Passover Australia Impact in Fremantle

Sunday, 5 June, 2011 - 10:30 am

Pesach 5771 saw groups of students travelling to many parts of Australia to arrange Seders for their Jewish communities. In this letter to the editors, Marc Zweier (Moshe Hersch ben Mendel Zweier) tells how Passover-Australia, and his encounters with the Yeshivah Gedolah students, changed the course of his life.

I am originally from Brooklyn. The Rebbe probably lived about one mile from where I was born. However, my first Jewish memories are of Los Angeles. Chabad had not yet established its presence in our neighbourhood. Three times a week, I attended Hebrew School after public school, and I remember thinking that I would have rather played basketball. I used to wear Tzitzis to public school, in order that I would have them on for Hebrew school. However, we didn’t attend Shule on Shabbos, and we did not light candles. In all honesty, I didn’t even realise when Shabbos had arrived. My mom would go “bonkers” around Pesach and the High Holidays, and she made us aware of our Jewishness – at least on the holidays. My mom had kept kosher until she was nineteen or twenty, but then she assimilated a bit; the way her Yiddish-speaking mother (my grandmother Molly) spoke English was not too cool back then! Funny, because my grandmother would be a celebrity with the people I’m hanging around these days!

We recently visited my parents, and my mom lit Shabbos candles for the first time since she was twenty, and she is currently going on seventy-six! She lights candles like someone who’s been doing it her whole life. But getting back to my story…

My wife, Lea, was born in Melbourne, made Aliyah at age three with her Israeli mother, then grew up in London, and finally returned to Melbourne. Now, after moving from Fremantle to Perth, Lea gives new meaning to the term “wandering Jew”.

Lea was visiting in the USA on a special award, and that is how we met, at a conference in Austin, Texas. From the moment Lea arrived at my table, I knew that she was the one. She thought I looked too Jewish, even though I was not wearing anything especially Jewish – not even a Magen-David. It was just written all over my face, or, more precisely, all over my nose. Of course, this meant that I was too real, too serious; something she wasn’t sure she was ready for.

But time has its way, and we were married a short nine months later, in a very formal Jewish wedding in Melbourne. That might not have happened were it not for Lea’s grandmother. When Grandma Irene heard that we were planning a sort of hippie multi-faith wedding in Perth, with a barefoot saxophone playing celebrant, she somehow convinced us to have a proper Jewish wedding in Melbourne. Looking back, we are so grateful to her for this.

Our daughter Zoë was born several years later in idyllic Denmark, Western Australia. In Denmark, we enjoyed our Shabbos gatherings with the local community. We were actually the only Jewish people, along with our very willing host Baruch, but that didn’t stop us. A Jew loves a good party with Jewish people, even if most weren’t really Jewish! Oy! That was how it was like back then; we didn’t know where we were headed.

In terms of real Yiddishkeit, we were essentially High Holiday Jews – with a little Pesach and Chanukah thrown in for good measure. We lit Shabbos candles too; Lea would say the blessings, and we would think of all our ancestors and family. Zoë was soon growing fast, and our Jewish souls started searching for something more.

By 2006, Lea and I had already moved to Fremantle. We founded a local Jewish “culture connection” in Fremantle called Simchafreo. It all started at a “foodie expo” in Fremantle, where another woman from our eventual group heard me describe the bagel scene in Los Angeles. African-Americans and Mexican-Americans standing behind the counter at Noah’s Bagels, hollering: “Como estas big boy; what kind-a bagel you want?!” The connection began, and with Lea screening the many “strangers” over the phone, we soon had up to one-hundred Jewish families attending our Shabbos and holiday gatherings, discussion sessions and social events. It was exciting to reconnect Jewish souls with an awareness of their heritage. It was extremely heart warming to publicly celebrate our Jewish connection with each other; a first for Fremantle in over one-hundred years. Since I was the only one in the group who could do slightly better than just barely read Hebrew, I became the resident ‘Rabbi’ at our more religious gatherings. You know, where we said a few blessings or prayers before eating, which is what we did best.

