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My Month in the Hands of the Lubos

One of the nice things about growing up as a little Jewish boy in Sydney, Australia, was that, even though the Jewish community was not all that religious, we were strongly traditional. A vast majority of our kehilla came from religious families in Central Europe. Here, in their new country, many of these Europeans started their own little shules where they employed rabbis and other clergy from their former homelands. They would spend a lot of money (which at that stage they didn't have) developing these synagogues, even relocating clergymen from other parts of the world in order to preserve the type of Judaism they knew from home. Thus they continued their style of Judaism.

We knew of Hungarian Jewry, Lithuanian, Polish, German and English. We knew a bit about hassidim, but there were not too many of chassidic Jews in Sydney then. The Melbourne Jewish community was similar in structure, although the old "Australian" segment there was a little larger. (The Jewish population in Melbourne throughout my childhood was about 25% larger than that in Sydney.) Some of the German Jews gravitated to the small Liberal (that's what Reform Judaism was called in Australia) place, but for the large part, even the non-religious preferred to be married, buried, barmitzvahed and remember their murdered parents in the orthodox synagogues.

They used to say that Melbourne was warmer and friendlier than Sydney (they could never claim that about the weather) because Melbourne "got the Polish Jews and Sydney the Hungarians". I believe there was probably some truth in this statement, but Melbourne did have a Hungarian synagogue (the Adass Yisroel) and Sydney wasn't short of Poles either. The Polish and Lithuanian Jews spoke Yiddish, which was not just a language but a Jewish culture -- the Magyars did not. Due largely, I believe, to this European background, combined with the "first generation after the holocaust" mentality which we bore, almost like the ancient mariner's albatross, intermarriage, right through into the seventies was very low [even in absolute terms], especially when compared to other Jewish communities worldwide.

Nowadays this has all changed. The second and third generation of the holocaust survivors doesn't bear our guilt complexes and the large influx of Jews from South Africa (who were all at least third generation out off Europe) has changed the traditions. This is offset by the baal tshuva (returnes to the fold of Orthodox Judaism) movement [they call it a movement, but I think that's deceptive term]. The community today very different to what it was. I find it difficult to visit, but nearly thirty years in Israel I have seen a different and very real Judaism. [Now that's certainly a topic for the future.]

Another factor that has had a very strong influence on Australian Jewry is Lubavitch (a.k.a. Chabad). Having originated in a town by the same name [actually Lyubavichi -- close enough for them], the base of this hassidic sect ended up in New York's suburb of Crown Heights in 1940 following a short sojourn in Warsaw. The Rebbe, as the sect leader was fondly known, was famous for sending his students to the far flung corners of the earth. Australia was "targeted" in the fifties.

The Lubo influence grew over the years, and in Sydney today, it is a rare congregation whose rabbi doesn't originate from this grouping. I believe that their effect on Sydney has been a mixed blessing. I won't discuss today why, but I will say that they are an amazing propaganda machine [not all propaganda is bad], sometimes very subtle and sometimes almost brute force, like an oncoming bullroarer (even we Jews learn from the Australian Aboriginal culture).

In the late 1960's, the Lubavichers opened a Yeshiva, "an institute of Jewish religious learning where students study the sacred texts, primarily the Talmud", in Melbourne. Perhaps misnamed Yeshiva Gedola (the great academy) it was located in really beautiful premises in the "Jewish" suburb of St Kilda. The large building was surrounded (initially) by well kept grounds, set well back from the road; an unusual, quiet refuge right in the middle of suburbia. This was the only post high school institute of higher Jewish learning in Australia.

The head of the institute was a very charming Russian Rabbi, who was scion of an old Lubavich family, who had lived in Australia for a number of years. His deputy was an American import who was married to an Australian-born lady also from one of the "old" families. The remainder of the staff were six American bachelors who took turns to come to Melbourne on two year stints.

On finishing high school, those of us who were members of Bnei Akiva, wanted to spend the year in Israel. We had a number of options. Many spent the year based on Kibbutz Shluchot, at the north end of the Jordan Rift Valley on a program called hachshara, preparation [for life in Israel -- a misnomer because by then the kibbutz population was less than 4% of the national total]. Others, like me, wanted to spend the year studying in an Israeli Yeshiva. Of course, my post-Holocaust mother, who didn't let me go on school excursions in primary school, lest I fall out of the bus window or overboard from the ferry, wouldn't hear of it. Some other parents also weren't too keen. I went straight to the University of NSW to study electrical engineering (the mistake of my life for more than one reason). Three guys from my class, Poche, Pinky and Porky went to Melbourne, to Y.G.. Porky though not "officially" a Lube yet, was looking forward to becoming one (and still is today). Poche only went there because he wasn't allowed to go to Israel about which he had spoken non-stop for the previous two years and even had a place waiting for him. He swore to us that he only went to YG to learn Talmud and had no interest in the Tanya, the philosophic work of the first Luavich Rebbe, (a.k.a. the Alter Rebbe) nor other hassidic works. Pinkie was somewhere in between -- I think he was in a bit of personality crisis or should I say search [many of us were -- it's normal at that age] -- he wasn't one of them, and he also wasn't allowed to go to Israel.

