In the last few months, since I started the tour for my book “The Secret of Chabad,” I have visited many interesting communities. My most recent visit to Auckland was quite surprising. It was a stop on the way to one of the world’s most successful Jewish communities, which is actually in Australia. Not that many Jews live in New Zealand, so my expectations were not very high. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this remote south Pacific country is home to a small community, filled with energy and vibrancy.
My visit to Auckland was part of Limmud NZ, an annual gathering that focuses on Jewish ideas and learning. Local presenters and scholars from overseas spent two days debating the great issues of the day. There were Torah classes, beginners Minyans, and debates on modern Israel and Jewish life in New Zealand. While the numbers of Jews in New Zealand, is not large, just some 7,500, the community is remarkably cohesive, has a great sprit, and is full of intelligent caring Jews.
The communities face important challenges. For instance, some seeking a more vibrant Jewish life tend to emigrate. For just across the Tasman Sea, Australia beckons. Melbourne and Sydney are larger, more mature communities with all the elements for an enriching Jewish life. The ties to the British Commonwealth still linger, giving the community a connection to the UK. Activism for Israel is strong, and some Kiwis choose to move to the Jewish homeland to realize their spiritual potential
The ideals of liberalism that exsist in New Zealand have also created a political agenda that has made some strides in limiting religious rights. For example, animal rights activists have instigated the call for tighter restrictions on the kosher meat industry. Chicken slaughter, which according to Jewish tradition is banned from exportation, is allowed only for local consumption. The small local kosher market makes that difficult. Importation of chicken is banned while kosher meat is still permitted from nearby Australia, making it more costly.
The community also fears there will be yet another effort to ban ritual circumcision. Government regulation mandates that only a doctor can conduct the ceremony (an absurdity when it’s clear that a mohel who performs circumcisions daily is much more qualified). So Jewish New Zealanders have lobbied to protect their religious rights. Their small population gives them limited influence, nor are they as politically assertive as American Jews. World Jewry must stand at their side if they are faced with future initiatives that limit Jewish practice.
Much can be learned from the Jewish experience in New Zealand. Such as, the richness of tradition and community is not just limited to a large concentration of Jews. And, the key to Jewish continuity is Jewish learning and caring for each other. Finally, as Jews we share a common destiny. We need to look beyond the common international boundaries, which are artificial barriers to our common heritage to forge a Jewish future.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen in Yorba Linda. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.