New Zealand has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic better than most places. Under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the country pursued an elimination strategy, with just 5,000 cases in a population of nearly 5 million, and fewer than 30 deaths.
However, for the approximately 6,000 Jews living in New Zealand, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about some unexpected complications.
A tiny Jewish community, spread out across the country, Kiwi Jews rely on Australia—the nearest large Jewish community—for many basic Jewish services including ritual slaughter, conversion, and circumcision. Since the onset of the pandemic, with both Australia’s and New Zealand’s borders closed, Kiwi Jews have found themselves in the lurch. Services that they had been able to rely on from Australia for many decades were suspended as flights between the countries dried up and both countries effectively sealed their borders.
Rabbi Avrohom Krinsky has worked as a shochet in Melbourne, Australia, for the past 30 years. For the past 25 years he has taken a four-hour flight annually to New Zealand to slaughter kosher chickens and lambs for the community. “I usually stay one or two nights in New Zealand, shecht [slaughter] 1,200 or 1,300 chickens and 100-odd lambs and then return home to Melbourne,” he said. This would suffice the Jewish community in New Zealand until the following year, when Krinsky’s next trip would replenish the country’s kosher meat reserves.
According to Krinsky, it has been many months since New Zealand ran out of kosher chickens. “The last time I was there was just before the pandemic began, more than 18 months ago, in February 2020, right before the borders of both countries closed,” he said. While the freight system between Australia and New Zealand is still working, and Australian kosher butchers have been able to send over frozen beef and meat products to the Kiwi Jewish community, New Zealand has notoriously strict biosecurity laws and does not allow any imported poultry into the country. So, while there is some kosher meat available, according to Krinsky, “I was told last Passover that the only people in New Zealand who had kosher chickens were those who had stored them in their own private freezers since my last trip in February 2020.”
Starting in April 2021, there was a very brief period in which a travel bubble opened, allowing Australians and New Zealanders to travel between the two countries, quarantine-free, because at the time both had eliminated any community transmission of the virus. With rising cases in Australia and sporadic outbreaks in New Zealand, the bubble has since been closed and it looks set to be this way for the next few months at least.
When the bubble first opened, Krinsky considered traveling to New Zealand to help replenish the kosher chicken supplies in the country, but ultimately decided he couldn’t risk getting stuck in quarantine on either side of the border. “I really thought about it,” he said, “but in Australia and New Zealand, if they find one or two cases, then the borders shut within a few hours, and they retroactively institute quarantine, meaning I would have had to spend two weeks in hotel quarantine, which would have been difficult for me.”
At the best of times, even when a shochet can get to New Zealand, there is still limited supply of available kosher meat, with a hefty price tag, so for most people, it’s usually considered a treat. But these are not the best of times, and what was once a treat is now a rare find. As one Kiwi Jew recently told me, “I miss chicken so much, sometimes I dream of eating it.”
Chickens aren’t the only things in short supply.
On the first day the travel bubble opened between the countries in April, Rabbi Moshe Gutnick, the head of the Orthodox Beth Din in Sydney, took one of the first flights out of Australia to New Zealand to convert Kiwi Jews. The Sydney Beth Din oversees Orthodox conversions in New Zealand, and will not authorize a conversion unless one of the judges from the Beth Din is present. When it is not a pandemic, Gutnick usually makes two or three trips per year to New Zealand and converts about five or six people per year. On this trip, along with Rabbi Tal of Wellington and Rabbi Friedler of Auckland, he converted 18 people—the youngest a new baby and the oldest over 80.
“It was an extraordinary day,” said Gutnick. “I have had none like it in all my years on the Beth Din; the unadulterated joy on the faces of these people because they had merited to come ‘under the divine wings of the shechina [God’s presence]’ was an inspiration to behold.”
The prospective converts, who had been waiting in some cases for more than a year, were excited to finalize their conversion after a lengthy delay. With a small Jewish population scattered across the country, according to Gutnick “a minyan is not an easy thing to come by in Auckland on a weekday,” but during this visit, he said, “we converted four men on that day, and we made a minyan right afterward,” which was exciting for the community.
