Friday, July 14, 2006

The secret life of Adass Israel


TAKE a stroll down the southern end of Hotham Street in Ripponlea or down Old South Head Road in Bondi and the sight of men in knickerbockers, wearing their distinctive fur streimels (hats), indicates the neighbourhood of Adass Israel, a community whose painstakingly prescribed way of life defines its geographical boundaries more than any other.

Founded in the early years of World War II and taking its present name in 1950, Melbourne’s “Adass”, literally “the community”, is today a constellation of around 200 families that lives in its own universe. It even has its own community phone book.

It is a realm in which all wants and needs — prayer, sustenance, life-cycle events — are met within the community and within the 613 mitzvot of the Shulchan Aruch.

The chief rabbi of the Melbourne Adass is Rabbi Avrohom Zvi Beck, 67, a Vishnitzer Chasid. His associate is Rabbi Shimon Opman, 53, an Israeli emigre. Yiddish is the lingua franca although many speak Hebrew.

It has its own mohelim (ritual circumcisers), a school with around 600 pupils, a yeshiva, a kollel for married men, a men’s and a women’s mikvah, a kashrut committee, with shechita (ritual slaughter) and butcher shop, bakery, dairy supplier, restaurants and caterers — as well as a separate Chevra Kadisha and its own cemetery in Springvale.

There is a loan society, and services that provide extra beds for homes with guests, hotplates for Shabbat, wheelchairs, even a short-term service for overseas visitors needing mobile phones. Services are free and Adassniks are entitled to others’ services.

By contrast, Adass Israel in Sydney, which has informal links to the Melbourne Adass, is a smaller community of around 48 families, and according to board member Zalman Gerendasi, is far more integrated into the broader community — adhering to the kashrut list of the NSW Kashrut Authority and sending its children to Yeshiva College.

Gerendasi reflects that many members of Sydney Adass now wish their community had developed more along the lines of Melbourne.

Although the Adass in Sydney shares a history of postwar development with its Melbourne counterpart, a breakaway group formed the Sydney Yeshiva in 1966 and today a shul on Old South Head Road in Bondi is the Adass community’s only institution.

Yet in Melbourne, the congregation’s longtime secretary, Shlomo Boruch Abelesz, 56, calls the southern city’s Adass a “womb-to-tomb” experience that lessens the need to go outside.

Like the roads leading out of Lerner and Loewe’s mythical Scottish hamlet of Brigadoon, the pathways that lead away from Adass are dark and uncertain.

While anyone following the principles of taharat mishpachah (which includes the ritual of mikvah) and keeps kosher to Adass standards, is accepted, the lifestyle is distinguished in many ways by what it is not.

Abelesz says actors would probably not make good Adassniks. Nor would single thirtysomethings, women pursuing a full-time career after marriage or people who enjoy watching television, which is discouraged but not banned. Not surprisingly, few join — and few leave.

As an institution, Adass is not a joiner. Long ago, it made its membership of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) conditional on the exclusion of the Progressive movement.

LIKE virtually all Australian Orthodox congregations, Adass rejects the concept of Progressive Judaism but unlike most others, it excludes itself from the JCCV because it would mean sharing a platform with the Progressives.

“We will not sit in the same forum as the Reform,” says Abelesz.

Abelesz describes Progressive Judaism as “a falsification of Judaism” and Rabbi Opman accuses it of “changing the Torah”.

Abelesz adds: “We have nothing to do with them. We feel sorry for them. If they haven’t already, they end up assimilating.”

Asked whether it has to agree with Progressive Judaism to sit on the JCCV, Rabbi Opman is vehement: “We would have to make decisions with them.”

Yet its perspective on fellow Orthodox communities is only marginally more embracing. Of the mainstream Orthodox shuls, Abelesz says: “When necessary, we’re in touch with each other, but we don’t have a lot to do with them.”

