Shabbat at Broken Hill

March 14, 2018 by Rabbi Shneur Reti-Waks
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Last week’s Parsha is a double-whammer and when combined it is the second longest portion in the entire reading cycle…writes Rabbi Shneur Reti-Waks.

Men from the Ark Centre at the Broken Hill’s ark

The entire reading in both sections is a retelling of every last detail to do with building of the Mishkan and its interior design, down to the last description of every garment to be worn by the priests that was already spelled out in great detail spread over two portions just two weeks ago! If detail confuses me and is liable to shut down my system with information overload, when the never-ending list of materials and technical actions gets repeated, I find myself on the brink.

Nonetheless, in the Parsha I find great inspiration and one which is particularly pertinent to the pilgrimage to Broken Hill from where I’m writing. What I find greatly inspiring is that the Torah refers to the builders, craftsman, and artisans involved with the building as wise-hearted and deeply inspired. The reference of wisdom alone appears about a dozen times in close proximity.

Why would the Torah refer to people who are building a house as inspired and wise? On a basic level you could say that the Torah considers art as a spiritual endeavour. If that is all we take away from it, Dayeinu! It would suffice, because I do have a belief that artistic expression is spiritual business and if more people were engaged in it there would be more chumus and less war in the world today.

Unfortunately though on the whole, the more religious one is the less likely they are to pay attention to the ‘secular’ arts. For the Torah to call the artists and craftsman inspired and wise should really make us rethink the notion that rabbis should be trained in a large bland study-hall totally enveloped by the colours black and white, literally and metaphorically.

But there is even a deeper lesson which right now as I sit in Broken Hill watching the sun rise over the far-flung outback town resonates profoundly. The question which might lead us there is what in the world am I doing here. Not just me either. A team from Ark, a group of 60 or so from the wider Jewish community, and the inspired generator and lubricator of the group Dr Howard Goldenberg. Why are we over the long weekend coming together in a dry dusty out of the way place without a natural body of water in sight?

It’s surely not for the architecture nor the flora and fauna. The town is overwhelmingly working class with most of the lucrative jobs gone with the mines which are now part of history. Corrugated iron seems to be the most used building material in town, now and always.

Plant life in town is asphyxiated by concrete, bricks, and other pavers. Trees are few and far between and green is a scarce colourful oasis on the backdrop of grey matter.  Even when you get out of town for a solitary walk in the bush you are immediately and intensely aware of the harsh conditions for plant and animal life. Though I did see some wild emus and some snakes, greater Broken Hill bushland could hardly be a destination for nature-lovers like yours truly.

Group shot

Why then are we here? The short answer is because over 100 years ago there were some gifted, wise, hard-working people who were staunchly connected to their religion and who were inspired to create a building dedicated to the spiritual well-being of their tiny community which over the course of the community being active numbered in the hundreds of souls. Their inspiration ensured that ten years after initial meeting in 1900 the foundation stone for the Shule in Wolfram Street was laid, that Broken Hill had rabbis like they did, that despite the constant struggle to survive, survive they did and thrive as well.

Even when the Shule closed permanently in 1962, the community had produced such characters as Alwyn Edelman and Harold Griff who were tenacious and unrelenting in their efforts to make sure that the memory of this Shule and the community that was once here, will not be forgotten. The turning of the Shule into the home of the Broken Hill Historical Society with the Shule as its finest artefact on display, is the truest testament that the inspiration of the founding fathers of this tiny far-flung community reverberates through the ages. How else can you explain the dedication and effort of 25 non-Jews to take an old decrepit building and restore it to its finest state in more than half a century? And that this project of which they are so proud gives them the greatest satisfaction, joy, and naches!

Of course Historical Societies are about remembering the past but in this instance it feels way more profound and intensely personal than that. After reading the account by Leon Mann in the book ‘Jews of the Outback’ though, I think it is no wonder. When you read of the characters like Frank Griff it is hard not to be moved by his generosity of spirit and wise leadership. Incidentally, he was one of 17 children and with whom for that reason I feel uniquely connected in madness. Or for that matter the Edelman clan who set roots in 1890’s lasting until the passing of the ‘last Jew in Broken Hill’ in 2005.

These people brimmed with courage and commitment to maintain the values of their religion and culture, all the while endearing themselves to the community at large. Most notably for me, when the miners 100 years ago were striking against their low pay and harsh working conditions which all too often resulted in terrible tragedy, it was the Jewish businesses who gave them credit, without interest, to continue surviving.

So the answer for what we are doing here is simply to be inspired. Inspired by the founders, the community, and the current guardians of this sacred place. Torah is about education. That’s what the word itself means. We are constantly instructed in the education of our children. This week the lesson for our children is the Broken Hill community past and present, Jewish and not, who are bound together by their common love of humanity and respect for history and tradition.

I am a deeply nostalgic human who loves everything old except dogma; there will no doubt be many moving moments as we relive a time that is now no more. A time when mateship was taken seriously. When the inter-connectedness of a town community was only rivalled by the Medicis in Renaissance Italy. It is surely this fact that helped create an everlasting sense amongst themselves and their descendants that actually their entire community was one extended family.

May the memory of the Broken Hill Jewish community arouse us to find the inspiration in our tradition and use it to lead exemplary lives filled with compassion, dedication, and mateship. This past Shabbat was the second Shabbat service held at the Shule since 1962. Over this past Shabbat, and through our four days of pilgrimage, we honour them.

Rabbi Shneur Reti-Waks is the spiritual leader of Melbourne’s Ark Centre

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