Grant Mackie, his wife, and their three children, including their 4-month-old baby were part of the group conversion that day. The family had been scheduled to convert around March 2020 after a two-year process but had been unable to do so due to border closures caused by the pandemic. “When we got the call in April 2021 that the travel bubble had opened up and we were going to be able to go to the mikvah [to finalize our conversion], it was very surreal,” he said. “It was great in many ways, we had so many friends who were part of the journey, who came along that day to join the conversion, so it wasn’t just us, or our little family doing our own little thing, it was fun to be a part of a really big group.”
Another area of life that is greatly affected by the border closures has been the ability to perform brit milah [circumcision] on Jewish baby boys born in New Zealand. With no current dedicated mohel in New Zealand, the country has traditionally relied on Australian mohels who fly into the country for the day.
Living in Melbourne, Hershel Goldman is a registered Australian doctor who has been flying to New Zealand for the past 30 years to perform circumcisions. He estimates that prior to COVID-19 he would fly three to five times per year to circumcise babies in the country. “In New Zealand, a circumcision must be performed by a registered doctor, so I would apply to become a registered New Zealand doctor for the day,” he said. “I would fly into the country from Australia, perform the circumcision and then fly home.”
But with borders closed during the pandemic and no local mohel, this process came to a halt. Rabbi Natti Friedler of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation faced a serious hurdle—as a rabbi and a father. “Our son was born in July 2020. Already the borders were shut, and it was months after the pandemic started,” he said. “Usually, we would fly in Dr. Goldman, but that was not possible this time as there were no flights between Australia and New Zealand. The Bnei Akiva shlichim in New Zealand [who work at Friedler’s synagogue], had a baby in March 2020 and when my son was born in July, they had still not been able to circumcise their son for months due to this problem.”
Friedler was keen to find a solution. “The idea that my son would not be circumcised at 8 days of age and with no set date as to when he could be circumcised was very difficult for me,” he noted. After consulting with the Sydney Beth Din and Australian mohel Rabbi Elisha Greenbaum, a solution was found.
“After many Halachic consultations,” said Friedler, “it was found that three parts of the circumcision need to be completed by someone who is shomer mitzvot”—a person observant of Jewish law, who is usually the mohel. “I was able to find a non-Jewish doctor who does circumcision for the general public in New Zealand; he understood how important brit milah is to Jewish people and although he does not usually perform circumcision in accordance with Jewish customs, he was prepared to supervise me doing the three parts I had to and then complete the rest of the circumcision.”
While this was Friedler’s fourth son, this was the first time he was performing the actual circumcision himself, albeit under medical supervision. “I had been to three of my sons’ circumcisions, but this time it was a completely different experience,” he said. “I felt that Eliyahu HaNavi [the prophet Elijah] was next to me as I held the knife and made the cut.”
Friedler was thus able to circumcise his son on time and paved the way for the Bnei Akiva shlichim in Auckland to also circumcise their son after months of delay.
“From this challenging situation, we actually have a solution to a longstanding issue in New Zealand,” Friedler reflected. “For years we had a problem, if a circumcision was on Shabbat or the mohel in Australia was busy, it would usually get postponed or pushed off, but now we have a local solution.”
So, while it may yet be a while before flights between Australia and New Zealand resume, with ongoing border closures predicated for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t mean the Jewish community there isn’t thriving despite the hardships. The most recent Jewish community winter camp, run by Zionist youth movement Bnei Akiva in New Zealand, had over 120 participants, which is one of the largest ever Jewish camps in the history of the country.
“In New Zealand, practicing Judaism requires a lot of effort, and people in established Jewish communities like Australia, America, or Israel need to realize how lucky and privileged they are,” said Friedler. “However, living in New Zealand, you also have extra appreciation for the work required to live a Jewish life, especially when you look at the kosher chicken on your plate, you understand just how much work went into providing that for you to enjoy.”
Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.