Being a Jew in New Zealand requires a strong DIY culture


It's not easy being Jewish at the bottom of the world.

Living on an isolated island in the Pacific Ocean poses some weighty geographical and cultural challenges for New Zealand's Jewish community.

These challenges are further complicated by the fact the community itself is a relatively small one, numbering around 8,500, according to the most recent census.

It is also a scattered community.

New Zealand's biggest city, Auckland, has the largest community, which includes active Orthodox and Progressive congregations.

But there are also official communities in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin; and informal, self-directed groups in Hamilton and Nelson.

Rabbi Brent Gutmann, who leads Auckland's progressive congregation, Beth Shalom, said the community's major challenges are posed by limited resources - both in terms of funding and knowledge.

For example, Rabbi Gutmann is currently the only Progressive minister in the country. While he is based in Auckland, he travels around the country acting as a consulting rabbi for Progressive Jewish groups.

On top of this, for New Zealand's non-Orthodox community, having a rabbi goes in cycles, Rabbi Gutmann said. "There will be one for a while and then there won't be one for a while. So the financial issues are compounded by limited access to rabbinical staff."

As an island, New Zealand has a strong DIY culture, and this means the community relies heavily on volunteer contributions, Rabbi Gutmann added.

"That goes to a level far beyond anything I have seen elsewhere. For example, the Burial Society is run by volunteers. So the community is very self-reliant and can run itself without a rabbi. It is a lovely characteristic of New Zealand and adds to the excitement."

Both the Auckland and Wellington Orthodox communities do have permanent rabbis.

Around the country, there are three Chabads and various shlichim from Israel in operation.

However, New Zealand's isolation does make it harder to attract rabbis and, for members of the Orthodox community, it means keeping kosher can pose problems.

Wellington Regional Jewish Council chairman David Zwartz said the community gets along by being inclusive and co-operative. "For example, in Wellington, the community leaders - both religious and secular - aim to serve the whole community rather than just their own groups."

Over the last 30 years, New Zealand's Zionist movement has declined and this has been a major challenge to the structure of the country's community, Mr Zwartz said.

"Whereas the local Zionist societies were dominant in community activities, they now barely exist. There has been consequent declines in other formerly active Zionist-based groups like JNF and WIZO."

However, of late the country-wide Zionist Federation has started to become more active under a new president, he added.

Meanwhile, the Christchurch community - which is home to the southern-most Orthodox congregation in the world - is still dealing with the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, which devastated the city.

Canterbury Hebrew Congregation (CHC) president Bettina Wallace said both the shul and the community centre were badly damaged in the earthquake.

Over four years later, the CHC's rebuild is still going on, due to lengthy insurance negotiations and the need to raise additional funds.

The CHC also suffered an exodus of members as people chose to relocate from Christchurch to other cities.

Yet Ms Wallace said the community was functioning and starting to grow again as people start to move to Christchurch from countries such as Israel.

New Zealand's Jewish modern day community is characterised by a can-do spirit of co-operation, determination and potential. It is perhaps this attitude - also born of isolation - that will ensure the community will overcome the obstacles and continue to survive.

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