A World of Their Own

By Kate Legge (The Australian)
October 1, 2011

A young slightly built man, pale-skinned, with a dark beard, strides along the street in a black silk knee-length coat, white pantaloons, stockings and black slip-on shoes. His tall mink fur hat encircles his head like an industrial-size chocolate mud cake.menti

Two sideburn ringlets cascade low and long enough to tie under his chin. He could have slipped unnoticed along the cobbled lanes of a 19th-century village in Hungary. But there's enough modern boy beneath the trappings of ultra-orthodox Judaism for him to stop and admire the orange Vespa moped parked outside the Adass Israel synagogue in Melbourne's Ripponlea, where he's bound.

It's late Friday afternoon, countdown to the start of Sabbath which flicks the switch on contact with the outside world and its gadgetry for 24 hours from one sunset to the next. No phones, no electric lights, no computers, no cars, no restaurants, nothing but the sanctuary of home and hearth, where clans bigger than a small village gather for a meal.

Tarago vans and station wagons are the preferred people-movers for couples who regard six children as average and 19 worthy of comment. Lucky then that God demands they walk to prayer. An eruv or notional boundary encircles the neighbourhood to create the sense of a private domain so that members can push prams in public spaces on the Sabbath without infringing the law against work. Without this protection, they wouldn't be able to lift or carry anything outside their home on the holy day.

Tourists sometimes come to gawk at the black-garbed men who conjure up the horse-and-buggy timewarp of America's Amish smack in the middle of suburban Australia. Curious myself, I approached leading members of this reclusive community to learn more about the lifestyle, rituals and customs that bind some 300 families of about 2000 people together in a parallel universe that turns on its own axis almost oblivious to the distractions and glitz of the city's thrum. Liberties we take for granted such as television, cinema, football and media are off limits to the Adass. Many have no desire or need to venture into the world beyond. They are self-sufficient with their own telephone directory, bakeries, matchmakers, shops, school, ambulance, cemetery, synagogue, ritual bathhouses, every service delivered according to the strict oversight of 80-year-old Rabbi Abraham Tzvi Beck.

Connection to the world is the antithesis of the community's philosophy, but for the most part it has been untroubled by calls for assimilation that hound other ethnic or religious groups in this country. "Our ultimate goal is to keep away as much as possible from outside influence," says one rabbi. "Materialism is definitely something that helps everyone and everyone wants it... but the values we are taught carry such a heavy weight within ourselves that we put aside a lot of benefits and gains and take on dozens of restrictions, which is definitely uncommon."

"Adassniks" are the most insular of the Haredi or ultra-Orthodox spectrum of Jews. Sydney has a small community in Bondi with a synagogue but no school, and large congregations thrive in London, New York and Israel. Melbourne's Jewish population has long monopolised the postcodes of Caulfield, Balaclava, and St Kilda East where synagogues and schools (many of them guarded by a security presence), kosher shops and Hebrew signs colour the residential landscape. The Adass confine themselves to a grid bordered by Glenhuntly, Balaclava, Orrong and Brighton Roads.

Outsiders could not spot the difference between an "Adassnik" and another orthodox Jew, but for insiders such as Raizel Fogel, who with her husband runs an Adass takeaway and catering business, these geographical boundaries almost deserve a visa checkpoint: "If one of us crosses Brighton Road on a walk, other orthodox Jews might say, 'Hi, welcome. What are you doing on this side?' It's cute."

RAIZEL Fogel sits at her computer in a tiny, cluttered office behind the Glen Eira Road shopfront of the business that her parents began in the 1950s. Her husband, Yankel, came to work for them and married the boss's daughter. He shakes his head politely when I stretch out my hand for an introductory shake. Adass men aren't allowed to touch their wives in public, let alone other females.