I had very good relations with the Lube rabbis in Sydney and used to learn with them. Some of them back then were excellent teachers and knew the textual material well. One of them "convinced" me to go to Melbourne during the summer holidays at the end of first year uni. I spent five weeks there. I knew all along that I was being "targeted" as a "recruit". And why wouldn't they go for me. I was smart and intelligent, I was a leader and I was influential, well known in the Zionist youth movements, especially in Bnei Akiva. In fact, I had just been appointed, at quite a young age, to be head (merakez) of the Sydney movement. The Bnei Akiva emissary at the time, Gad, was petrified when I announced my intention for a study break. He too knew why they were "encouraging" me to go. He was about to leave Sydney after a two year stint, and no replacement had yet been appointed (it took another ten moths until Ari arrived). So I would have a double job to do. And I was about to be indoctrinated by the anti-zionists! But I looked forward to the opportunity and the experience. (No matter what I say from here on, I want to say that I have never regretted my short time there, and consider the effect positive.)

I arrived in Melbourne and was warmly greeted by the old Randwick trio, Poche, Pinky and Porky. Porky, as was to expected, was by now a dye-in-wool Lubavitcher. Pinky was well on his way; and Poche. who on his last trip to Sydney told me he would never become a Lubo, just someone who thought they were nice, positive people, was also heading that way. This was disconcerting.

I enjoyed learning down there. We learnt Gemara Kedushin, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, and even some Habad Hassidus (philosophy). They tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent me from going to Bnei Akiva on shabbat; I always went, even for prayers on the Sabbath. But I was singled out for "special" treatment -- indoctrination. I was invited to the mashgiach's, (the number two man in the yeshiva hierarchy) house for Friday night dinner twice in the four shabbatot I was there. It was rare to be invited to his house. Apart from preventing me from going to my Bnei Akiva friends, it was a chance for close informal discussions. But his wife, who not much older than me, and knew a lot of people from Sydney who I also knew, had fun catching up on where they all were now and what they were up to. She had spent the last few years in the States and as a result, lost contact with most. I think she and I played more Jewish geography that he had a chance to exert an influence on me.

I was often called over during the weekdays for "special" discussions. It was usually two of the Americans with me. Their aim was to show me the righteousness of the Lubavitch way as opposed to the Bnei Akiva way. What was unfortunate for them was that they were working on incorrect assumptions. For some reason we members of B.A. were stereotypical in their eyes. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is nothing stereotypical about me (as you are probably gathering from my stories). Of course I also knew they were receiving instructions and background information from Sydney. One thing you have to say about Lubavich is, they are well structured and well organised.

One of the "funniest" (strangest) discussions was related to the Messianic status of Rabbi Schneerson, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the then Lubavitcher Rebbe. Remember, we are talking about February, 1972. This discussion was split into three sessions. They wanted the material presented to me each time to sink in before continuing on with further information. Why I say remember this is early 1972, because for those of you who know anything about Lubavitch, this was way before the sudden Lubavich "great interest" in the Rambam (Maimonides) and even a few years before the "Rebbe is Mashiach" campaign. This juxtaposition between Schneerson and the Saviour was not made publicly until a few years later, and they very certainly made a point of telling me to keep this "under my hat" and not discuss this disclosure with anyone living at the time on the face of the earth.

Now why did they want me not reveal this? Simple really. Remember, everything in this slick organisation was top down. These emissaries only "taught" what they were told to teach, and their handlers similarly, all the way to the top echelon. This kind of radical idea could only come from the boss himself. And the Moshiach campaign was coming -- but it was still undeveloped, in preparation. These fellows were allowed to use it on us Zionists at this early point of time because they thought (in hindsight how wrong they were) that zionism was a messianic movement. The modern day return to Israel was part of the messianic dream. (See Rabbis Yehuda Alkali, Zvi Hirsch Kalisher, Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin [the Netziv], Rav Kuk, Rav Herzog and many others.)

My friends argument centred on the last two chapters of the Rambam's Yad HaChzaka, also call the Mishneh Torah. Here Maimonides discusses the laws of kings and specifically future King of Israel, the mashiach. [Interesting these chapters of the Rambam are also Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook's "favourites", but I never heard of any personal pretensions on his side.] Their big point was that the Rambam says that the messiah will fight God's wars [not exactly what it says, but my Hebrew wasn't too good then]. The Rebbe was very involved at that point in time in the "the" religious-secular battle in Israel: "Who is a Jew", (re)defining the Israeli Law of Return which gives every Jew in the world the right to "return" home to Israel and automatically and immediately to receive Israeli citizenship. [There have been a few examples where the law wasn't applied, for example in the case of Meyer Lansky who arrived here in the seventies to avoid U.S. tax evasion charges -- he lasted two years before deportation.] The question was not the Law itself, but to whom, according to the law, the word Jew referred. The Rebbe (and many others) wanted the interpretation of the Law to be the halachic ruling, that only someone born of Jew mother or converted by an Orthodox cout be considered Jewish.

It is interesting to note that the Lubos stopped using this argument by the time the Moshicah campaign was set in motion. By then they didn't feel they needed to make an argument -- it was "obvious" and presented that way.

I finished my few weeks in Melbourne, led Bnei Akiva without a black kippa on my head, nor a permanent beard (that came 18 months later). Interestingly the Rabbi in Sydney who influenced me to go to Melbourne finally realised that I wasn't going be a clone, and was my own man. But it was he who convinced me a few years later to spend some time in Yeshiva, "in Israel" [his words] "any yeshiva you choose". I ended up at the hesder (combined army and learning program) yeshiva in Kiryat Arba, at the same time Rav Dov Lior came to Hevron to head the academy. It was an exciting year that led to another year at Yeshivat Mercaz haRav in Yerushalyim a few years later. All very distant from the Lubavitch lifestyle and approach to Judaism.

But I do owe Rabbi Feldman a deep debt of gratitude.

Please feel free to and don't forget to stop by my site to look at my latest (and classic) photographs.


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