An epic journey
“I‘ve been on many road trips, but this Western Australia (WA) one was a completely different beast – because everything in Australia is just so far apart!” Rabbi Zelig Baumgarten recalled.
“According to the Rebbe’s call, you have to reach out to everyone – to all Jews – no matter how far they are.
“So, what will stay with me most from this huge trip is knowing that even in the most far-flung places, you will find Jewish people – and they have a thirst and a yearning to reconnect. They might just not have had an opportunity.”
The vastness of this continent, and the warmth of its people, were front of mind for Zelig, and his fellow young American visiting rabbi, Yisroel Krasnjanksi, when they set off from Melbourne in July in a giant campervan ‘Mitzvah Tank and Mobile Library’, on an almost 9000-kilometre round trip to WA, via South Australia, spanning 36 days.
As one Jewish person they met quipped, “They’d driven across the Nullarbor, looking for Jews, which would have been rarer than emu teeth out there.”
Yet upon arriving in Perth – and then doing a massive loop taking in Mandurah, Bunbury, Busselton, Margaret River, Denmark, Albany, Esperance and Kalgoorlie – the two rabbis met not only dozens of Jews already on Chabad of RARA’s WA contact list, but impressively, 25 new contacts.
For Yisroel, finding that many Jewish people, “in the most unlikely of places, and the way we met up with them, was, I believe, clearly divine”.
While each encounter was a special experience, if he had to pinpoint a particular highlight, Yisroel said it would be hard to go past meeting – and putting tefillin on – Rusty Geller and Ido Kasher, who both hail from in and around the coastal town of Mandurah, about an hour’s drive south of Perth.
The former had never before put on tefillin despite wanting to, and the latter hadn’t since he was 13, some 70 years ago.
“Being a retired cinematographer from Los Angeles, who migrated to Western Australia in 2003, Rusty is a real character,” Yisroel said.
“And we only met him because after we’d been at the Mandurah Forum shopping mall for a while, we were trying to find our way back to the car park but became lost, so we returned, and only then we were spotted by Rusty, who said ‘Shalom Aleichem’ to us!”
According to Rusty’s own recollection of that moment, his ‘jadar’ [his term for Jewish radar] went off when he saw a young man with a black beard, dressed in a suit, a yarmulke, and with tsitsit dangling down.
“The man introduced himself and Zelig, and we started talking like we’d known each other all our lives,” Rusty recalled.
“I’m an assimilated Jew … I feel my identity, but feel the spirit when I’m surrounded by the wonders of nature – that is my temple.
“Unfortunately I know no Jews in WA other than my two daughters – that’s why this encounter was extraordinary and such a mitzvah.”
Minutes after meeting, the rabbis put a kippah and tefillin on Rusty “and we were saying brachot right in the middle of the shopping centre”.
When Rusty told them that he had at home his grandfather’s tefillin – “likely bought around 1910 in Poland when he fled the pogroms” – the rabbis decided to visit him the next afternoon, to show him how to put it on, and to daven.
“I thank RARA for sending them out into the Australian wilderness and allowing me to connect to my Jewish roots,” Rusty said.
Yisroel said that at the mall, he and Zelig also spoke with a man named Sam, who had approached them to speak a few Hebrew words he’d learned over time from a friend at the mall.
It turns out that friend was 83-year-old Israeli native Ido Kasher, who Sam then phoned.
The next day, Ido – who moved to Mandurah 19 years ago but did not know of any other local Jews – met them at the mall and put on tefillin.
“A few days later, and with everyone pitching in, in the last minute, we held a beautiful Shabbat dinner for 15 people in Fremantle at the home of Chaya Bar-Noy,” Yisroel said.
“There were Jews from Fremantle, a woman from Brazil, a handful of Israelis, and we also invited Ido.
“Ido had not experienced a Shabbat dinner in a very long time, and I’ll never forget the moment when he walked into the dining room that was full of Jewish people, and his eyes nearly fell out – it meant that much to him.”