The shop is humming this Friday lunchtime as patrons who are mostly Jewish stream in to purchase chicken schnitzels, gefilte fish, potato latkes, letcho rice, chopped liver and tubs of cucumber salad for the Sabbath. Customers not only appear to know each other's business but share relatives in common and the chat ranges over grandchildren and weddings. Two of the Fogels' six children serve behind the counter. Benzion, 32, dressed in white stockings and black button-up vest, interrupts his mother holding up two white china bowls. "Which one is nicer?" he begs. "That one," she says; she's quick and confident.

Personal choice is the rarest indulgence in a faith where every step is decreed - from when wives may sleep with husbands, to the days each year women purge leavened breadcrumbs from every cranny of their kitchen, to the number of hours that must pass between eating meat and dairy (six), to the chickens and bakery products kosher enough to eat. "We don't eat out. We only eat what the Rabbi supervises," says Raizel. "Our milk is watched from the time the cow is milked to the bottling, nothing is compromised, there's always a few eyes around to double-check and triple-check everything to the letter of the law."

She's referring to "Kashrut", the Jewish dietary dictum. One aspect of this encyclopedic protocol is the stringent checklist of "spring cleaning" chores before Passover to remove traces of forbidden food from blankets, cupboards, and household crevices. "Most people go overboard and wash curtains and light fittings," she says, "but it's actually very rewarding to go through the house and get rid of rubbish. It makes for a beautiful holiday. A lot of our traditions are based around the family. You shut down the outside world and it's all about you and your family."

At the suggestion Fogel might be missing out on life's smorgasbord, she stares at me as if I'm bonkers. "Absolutely nothing... We're not missing out on anything... I have always done what I wanted to and felt very valued." She counts a Catholic and a secular Jew amongst her close girlfriends. Trained to assist women during birth, she also helps out in a Jewish aged care centre. Feisty in her compliance, she and several other Adass women persuaded Rabbi Beck to waive the strict dress code that forbids them to wear trousers or figure-hugging clothes so they could attend yoga classes in leggings and bare feet.

"We live in a pyramid," she concedes of the Rabbi's authority. "But there's a huge role for women. Women are made to feel the pinnacle of the home. I personally have never felt squashed. The women in my family feel satisfied. We give our life around our children. We've got lots of choices. A lot of women study and work. They'll do advanced education through the internet or correspondence courses."

First they must marry and reproduce, though. A Jewish studies teacher at the Adass Israel School is a mother of 11, and when we meet at the opening of the new school hall she tells me about her eldest daughter, 26, who's studying online now that she has wed and delivered her first three offspring. Matchmakers help streamline the search for eligible candidates, who are often located overseas among orthodox populations in London, Israel or the US. Little is left to chemistry or chance. She explains the due diligence, picking through her then future son-in-law's background, learning everything she could about his values, his character, his prospects, his family, before a "date" was arranged with her daughter, one of three meetings before their engagement. No intimacy occurs until the wedding night.

Rules for physical contact continue into marriage. For 12 days each month around the menstrual cycle, couples sleep in separate beds. Wives must immerse themselves in a ritual bath before resuming sexual relations with husbands. "I think it enhances relationships," one woman assures me. "When it's time to be together again it feels new." She's brusque with my disbelief. "You get used to it," she shrugs. "It's part of life. You are born and bred into it."

FIONA Hallinan is a midwife who has nursed Adass women through their labour. "It's an unbelievable community," she says warmly. "There's a rhythm to their lives that broader society has lost. It brings steadfastness. I envy them in a way. They have very defined roles for men and women which is similar to my parents' generation. There is less tension over whether he should be doing this or she should be doing that."

She recalls mainstream health practitioners asking her, "'How can you work with these people?' I would say they are the easiest people on God's Earth to work with." Hallinan turned a blind eye when one husband smuggled live chickens into his wife's hospital room for a traditional ceremony before the Day of Atonement. "You should meet one of the guys who performs circumcisions. He looks like a world champion wrestler, with his black pantaloons, white stockings, black slip-on Florsheim shoes... He works at the abattoir." It's true.