Rabbi Opman, who was born in Israel, says the Adass is “non-Zionist”, and while it supports its own communities in Israel, it will not support the Jewish National Fund (JNF) or the Zionist Federation of Australia.

“We would rather provide food and shelter for our own families in Israel than plant trees for the Keren Kayemeth [JNF],” he says.

A big distinction from Chabad, says Abelesz, is that Adass does not engage in outreach. Small numbers of newcomers are attracted to the shul each year through social networks, and occasionally a travelling Israeli might settle down here and join.

Abelesz estimates that in the past 20 years “six or eight families” have thrown in their lot with Adass.

He sees Adass as more old-fashioned and independent than Chabad. “We respected the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe as we respect all religious leaders, but he isn’t the Rebbe.”

Yet the links with Lubavitch run deep. For example, Melbourne businessman and rabbi, Joseph Gutnick, whose connections to Chabad are considerable, is noted in an Adass publication as “the largest single donor to Adass in its 50-year history” and his name adorns the Adass Gutnick Hall and Talmud Torah complex.

But while Adass isolates itself, it exports its facilities to other parts of the community. Anyone who has ever attended a minyan led by an Adass-trained rabbi, or who has been aided by the Hatzolah first-aid responder service, or who has tasted a Yumi’s dip (from a catering business run by brothers Yumi and Moishe Friedman), has made a connection.

Fired by its distinctive brand of Hungarian and Slovakian Chassidism and Ashkenaz Orthodoxy, Adass draws its strengths from the destroyed yeshivot of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Galicia, from Jewish centres such as Ger, Belz and Vishnitz.

Its rabbis are trained at kollels in the US and the Edah Hareidis in Jerusalem. But far from these centres, the uniqueness of Adass in Ripponlea is its small size.

“In New York, a Satmar is likely to marry a Satmar, a Belzer a Belzer, but here we can’t afford to split up. After all, we’re all from Melbourne. Because we’re all Adass, we intermarry with each other,” quips Abelesz.

“Marrying out here means marrying a Lubavitcher.”

When people leave, it is to travel in search of a husband or wife in the deeper pools of the Adass in New York and London. Young people are expected to marry by the time they are 18 or 20, and an informal shadchan or matchmaking culture in the Ripponlea community makes sure that most do.

Abelesz says: “The only exceptions are those who might not be well.”

For some, their workday world provides perhaps the only opportunity for interaction with non-Jews.

Abelesz lists the kinds of occupations that Adassniks are involved in — textiles, kosher food manufacture and supervision, importing, law, accounting, teaching. So going to the office does not necessarily mean leaving Adass behind for the day. In a community where observance is so detailed, it shapes the kinds of work that people may do.

Yet for the women of Adass, full-time career paths come to an abrupt end under the chuppah. While the married men of Adass graduate from their yeshivot to a kollel, the women have no similar opportunity and take up their appointed role as mothers, homekeepers, perhaps as part-time teachers.

The all-enveloping completeness of the community has created a lack of self-consciousness. Abelesz speaks of “children riding their bikes down Glen Eira Road, their tzitzit in full flight”.

Non-Jews are surprised, he says, when they see a boy passing by in black garb “and then they meet the kid and he’s got a real Australian accent. That surprises them more than the garb does. The kids really want to wear the clothes, much more than the older ones.”

If anything, the Adass way of life has become stricter as modernity has encroached all around.

Abelesz recalls a postwar generation of Adass men who “were not too keen to have the outward appearance of being Jewish” and says beards and payot are a relatively recent development that harks back to pre-Holocaust traditions. In the early years, the school was co-educational.

Abelesz says Adass is not overly worried about the heightened security concerns of recent years and points to the shul’s long operating hours as a built-in safety measure.

“There are people here from five o’clock in the morning till late,” he says.

But ultimately, there are no guarantees of safety, especially for some of Melbourne’s most outwardly visible Jews. Abelesz is philosophical: “If you’re going to be afraid, you might as well give up.”

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