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Once on This Island

For Australia’s small but growing Jewish community in Tasmania, celebrating Sukkot poses some unique obstacles

by
Nomi Kaltmann
October 07, 2022
Courtesy Chabad of Tasmania
Rabbi Yochanan and Rebbetzin Rochel Gordon's traveling sukkahCourtesy Chabad of Tasmania
Courtesy Chabad of Tasmania
Rabbi Yochanan and Rebbetzin Rochel Gordon's traveling sukkahCourtesy Chabad of Tasmania

Tasmania, the Australian island off the coast of the larger Aussie mainland, is used to being overlooked. There is a well-known phenomenon of world maps leaving off the island, which has a population of half a million people. However, for people who have had the pleasure of visiting or living in Tasmania, it is often described as one of the most beautiful and serene places in the world, with picturesque views, bountiful wildlife, and unique species found nowhere else in the world, including Tasmanian devils (like Taz of Looney Tunes fame).

The island also has Australia’s two oldest continuously operating synagogues, serving a Jewish community of 376 people. Living in Tasmania requires extra stringencies for the Jewish community, however, particularly around Sukkot. Visitors are unable to bring fruit and plant material to Tasmania without a permit. This is due to the island’s unique ecosystem, which—like that of New Zealand—is at severe risk of being adversely affected by foreign plant diseases, whose importation is tightly controlled.

Rabbi Yochanan Gordon and his wife, Rebbetzin Rochel, are the directors of Chabad in Tasmania, serving the community from Launceston. Each year, they oversee the importation of lulav and etrog sets for the whole Tasmanian Jewish community.

“We have to get an approval for the hadassim,” said Rabbi Gordon, referring to the myrtles used in lulavs. “We have to get a special exemption from the minister, because there is myrtle rust, a plant disease.” Each year, the rabbi and his wife start preparing for Sukkot weeks in advance in order to apply for the permit to import the four species used in the holiday’s rituals. Usually, Rabbi Gordon is granted a permit for 13 months, which, if timing works out, usually covers two years of Sukkot. The sets are imported from Melbourne, the closest large Jewish community.

On average, around 12 to 13 sets are ordered for the entire island. “We start taking orders a month before the festival. If people do not order when we are doing it, its almost impossible to get a set into Tasmania,” said Rabbi Gordon. “We have to order the sets from a particular supplier in Melbourne who knows the paperwork. We also have a good relationship with the Tasmanian Department of Agriculture.”

Usually, Rabbi Gordon orders the lulav and etrog sets for the entire Jewish community in Tasmania, including the Hobart Hebrew Congregation, a 2 1/2-hour drive from Launceston.

“Each year, our community is granted a special exemption from the minister of parks and wildlife,” he said. “Then, you need to provide a notice of intention, that we will be bringing in myrtles with the shipment.”

The lulavs and etrogs then arrive at Tasmania’s airport, where the rabbi and his wife personally collect the goods. At the end of Sukkot, he said, “we give them back to the quarantine office at the airport.”

While living in Tasmania can be challenging around Sukkot, the overall community is experiencing a resurgence in Jewish population, and of late, is booming.

In a recent boost to population, the 2021 Australian census recorded that since the last Australian census in 2016, the population has seen a 50% increase from 250 Jews to 376.

The Jews who are moving to Tasmania come for a variety of reasons and include retirees who want a quiet life on the picturesque island, couples who are drawn to the island for work, and families who are looking to buy houses that are significantly cheaper than they are in other Australian cities like Sydney or Melbourne. Despite the massive increase in numbers, Rabbi Gordon says the census is vastly undercounting the true numbers. “At the rate we find Jews, I estimate there are at least 1,000 Jews in Tasmania,” he said. “I went on the website and clicked on each city where the census recorded ‘no Jews’ in Tasmania, but I personally know Jews who live in those cities.”

While the two main hubs of the Jewish community are centered around the synagogues in Hobart and Launceston, Jewish people are spread out across the island.

Jeff Schneider, the president of the Hobart Hebrew Congregation, is particularly thrilled that this year, for the first time in many years, the synagogue will be erecting a sukkah. “It is particularly meaningful for parents of young Jewish children to see our kids enjoy this experience as Hobart comes out of winter,” he said.

While Hobart is erecting its own sukkah this year, for most people living on the island, the chances of building a sukkah are slim. However,each year, Rabbi Gordon and Rebbetzin Rochel bring a traveling sukkah to the communities they serve. After doing this for 10 years, they are well versed in how to pack a sukkah for the road.

“Originally, we started off with a pop-up sukkah, which we would take to people’s houses; we would pop the sukkah up. It would take five minutes to put it together, and about 10 minutes to pack up,” said Rabbi Gordon. “The pop-up sukkah has been many interesting places. In general, when we do the traveling sukkah, we travel to a different part of Tasmania each year. We choose a part, whether it is the northwest, or the southeast. We take a region and try to visit as many people as we can. The sukkah has gone as far south as Hastings. And it has gone as far northwest as Smithton.”

In 2021, the Gordons decided to upgrade their traveling sukkah to a sukkah mobile, which they attach via a trailer to the back of their car. “We rented a trailer, we had a sukkah on the back, and we spent the entire chol hamoed on the road,” Rabbi Gordon said.

The new sukkah resulted in some unexpected complications along the way. “There is so much highway driving we had to take down the walls and schach every single time we go on the highway, because, otherwise, the walls wouldn’t survive and the schach would go flying,” Rabbi Gordon reflected, referring to the thatched covering for a sukkah. “One time, I had forgotten to take the schach off the roof and I drove to the next place, and I saw I had no schach. So, I drove back, and I looked around, until I found the schach, and was able to put it back on and rebuild the sukkah together.”

For Layne Shoebridge Harris, a Jew living in Burnie, Tasmania, the rabbi’s visits are meaningful. “I get very happy when the rabbi comes,” he said. “It just makes me feel so good to be connected to community, and not only that, the neighbors are also interested, too, when the rabbi comes.”

The reason the Gordons take the sukkah to the people in Tasmania is because they realize that personal visits resonate with the small but spritely population living there. “One of the biggest issues we fight against is teaching people that they can be proud Jews,” said Rebbetzin Rochel. “There is some fear that if they identify as Jews, antisemitism will come out.”

It is something that Rabbi Gordon has experienced personally, although his ever present sense of humor helped to defuse the situation. “One time, I was out, and someone asked me, ‘When did you Jews get here?’” With a huge smile, Rabbi Gordon recalled, “I told them: ‘We got here in 1804 when the convicts arrived.’”

But despite the occasional challenges, Rebbetzin Rochel and Rabbi Gordon love living and serving the Jewish community of Tasmania. “We live three hours from a location called Edge of the Earth. There is no land from there until South America,” Rebbetzin Rochel said. “It is the cleanest air in the world.”

“In Tasmania,” she added, “the feeling you get is that people realize every individual is important. In a place like Tasmania, when you’re not there, something’s missing. To get a minyan in Tasmania, every single person is counted. When you come to a program, every single individual is important. It’s a smaller, tighter-knit group of people.”

Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.

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