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So what brings Jews to Darwin?

Joseph Friedman
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Published: 27 October 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

There were just 91 Jews recorded in Darwin in the last census. JOSEPH FRIEDMAN, who moved up there recently, asks some what brought them to the Top End

ON A TYPICALLY OPPRESSIVE September night in Darwin, about 25 people have congregated around a large table in the garden of a modest home. The small foreign contingent includes a French-Israeli engineer, a young Swede and a smattering of Americans. Among the Australians are prosecutors and defence lawyers; doctors, dentists and speech therapists; full-time parents, graduates and retirees.

For the long-term locals, the dress code is casual: shorts and open shirts, Birkenstocks and summer dresses. The rest of us — new to the tropics and dressed to impress — wipe off the sweat with our napkins.

The mood is awkward, the small talk forced. When an invitation comes to sit, a shortage of chairs (quickly rectified) unleashes a torrent of excessive politeness: “No really, it’s fine, I like to stand.”

To an outsider, this would be an unusual gathering. But for the 25 Jews who have come to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, there is nothing unusual about it.

This private and informal dinner welcoming in the Jewish New Year is probably the largest annual gathering of Darwin’s Jewish community. Hundreds of Jewish families land in Darwin each year, but two weeks later — after some hiking and swimming in Kakadu, and a tour of Uluru at sunrise — it’s time to head home.

Only a few dozen remain.

For the past few months, I have been one of those few. I came here for an internship with the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, and recently, I set out to learn more about the members of Darwin’s Jewish community. What brings them here? What sends them home?

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Vida Goodvach has been here longer than most. Now 65 and retired, Vida left Melbourne for a teaching job in Katherine in 1984 and arrived in Darwin the following year.

“There’s a different energy here that you don’t get anywhere else,” she says. “The Aboriginal culture, the connection to country, the pulse, it’s got its own beat.”

Vida is relaxed, and content. Her street overlooks Darwin’s glorious Nightcliff foreshore. She swims with her club, rides along the coast, enjoys the heat and the absence of traffic. Her son lives in Amsterdam and her partner is a local. In truth, there’s little reason to go back.

And yet, “somehow I don’t think I’ll always be in Darwin,” she says. “My sense of self is a Jewish person — that doesn’t change.”

I ask Vida what Darwin’s Jews are missing. She says there’s no structure and no formal community. Most of the long-term members keep to themselves, and despite being here for more than 35 years, she “met a whole lot of people [she] didn’t know existed” at an event to consecrate a Jewish burial site last year.

The burial site was the brainchild of former nurse Gaye Schulz, who “realised that the Northern Territory was the only state [or territory] that didn’t have a designated Jewish cemetery.”
I ask Vida what Darwin’s Jews are missing. She says there’s no structure and no formal community. Most of the long-term members keep to themselves.

A Holocaust survivor had recently been cremated, and an elderly woman, Judy Miller, expressed concern to Gaye that she would go the same way. After two and a half years of lobbying, and “many letters and kvetching later, the cemetery was consecrated according to Jewish Law.”

Gaye and her husband are recent converts to Judaism. She “can’t really explain the need to be Jewish”, but part of it stems from her scepticism of the concept of Jesus — of God, who created everything, needing a son.

Ultimately, Judaism pulled Gaye away from Darwin. For a capital city it's really more of a town  – only 150,000 residents and correspondingly few big city amenities. When it comes to Jewish community infrastructure, there's a long list of absences. There’s no rabbi, no synagogue, no Chabad house, no community organisation.

When the Sydney Beth Din demanded their conversion take place in a community with access to Kosher food, a community that observed Shabbat and “with Jews … who want to be Jewish,” Gaye and her husband Ed departed. “I doubt we will be back,” she told me via Facebook from her home in Sydney.

So, who remains? Out of approximately 113,000 Australian Jews, a mere 91 were recorded in greater Darwin in the last census. And the real number is far lower. The community is transient, with many Israeli backpackers who come and go, and this year, never arrived. Current best estimates range from 40 – 60, many of whom live entirely non-Jewish lives.

Michelle Bezoza is new to the community — and one of its most active members. She and her husband Omri arrived earlier this year, with two kids and an esky filled with kosher meat. Over the past few months, their home has been a one-stop-shop for Shabbat dinners, challah collections and visits to what's probably the only Sukkah in Darwin. Their arrival revived a dormant Jewish community Facebook group and many are relishing the emergence of a young and active Jewish family.

If Michelle is the promising new recruit, Jordan Kolsky is the premium midfielder. Without exception, every person I spoke to mentioned him.

Twenty-nine and packed with vitality, Jordan came to Darwin to advance his career in dentistry. He tells me “the lifestyle is particularly enchanting here. The average age is under 30, the average temperature is over 30. It’s similar to being on holiday all the time.”

Jordan’s infectious humour and generous laugh draw people in, so it’s no surprise that his house quickly became an informal shelter for visiting Israelis. Later, Jordan would create the community Facebook group referred to above and organise and host the first Rosh Hashanah dinner.

Sadly, Michelle and Jordan won’t be here long. Michelle and Omri — whose premonition of an impending Melbourne lockdown was prescient — came to escape and live out the pandemic in a warmer climate. “My whole family and all my friends are in Melbourne”, she said. “I plan to return.”

Meanwhile, Jordan has “maxed out on the best things Darwin can offer.”

“I’m turning 30 next year,” he says. “I want to focus on family and be more settled.”

He can’t settle here?

“I’m plagued by a few barriers.” Most pressing, “the importance … to marry a Jew.” Jordan views Jewish identity as a privilege. “So many of our families died for that privilege,” he says. “I think it would be selfish to abdicate that for personal interest.”

Jordan will head back to Melbourne. Michelle and her family will likely follow, as will many of the young professionals who come for the freedom and career progression, but leave for family and stability back home.

Photo: Meal in Darwin to break the fast after Yom Kippur (Joseph Friedman)

 

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