Recently, a group of people gathered in Castlemaine to celebrate on the final evening of Chanukah. They are among central Victoria’s small but long-lived Jewish community, whose roots date back to the gold rush era. Former Supreme Court judge and central Victoria resident Howard Nathan said a congregation was first founded in Bendigo in 1854 after Jews came from England and the United States.
The devastation wrought by WWI diminished the local Jewish community and a synagogue that stood at the intersection of Lyttleton Terrace and Hopetoun Street became a grain store. Eventually, the building became unstable and it was demolished. Howard said the organised Jewish community had faded out by 1927.
But 79 years later, he and Castlemaine’s Sarah Austin re-established the congregation by forming the Progressive Judaism group kehillat s’dot zahav: kehillat meaning congregation in Hebrew, s’dot meaning fields and zahav meaning gold. Howard said they realised there were enough Jews in the region to warrant a formal community.
Progressive Judaism is a branch of the religion that accepts the teachings of the torah (the five books of Moses) and applies them to modern life, emphasising that Jewish law is not static but must be engaged with in the context of the current environment. The Progressive movement is gender blind, racially blind,” Howard said.
kehillat s’dot zahav falls under the umbrellas of both Progressive Judaism Victoria and the international Union for Progressive Judaism.
“This is wonderful, because it connects us with a broader community – we don’t feel so isolated,” David Kram, current president of kehillat s’dot zahav, said. Those organisations give support through the provision of educational materials, rabbis and the like. Howard said this gave the group the ability to conduct conversions, marriages and other ceremonies according to Jewish process.
David said the kehillat s’dot zahav was made up of paid members – some of whom now lived further afield but remained part of the association – and served others in the community as well. There were people who observed Judaism as a religion, he said, while others did not practise but identified with it culturally.
In establishing the congregation, Sarah said she and Howard wanted to emphasise welcoming Jews and their families, including those members who were not Jewish. She said this shaped the events they held, with gatherings that were social activities and more formal occasions, although these too were conducted in an inclusive fashion that took into account people’s varying skills and Hebrew and their interest in religious aspects of Judaism.
There are not enough members of the Jewish community to support regular services, but kehillat s’dot zahav officially marks five occasions throughout the year and holds other events as desired by the community.
The most recent holiday observed by the Jewish community was chanukah (also spelled hanukkah), an eight-day celebration of liberation and joy. It is sometimes compared to Christmas, although its roots and meaning are different. The event, a ‘Festival of Lights’, marks the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem after it was reclaimed from the Seleucid Greeks.
In the second century BC, Jews led by Judah Maccabee ousted the Seleucids after a period of persecution. When the Maccabees entered the temple they found one vial of sanctified oil with which they could light a menorah, a seven-armed candelabra.
Tradition says that despite there being only enough oil for one day, it burned for eight – which is why chanukah is marked for eight days. Each night of chanukah, a candle on the candelabrum known as a chanukiot is lit.
In recognition of the miracle of the oil, the holiday is also celebrated by eating foods cooked in oil, including doughnuts and potato cakes (latkes). Last year chanukah began on December 22. Howard said chanukah was a happy occasion. “It celebrates the ability to practise the religion in an atmosphere of light and knowledge,” he said.
While chanukah is one of the better-known Jewish holidays, it is not the most significant. Howard said pesach (Passover) was the most important. Like chanukah, pesach celebrates freedom: it commemorates the liberation of Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led by Moses.
“It underscores the fact of human dignity; that it is better to be free and living in some difficulty, than it is to be comfortable as a slave,” Howard said. For Howard, Judaism gives his year structure and brings contemplation, introspection and a sense of community, an assurance that “life is not aimless, it’s not a random exercise”.
“I like the idea of Jewish continuity over 4000 years and I don’t think it’s my option to bring it to an end, so far as my family is concerned,” he said. Sarah said having an organised Jewish community in the region helped her feel connected to rituals and cycles of the year in a creative way.
“For me, it adds a lot of meaning, and having been a Melbourne resident for most of my life… I really noticed that was missing [in the region], to get together with other Jewish people,” she said. Growing up, David and his family were actively involved in their congregation in England.
He joined kehillat s’dot zahav in 2007 when Howard invited him to be on the founding committee, and took on the role of president about five years ago. “My feeling is to cater to the needs of those who feel Jewish or are Jewish, and want to feel the Jewish faith in their lives,” said.
He also sees contributing to interfaith understanding in the region as an important part of his role. Looking forward, he hopes to see more people – especially children and families – join the Jewish community. Sarah said she hoped the group would continue to host gatherings that would meet the interests and wishes of those currently involved in the community, while being welcoming to visitors and new arrivals to the region.
Howard describes Australia as the “golden land” of diversity. While there was still a way to go, he said Australia was more advanced than any other Western country in being accepting and welcoming, and Bendigo was especially so. “We are developing a tradition of inclusiveness, of diversity, celebrating diversity, instead of attempting to obliterate it,” he said.
Anyone who is Jewish or interested in Judaism can contact kehillat s’dot zahav by emailing Dr Kram at firstname.lastname@example.org. The group’s website is goldfieldsksz.org.
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