Zelig’s favourite moment happened outside a bakery in Margaret River’s main street, where the rabbis had parked their highly noticeable vehicle.
“We found that in regional Australia, we could be in the centre of a town for an hour or more and not meet anyone who was Jewish,” he said.
“So, we were taken aback in Margaret River when someone suddenly came to ask if our RARA Mitzvah-mobile was the same one that was in the Outback Rabbis documentary [that was directed by Danny Ben-Moshe and screened on SBS in its 2018 series Untold Australians].
“We confirmed it was, and after he introduced himself as Ben Kerr, he told us that about two years ago, he found out that both of his mum’s parents were Jewish, and he was keen to learn more about Judaism.”
That enthusiastic exchange led to Ben putting on tefillin for the first time in his life in the centre of Margaret River, and he couldn’t stop smiling.
Other highlights of their WA trip include visiting an elderly Jewish woman in Esperance named Sally, who showed them a photo of RARA rabbis when they dropped by her home in 2007.
Upon hearing that Sally enjoyed singing in a choir and listening to Klezmer music, Yisroel took it upon himself to play a Chassidic song on her piano, which she cherished.
And in the red dirt outback mining town of Kalgoorlie, the rabbis connected with a Jewish nurse, Sharon Palmer, who was on RARA’s contact list, but hadn’t seen another Jewish person for some time.
“I thank RARA for sending them out into the Australian wilderness and allowing me to connect to my Jewish roots.”
She was very appreciative of their visit, and told them about the town’s cemetery, which has a large Jewish section, with graves added until 1994, and from as far back as 1899 during the gold rush.
The rabbis went to the cemetery’s Jewish section during their stay, where they recited the traditional Tehillim prayers.
Summing up their trip, Zelig – who lives in New York – agreed with Yisroel that the many coincidences, and elements of luck, that connected them with Jewish people in the tiniest of towns dotting WA’s coastline, “we see as not coincidences, but through divine providence”.
“Each connection was special and meaningful, so I feel that all the miles we travelled, and the time and effort spent, has been totally worth it – just to have those moments,” he said.
“And for many people we met, they know now that if they have any Jewish-related questions, or need anything to celebrate the Jewish festivals, they can contact Chabad of RARA, access resources on its website, and keep in touch through receiving e-newsletters – to keep that sense of community going.”
Yisroel, whose parents have run Chabad of Hawaii for the past 35 years, is now starting a posting in Panama, and said he thoroughly enjoyed his time in regional Australia and would love to visit again sometime.
“Chabad is in my blood, and reaching out to Jews, wherever they are, is what I’ve been born and raised to do,” Yisroel said.
“What the Rebbe teaches us is that every Jewish person’s soul – their neshama – is alive, and always ready to be spiritually awoken. And I’ve seen that up close on this trip as much as I have anywhere in the USA.”
22 years of roaming the region
Rabbi Menachem Aron – who with his wife Shevi are the current directors of Chabad of RARA – said that like anyone else, Jewish people are attracted to live in the country for the beauty, the lifestyle and the affordability that regional Australia offers.
“But because of the distance and isolation from the rest of the Jewish community, it can be hard for them to maintain connection to Judaism, and Jewish life and culture,” he said.
“So when our visiting rabbis come through their town or region, even if only for a few days, it offers them that opportunity to reconnect.
“It’s one thing to connect with people via Zoom, but it really doesn’t compare to seeing someone in person – that’s a very different connection.
“Whether it is as simple as experiencing a Shabbat dinner, listening to the shofar being blown, having a mezuzah affixed to their door, or having a discussion with a rabbi – it really brings that home, and that’s precisely what RARA road trips enable.”
Rabbi Aron said another thing roaming rabbis try to do on road trips is connect people with other Jews who live in their region, if they would like to do so.
“This can form an important sense of community for them,” he said.
“We’ve had successes with that on many occasions, and just one example is assisting Jewish people in towns across the Blue Mountains keep in touch with each other, and they now have regular, well-attended, get-togethers during the major festivals.”