Orthodox Jewish fathers will not touch their wives immediately after birth. Many will not witness the event. "They'll be looking out the window if they stay in the room, or stand behind the curtain. A lot won't come in until the woman's completely covered," Hallinan says. But she quickly adds: "You don't have to worry about these young women. They've been walking babies up and down Hotham Street since they were 10 years old, settling infants while their mother bed and bathed the littler siblings. They are brought up to be mothers... I never get the sense of them being unhappy. They may get stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted but I've never picked up the feeling of discontent."

THE Adass Israel School sends me a list of 16 sartorial "do nots" outlawing low necklines, sheer garments, short sleeves, bare legs and denim before I visit the silver-haired, softly spoken CEO, Professor Israel Herszberg, a retired aerospace engineer who is clad in the obligatory black from head to toe, his "peyos" or ringlets tucked behind his ears. Responsible for the education of 600 children who attend the girls' and boys' campuses separated by a two-minute walk, each of them gated securely, he's not strictly a member of the Adass because of a technicality: he prays at a different but like-minded synagogue.

One teacher dares to point this out when she's struggling aloud to define the Adass. "Do I consider you to be Adass?" She puzzles over the professor's question of whether he qualifies. "I don't know... You daven in another stiebl" - she sprinkles Yiddish into the conversation, a language spoken at school and often at home - "but you're definitely living Adass".

"Cradle to grave" is the phrase many use to encompass the social contract. "You really need to run your life according to a very strict commitment to Torah law for 24 hours, 365 days a year from the second you were born to the second you die," she asserts. "We say, be my guest, come to my home, but I'll be careful letting my kids interact with you because I don't want that influence on them."

She wears a wig in keeping with the law that married women must cover their head for modesty's sake and a knitted dress that is stylish yet discreet. Outspoken, she's nonetheless beholden to beliefs that bar women from religious positions, physically segregate them, and enshrine the path to marriage and motherhood. "I am a very strong woman," she says. "I believe women have an important role to play, but I don't subscribe to feminism. I don't want to be like a man."

When local MP Michael Danby comes in his skull-cap and suit to open the school's new multipurpose hall courtesy of the Building Education Revolution, I join female staff on one side of a partition dividing us from the men. Students are not offered the VCE curriculum that benchmarks university entry. Boys devote mornings to Jewish learning and afternoons to secular subjects. They are expected to leave around the age of 16 to pursue a religious education in rabbinical colleges overseas. The girls complete a vocational certificate in "applied learning". The Education Department official who queried these pathways during an inspection several years ago was reminded politely by Herszberg that "we've been in the business of universal education for well over 2000 years".

CAPE York Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson once identified Australian Jews as a model for his people because they had kept alive their history, traditions and culture while engaging with the best the modern world has to offer. Members of the Adass do not dwell at the cutting edge. Although most men apart from Rabbi Beck carry mobile phones, the thrice-daily prayer schedules and lifelong religious learning limit professional ambition, and openness to radical ideas. A small number of ultra-orthodox members are too busy studying to join the paid workforce.

There's much to admire in the family-centric rituals, the sense of belonging and the enforced weekly retreat from technology's grasp. Here are people who look beyond individual gratification and advancement. Helping one another was essential to the fledgling migrant settlement's survival after the war. Today's bustle is unrecognisable from the barren place that greeted the Herzogs, the Grossmans, the Rosenbaums, the Friedmans and other founders who fled persecution in Europe almost 70 years ago, arriving by boat with random relatives the Holocaust had spared. They built this self-sufficient protectorate from scratch, fired by the anti-reformist zeal of Rabbi Moshe Sofer, a 19th century conservative from Hungary who forbade secular education in favour of ancient customs and distinctive Jewish styles of dress.

This social webbing remains tight. Shlomo Boruch Abelesz, a former secretary of the Adass, runs an electronic bulletin board alerting members to news and bargains: "Lost at the Weiss wedding last week - lady's shoe, black in a 'Golds' bag"; "2 single bed mattresses to give away"; "apartment for rent in Jerusalem". Everybody knows who is getting married, whose elderly mother is ailing, and who I have already spoken to. However suffocating this might seem, there is an upside to news travelling fast. Almost every household offers social services for the sick or needy. Families wanting to borrow a suitcase or power tools or household appliances or beds for guests or a wheelchair can find help in the community telephone directory.