Fast-forward a bit. In 2007, Berel Majesky (YG Shliach 2007-2009) and some other boys from Melbourne found me in Fremantle, at my favourite coffee hangout. They were in town to arrange the Fremantle Community Seder. In no time, they had me wrapping Tefillin on the patio of this cafe in front of my wife and daughter, and in front of all of the other coffee drinking patrons. And, it just felt... right.

The following year, Levi Piha (YG Shliach 2008-2010) came to my house to give me a set of Tefillin, which I kiss and wear at least several days a week. After a Fremantle Shabbaton, he asked me: “Moshe, does Lea know how to light candles?” Then, after calling me back a second or third time that evening, he asked, “Tell me, Moshe, does Lea know about Mikvah?!”

In 2008, we visited Israel. This was my first visit, and our first as a family. Lea hadn’t been in over ten years. Israel hit me by surprise; that should probably tell you how lost I was. All the same, with Lea’s two Israeli sisters and all of Zoë’s cousins, it was an amazing homecoming of sorts. Israel captured my imagination in a way than I cannot describe. I was walking in a Jewish dream.

The inspiration I experienced in Israel, along with my lacklustre career as Rabbi of Fremantle, led me to Rabbi Shalom & Odeya White, the Shluchim in Perth. We met at a beach Chanukah party, and after discussing Simchafreo for a couple minutes, we invited the Rabbi to lead a discussion session for us in Fremantle.

Rabbi & Rebbetzin White are the most amazing Shluchim that I know. Rabbi White is both the sweetest and the smartest man in the neighbourhood. He speaks fluent Hebrew, Yiddish, Australian English, sounds like a New Yorker, is a wonderful teacher of Torah to all ages, is a gifted orator, he shechts chickens and lamb and whatever else is needed – and he is only about thirty! And, most importantly, Rabbi White is there when we need him. He is a skilled listener and friend to many people.

Rebbetzin White has invited us for more Shabbos lunches than we could count. She has a way to make us feel welcome, and she teaches us something at the same time. And that’s really something being that she’s only half our age! With the White family, we have talked and laughed, we have learned and prayed, we have held their babies and played with their five children.

Three months ago, we moved across from Fremantle to Perth, in order to be near Chabad, and in order that Zoë can attend the Jewish community school. Zoë adores the White children, and looks forward to interacting with them at Shule every Shabbos.

We also visited Israel again; our travels took us to Chabad in Sydney, Melbourne, Bangkok, Shoham (Israel), Jerusalem, and to an amazing little Chabad Shule at a Moshav near Afula. We also visited Chabad in Los Angeles and San Diego, and prayed at the Rebbe’s gravesite. When in Israel, I wore my Yarmulke every single minute. I have certainly worn my Yarmulke before, even in Fremantle, where a Jewish friend of mine thought I had gone nuts and told me, “Wha ...da ya wanna be the Jew of Fremantle or something?! Please, take that thing off!” However, in Israel, I made sure to wear that Yarmulke every single minute. You see, I read one of the Rebbe’s letters, in which he writes that one ought to be especially aware of G-d’s extra special presence in the Holy Land.

It is now 2011, and I watch with pride as a mobile Shtetl descends on Fremantle before Pesach! To see a couple of black-hatted boys from a Melbourne Yeshiva walking through Fremantle is worth a million bucks.

How did I get into this position, with all these smiling young guys with black hats teaching me, laughing with me, challenging me, and appealing to that part of me that wants to help them? I am not a typical Chassid with all the regalia and commitment, but there is something undeniably attractive about the Chabad way. Does it have to do with my grandparents who lived not far from the town of Lubavitch before immigrating to the USA? Am I a Chassid at heart?

Chabad has reconnected me with my Jewish soul. It certainly took a long time to happen! Deeper than being born in the USA, deeper than becoming Australian, I am Jewish… and proud of it!


To read the Passover Australia Annual Report for 5771 (2011), please click here.

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