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Australian Jewish museums close, sport suspended, schools prepare

Dashiel Lawrence
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Published: 16 March 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

Sydney and Melbourne museums close, Jewish day schools remain open but will use remote teaching platforms if forced to close, community rallies to help isolated and older people

AUSTRALIAN JEWISH COMMUNAL LIFE could go into hiatus in the coming days as festivals cancel and synagogues, schools, sporting and cultural organisations prepare for the full-scale impact of COVID-19.

As of yesterday, Melbourne’s Orthodox Yeshivah-Beth Rivkah Colleges remains closed after a staff member and student tested positive to the virus. Other Jewish day schools in Sydney and Melbourne remain open but are preparing to move classes online.

Melbourne’s King David School Principal Marc Light said in a statement: “Our teachers are continuing to prepare for a possible school closure when we would implement our distance learning model.  Students are to be reminded of the importance of bringing home vital materials and particularly their laptop and charger (Years 6-12) on a daily basis.”

Sydney’s Emanuel School has adopted a similar position: “We have developed a plan for alternate (online) education delivery methods, in the event of a school closure. This is a key plank in the strategy post-school closure.”

Moriah College, Sydney’s biggest Jewish day school, remains open but it too is preparing for possible online education. A spokesperson told The Jewish Independent on Monday: “The college has been in regular contact with staff members and parents. Should the college close, our Moriah B’yachad online platforms are ready to deliver distance education to all students.”

Mount Scopus College principal, Rabbi James Kennard, would not publicly comment on Sunday, saying the situation was “too fluid”. Bialik College (also in Melbourne) could not be reached in time for publication.

Australia’s orthodox rabbinate has yet to call for synagogue services or public gatherings to be cancelled. Rabbinic Council of Australia and New Zealand (RCANZ) President Rabbi Yaakov Glasman told The Jewish Independent:

"Jewish Law requires us to seek and heed advice from medical experts. At the same time, we caution against panicking and note that the mass hysteria we've witness by some in the community can have far more deleterious effects on people's health that the virus itself.

“The RCANZ encourages the Australian Jewish and wider community to follow advice from our local health authorities and to mitigate the risks of infection just as they should during the flu season and any other time during which people are at higher risk."

The Union for Progressive Judaism (UPJ) will carry on this week with planned events involving visiting Rabbi David Saperstein. In a statement, UPJ co-presidents David Knoll and Brian Samuel, said: “The escalating health risk associated with Covid-19 (Coronavirus) is obviously causing much concern, and we have carefully re-evaluated our plans.

“For now, our programming will continue. After consulting widely and appropriately we have determined that our events are not of a size or diversity that warrant cancellation.”

Late on Monday evening Australia's largest congregation, Emanuel Synagogue, announced it would cancel all services and events effective immediately. The Woollahra-based congregation in Sydney's east has more than 3,500 members and offers multiple programs and services.

Cremorne Synagogue, a small Orthodox congregation in Sydney’s north shore, is working to assist people in isolation. In a statement released on Monday the rabbi of Cremorne, Chaim Koncepolski, said he was arranging a group of volunteers to assist with grocery shopping and collection of prescriptions for members of the community in isolation or self-quarantined.

Melbourne Jewish Book Week, due to be held 2-7 May, has been cancelled. Festival Director Nicolas Brasch apologised but said: “In making this decision, we are putting the health and safety of our community, writers, volunteers, audience members and other guests above all other considerations. We want to ensure that no one feels obligated to participate in, or attend, MJBW, when their instincts and rationale indicate otherwise.”

The festival plans to return in 2021.

The Jewish Museum of Australia, in St Kilda, is closed as of yesterday. Director and CEO Jessica Bram said: “In light of the Victorian Government’s declaration of a state of emergency, the Jewish Museum of Australia will close from today, with all upcoming events and education programs postponed. By closing, we believe we can best protect our team and the wider community.” No date has been given for reopening.

The Sydney Jewish Museum will temporarily close from today, March 17, until March 31. All events and education programs in this period are cancelled or postponed.

Meanwhile, the Lamm Jewish Library in Melbourne will remain open to the public for borrowing and use of other resources, but all activities and events have been cancelled until further notice.

Victoria’s largest grass roots Jewish community organisation was taking no chances on Monday. Maccabi Victoria has temporarily put on hold many of its programs and recommend to affiliated clubs to suspend all competition and training schedules until further notice.

Maccabi Victoria President Brian Swersky said: “We take our leadership role very seriously. This is an unprecedented situation and we are acting on the best advice available to preserve the health and well-being of our members, volunteers and broader community. The situation is ’fluid’ and we are prepared to respond quickly to changing needs.”

Maccabi NSW is yet to release a formal statement. However, General Manager Daniel Krester said training and competition for the following sports has been postponed or cancelled: basketball, netball and swimming. Tennis weekend competitions have been suspended.

In golf, the President’s Cup in Perth planned for this weekend has been postponed. Football (seniors and juniors) is awaiting advise from Football NSW. Training and competition for Rugby, Tenpin bowling and lawn bowls will continue.

Jewish Care Victoria, the Jewish community’s largest aged care facilities and in-home care services, says it is taking all necessary precautions in accordance with the Department of Health requirements for aged care providers.

The organisation has assembled a special internal taskforce to “constantly monitor and respond to the situation.”

Its statement says: “We are doing all we can to ensure the safety of our elders, staff, volunteers and clients, including the establishment of a dedicated Covid-19 Emergency Response Group with designated authority to respond immediately to developments in order to limit the impacts of Covid-19 on our clients, their families and friends, as well as our staff and volunteers.”

There is a website for clients and families to stay updated. 

Jewish Care NSW, which operates aged care services in Sydney, did not respond to requests for updates.

About the author

Dashiel Lawrence

Dr Dashiel Lawrence is the Executive Director of TJI. A graduate of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Melbourne, he has been writing about Australia's Jewish diaspora for 15 years. His books include Australia and Israel: A Diasporic, Political and Cultural Relationship (2015) and People of the Boot: The Triumphs and Tragedy of Australian Jews in Sport (2018).

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