"If one of us is not in the synagogue, people ring immediately to check if you are ill," says Benjamin Koppel, 50, the president of Adass. His father came from Hungary after the war with a brother, his only surviving relative. Koppel wears a business suit when he welcomes me at his packaging company in an industrial area far from the community's turf. He rises every day at 5am to pray and study at the synagogue then returns around sunset. He's never been to the cinema. He doesn't own a TV. He follows events through the Hamodia newspaper distributed to orthodox Jews around the world and listens to local ABC radio. As for contemporary culture, he's caught on to MasterChef through promotions at the supermarket. His iPhone is full of apps. He scrolls through the Jewish calendar, the Sabbath clock, an international directory of kosher suppliers, a prayer book, Hebrew translation. I notice TicTacToe and a hockey game. "For the kids," he says of the eight children who range in age from seven to 25 born to his wife Sarah, who he met through a matchmaker.

A religious studies teacher at the boys' school frowns upon the internet, television and radio. He's blissfully unaware of an arrest in the Mosman "necklace bomb" incident, which is headline news the day we meet. "I have heard something going on about the carbon tax," he admits. Children do not use Facebook so there are no complaints of cyberbullying, yet community leaders worry about technology, given its role in fanning political revolution against authoritarian regimes. It poses a potentially bigger threat than escalating house prices within walking distance of the synagogue.

The leadership claims extremely low levels of divorce and domestic violence. "We have family strife, break-ups," says Professor Israel Herszberg, "but my guess is that only 5 per cent would be divorced." What about crime? He chuckles sheepishly. "We probably get a higher number of parking fines. When you've got eight kids to ferry around, that is to be expected." The rabbi interjects: "We don't have violence. Non-existent!" The professor qualifies the assertion. "In the area of abuse, it does exist, but I think to a lesser degree."

He doesn't mention ongoing controversy over the former female principal of the girls' school, Malka Leifer, who left promptly for Israel in 2008 following allegations she'd molested students. Once the scandal became public, the community closed ranks. A psychologist who is in contact with alleged victims confirms their trauma.

In June, Victorian police began investigating allegations of abuse at another orthodox Jewish school, Yeshivah College in East St Kilda, where former students and their parents who belong to the Chabad community accuse religious leaders of covering up complaints because of an entrenched reluctance to engage with civil authorities. Historical acts of persecution provide the excuse for dealing internally with disputes and troublemakers. Now younger generations are urging greater transparency around sexual abuse.

No enclave is immune from rifts and trouble. A prominent Adass member, Nachum Goldberg, confessed to a $42 million money-laundering racket in 2000 and initially received a reduced sentence because the judge believed Goldberg's strict adherence to orthodoxy could present problems in prison and might lead to victimisation. The appeal court was not so sympathetic.

I wonder how many tearaways have left the fold. One secular Jewish woman who knows the community likens the hierarchy's control to techniques adopted by cult leaders. She cites rabbinical decisions forcing businesses to locate closer to the synagogue or discouraging women from learning to drive as evidence of a mindset always conscious of where temptation lurks.

Yossi Aron, who covers religious affairs for The Australian Jewish News and has compiled a history of the Adass, says: "It is extremely rare for a member to leave that lifestyle. It does happen, but it is extremely rare."

One rabbi explains the powerful attraction of staying put. He tells me about a new neighbour, an Italian-born man. "A few days ago he told me he knew he'd overpaid for the house but he said, 'This is a safe place. I feel safe here.' That says a lot," he says, stroking his greying beard beneath a tall black hat. "It gives you a tremendous feeling of belonging, security, a sense of obligation. This brings happiness. Everything has a goal; you know where you are heading, why you're doing it. We very well know people are looking for freedom. But one person's freedom is another's obligation. Freedom of speech means that someone has to tolerate what I've got to say."

