IN some parts of Australia, many Jewish people only interact with other Jews once or twice a year when the rabbis from Chabad of Rural and Regional Australia (RARA) come to visit.
The occasions are always cause for celebration – and even more so this month as Chabad of RARA celebrates its 20-year anniversary.
“We’ve been telling everyone about the 20 years, and it’s always good to celebrate, but we are doing our work regardless of the celebrations,” said Chabad of RARA’s director, Rabbi Menachem Aron, who is based in Melbourne with his wife, Shevi, and their daughter Chaya Mushka.
“We have four guys on the road now – two in NSW and two in Victoria, and they are meeting many families in a safe way.
“Many people in the last few months have been very isolated and lonely … A lot has been happening online, but there is nothing like an in-person visit.”
RARA’s founder, Saul Spigler, first hit the road in his 20s, when he began travelling to Geelong from Melbourne. At age 22, he and a few friends took a mitzvah tank around Australia for four weeks.
“I saw the massive impact of visiting people and coming to their homes and how they welcomed us and appreciated what we were doing,” he said.
After his mother passed away 20 years ago, Spigler officially founded Chabad of RARA as he hoped “to do something in her dedication. It has grown and grown since then.”
Spigler noted that Chabad of RARA has increased its database from about 500-700 people in its early days to 4000 people today.
“We’ve had some amazing stories over the years of antisemitism that people have [been subjected to], and they’ve been defiant and walked around wearing a yarmulke, and they’re not even remotely religious. We’ve had Holocaust survivors in the most incredible places who tell us their story.”
Chabad of RARA now comprises the Arons, Rabbi Ari and Mushkie Rubin in Cairns, Rabbi Mendel and Esty Khutoretsky in the Sunshine Coast, Rabbi Yossi and Malki Rodal in Newcastle, and a handful of additional roving rabbis.
Since 2018 when the documentary Outback Rabbis screened on SBS – before becoming available on international platforms – Chabad of RARA has increased its reach and presence.
“We’ve seen many more people around Australia reach out to various other Jewish organisations and say, ‘I never knew I was Jewish until I saw the film’, commented Rabbi Rubin. “We are still having people stop us and say they saw it on TV and it’s impacting their lives.”
While official celebrations for the 20-year anniversary have been postponed due to the pandemic, a celebratory dinner in Melbourne is on the cards for a couple of months’ time, pending the easing of social distancing restrictions.
In the Sunshine Coast, Rabbi Rubin and Spigler marked the anniversary on a Zoom conference call with those who have played a significant role in developing the Cairns Jewish community.
Speaking of RARA’s humanitarian work, Rabbi Rodal said that “a lot of the people we visit are lonely, in poverty and abject circumstances”, detailing how RARA has helped many people affected by the bushfires.