Faitel Levin, who addressed the issue of “yuchsin” – personal-status matters affecting marriage, within a halachic framework.

A much-vaunted purpose of this particular conference was the intention to develop future directions for the organisation to make it relevant to communal needs across Australasia in the 21st century. A session entitled “Towards the future” was addressed by Rabbinical Council of Victoria (RCV) president Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant, who outlined changes in his organisation in recent years, and communally-involved legal expert Jeffrey Appel, who had been involved in the development of the constitution of the RCV as well as that of the Melbourne Beth Din, with which the RCV is now structurally interrelated.

Grahame Leonard, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, analysed the potential for relationships between a federal rabbinic body and the lay representation of the Jewish community as a whole.

Their presentations were complemented by that of Rabbi Yaakov Sprung, the spiritual leader of Mizrachi, who outlined the breadth of communal involvement of rabbinical roof bodies in the United States. The outcome was the establishment of a working party involving representation from all states to develop a model for presentation to the ORA membership in 12 months’ time.

And indeed this resolution epitomised the approach of both the conference and its participants. At a time when Orthodox Jewry worldwide is often attacked for withdrawing into itself and lacking relevance to the broader community, the Australasian rabbinate is clearly seeking to position itself as the driving force in the future development of our broader community.

No comments: