Editorial, July 1, 2011
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Editorial, July 1, 2011

Lessons from Massada

THE demise of Adelaide’s Massada College has been a long time coming, but for the past few years, as enrolments dwindled, supporters of the tiny Jewish day school steadfastly clung to the belief it would survive.

There was a cash infusion from mining magnate Joseph Gutnick in 2009, the sale of a sports oval, plans to merge with another school and an alumni association tried building a donor base.

But none of these measures could keep the school  afloat indefinitely. The writing was truly on the blackboard when the 36-year-old college entered administration in January under the burden of massive debts. Administrator KordaMentha has now announced it will close on July 8.

When the college had a near-death experience in 2009, Jewish Community Council of South Australia president Norman Schueler offered a diagnosis. Adelaide’s Jewish population was around 2000 when Massada was founded in the 1970s. The population has halved since then. What’s more, he argued more than 45 per cent of the community today is over 60.  And with many young Jews routinely leaving for greener Jewish pastures in Melbourne and Sydney, he said Massada exported its best and brightest, at the same time depriving its rollcall of new generations of pupils.

But the sobering consensus among Jewish leaders is that Massada did not collapse only because Adelaide has a small community, but because not all the community enrolled their children there.

The closure raises some urgent issues. Adelaide Hebrew Congregation (AHC), which has deliberately not run a cheder so as not to duplicate some of Massada’s services, is now scrambling to take over a string of bar mitzvah preparations. But what of the long term? Adelaide’s communal leaders agree local Jewish education is not negotiable. AHC is mulling a purchase of the school property to establish a multi-purpose facility, which would include Jewish education services, while Progressive congregation Beit Shalom may see a rise in enrolments at its religion school.

Stephen Rothman, co-chair of the Australian Council of Jewish Schools, confirms there are no subsidy provisions between Australia’s Jewish schools. However, cross-subsidy programs may well deserve a closer look now, in order to safeguard other small and outlying Jewish schools.

Fighting for our rites

THERE are any number of religious and cultural practices, ranging from sharia law to genital mutilation, that are rejected in Australia. Slaughter without stunning should be one of them.”

It’s hard to know what was more disturbing about the conclusion of the editorial in the Sunday Age last weekend – the fact that a call for a ban on shechita should be made in a mainstream newspaper or the reference to “genital mutilation” in the same breath. Many reading the piece, will have no doubt imagined four extra words after reading the last line: “Slaughter without stunning should be one of them … and so should circumcision.”

The reality, of course, is that neither of these fundamental tenets of Judaism are facing an imminent threat in Australia. There is no indication that the voices raised by those campaigning against these rituals are being heeded in the corridors of power, where Jewish communal concerns traditionally fall on friendly ears. However, the favourable status we enjoy as a community should not give rise to complacency. Just a few short months ago across, a report into slaughter without stunning helped fuel a ban on shechita across the Tasman.

Likewise, several European countries regarded as havens of tolerance have passed laws outlawing kosher religious slaughter or limiting its practice, among them Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Norway. And just this week, Jews in Holland saw their parliament voting in favour of a ban.

All this despite well-documented testimony from a number of highly- respected experts vouching for the fact that shechita is no less humane, or indeed more humane. than other methods of slaughter.

Circumcision is likewise facing well-publicised challenges casting shadows over the practice of brit milah. San Francisco is set to hold a referendum to determine whether it should be banned, while a group in the UK this week urged the British Medical Association to condemn it. Even Russell Crowe has weighed into the debate, tweeting that circumcision is “barbaric”.

At this time, of course, there is no indication that our legislators are planning to debate either shechita or circumcision. But we could have said the same not that long ago about Israel boycotts.

If there’s one thing we have learned from recent events in Marrickville, there are individuals – either with an agenda or well-intentioned but misinformed – who are able to get such issues on the agenda  and mobilise support for their cause. In short, we must be on our guard lest we be forced into the same fight for our religious rites as our cousins across the globe.

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