Not only do members shun secular temptations; they also shy away from affiliation with Jewish lobby groups of every persuasion. Although the Adass synagogue was damaged by fire in 1995 this was not linked to anti-Semitism. History casts a shadow that makes members cautious, but Benjamin Koppel says the community has not been singled out for duress.

Despite the restrictions and self-imposed insularity, these devout people may experience greater freedom than those of us held hostage to commercial imperatives and the white noise of contemporary urban life. Sitting in Herszberg's office, we are interrupted by a female staff member. The professor has been extolling the virtues of the Sabbath's escape from the world's hurry and harangue. He asks her to describe it for me. "The best day of the week," she claps. "When you park your car in the driveway and turn off the engine you know you're going to be home for 24 hours. You turn off your phone, your computer, your cooking is done, you light the candles, close your eyes, and when you open them after prayer the room looks beautiful, it's illuminated in a yellow and orange glow, you sit down with your family, your whole body rests, you walk around the district, visit friends."

The professor nods. "I don't understand how my colleagues can survive without it." Born to Polish parents who survived Auschwitz, he was an infant when they came to Australia in 1947. He's spent more time mixing in the outside world than most Adass members and straddles this isolated community and the wider sphere of life with grace and ease. After several years of religious study he completed an engineering degree at Sydney University, which led to a career designing aircraft and an appointment as head of the aerospace engineering department at Melbourne's RMIT. Four years ago he became CEO of the school where he moderates tugs of war over computers and the curriculum mix of Jewish and general studies. He laughs when I ask him to define the distinguishing characteristics of Adass orthodoxy. "I can't," he says. "It's a question of priorities, attitudes, customs, observances... but as for a definition?" He's lost for words.

I try Rabbi Beck, who answers his phone but declines to be interviewed. "I don't speak English," he begs. Benjamin Koppel argues the community has withstood the cyclonic gusts of change at its gates by becoming more orthodox in its customs and codes than when he was a lad. There are rebels in the midst. Secret lapses are revealed to me confidentially by members fearful of excommunication. Rabbi Beck does bend occasionally. Yoga classes are proof of that.

Yet the thrill of preserving ancient rituals fires his followers. A crowd of 1500 gathered to celebrate the redemption of a first-born male donkey in May 2009 after two members had stumbled upon a description of this historic practice during their daily study at the synagogue. The donkey was exchanged for a sheep in an obscure ceremony that took two years of planning, cost more than $7500, and involved several DNA tests to confirm the foal's gender. "It probably looks strange, a bit primitive," Yumi Rosenbaum told the global Jewish news service, JTA, "but there's a general theme throughout Judaism about the first of anything - the first fruit, the first born, and so on. It was fairly unique."

Two weeks after being introduced to the school I return dressed in a pinstriped suit with flared trousers, mindful of the fuss over leggings and tight-fitting clothes. The receptionist gives me a once-over and frowns. Professor Herszberg, who has been so patient, so accommodating, so welcoming, ushers me into his office and explains gently that I have breached the dress code. It's the trousers. In between my first and second visit I'd been a guest at the members' dining room of the Melbourne Cricket Ground which excludes jeans but allows tailored trousers, a freedom denied to Adass women. "You have two options," the professor explains. I can go home and change, or the girls' campus will furnish me with a calf-length navy skirt from the uniform shop. Once suitably attired I am waved through for another chat with a rabbi who amplifies his original remarks by pointing out that to the best of his knowledge not a single student in the history of the school has ever been in trouble with the law.

I tell him I admire the strong civic scaffolding and mention a new report linking teenage self-harm and behavioural disorders to family breakdown in the "outside" world. He confesses he's aware of the findings. "I was at the doctor's yesterday." He almost winks. He'd glanced at a newspaper in the waiting room. When I tell him about the trousers, he nods proudly. "It's like another planet."