Ultra-Orthodox prayer group has breached lockdowns since last year
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The scenes were confronting and, for the children involved, no doubt frightening.
As a group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and boys left a Ripponlea synagogue, they were surrounded by journalists, camera crews and police. Jostling broke out. Punches were thrown. A cameraman was later hospitalised with concussion.
Members of Victoria Police take down the details of people outside the illegal gathering.Credit:Darrian Traynor
Bizarre footage later emerged of Jewish men in traditional dress creeping along nearby rooftops in an apparent attempt to evade detection.
This week marked Rosh Hashanah, the two-day holiday celebrating Jewish New Year.
While the overwhelming majority of Melbourne’s Jewish community celebrated at home, breaking bread with their families over Zoom, police surrounded a building on Glen Eira Road after being tipped off that a group of worshippers had gathered inside in contravention of Victoria’s lockdown rules.
It was not the first time. Some ultra-Orthodox Jewish worshippers – many from the strictly conservative Satmar sect – have been gathering in numbers during lockdowns since March last year, to the frustration of police, Victoria’s Department of Health and the wider Jewish community.
A Health Department spokesperson said the department had made numerous attempts through intermediaries in other orthodox communities to engage with the group concerned.
“Engagement has so far been unsuccessful and [the department] is now looking at other options.”
The Glen Eira Road building that hosted the event bears a sign in Hebrew announcing it is a study house dedicated to the memory of Abraham Zvi Beck, the former rabbi of Adass.
The ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel Synagogue, headquartered around the corner on Glen Eira Avenue, issued a statement distancing itself from the event.
“Adass Israel congregation was not responsible for the Rosh Hashanah public health order breach,” a spokesman said.
“The gathering in question was an independent group of worshippers, un-affiliated with Adass Israel, and was not held at one of our premises. Adass Israel has taken all necessary steps to ensure our synagogue and buildings are compliant with public health orders.”
Filmmaker and academic Danny Ben-Moshe, who spent a year filming Melbourne’s Adass community for his documentary Strictly Jewish, said the Adass community was formed by post-war migrants as an umbrella for a range of ultra-Orthodox sects.
“That was the only way they could sustain themselves collectively because they simply didn’t have the numbers,” he said.
“Bear in mind that these communities were wiped out, virtually; these are really the fragments of the communities that were left from the Second World War.
“What’s happened over recent years is by definition they have large families and so they have grown. What is now really over the last maybe three to five years. Some groups … have grown to such an extent that they can branch out on their own.”
One group branching out is the Satmar sect, which is characterised by strict religious observance, distrust of outsiders – including other Jewish people, Mr Ben-Moshe says – and anti-Zionism (believing the creation of the state of Israel was an anti-messianic act). Members of Satmar can be seen in videos of the confrontation outside the synagogue this week.
Described by Mr Ben-Moshe as “Jewish fundamentalists”, members of the Satmar community have come under fire for holding minyans (prayer and worship groups of a minimum of 10 men) since last March.
Jewish historian and academic Mark Baker said groups refusing to abide by lockdown rules were outliers in the broader Jewish community.
“It can’t be emphasised enough that the vast overwhelming majority of Jews don’t belong to this group who don’t abide by the rules. The vast majority respect the rules and are doing it tough like everyone else.”
Dr Baker said the group was following a fundamentalist interpretation of theology.
“I think what we’re seeing here is a particular zealous worldview, where they believe they were acting in a tradition of martyrdom by resisting the authority of the government.”
Dr Baker said he found the group’s flouting of lockdown requirements flummoxing because it went against two central tenets of Judaism: first, the principle that “the law of the land is law” and, secondly, the principle that the protection of life comes before all else.
Both men expressed concern that the highly publicised gathering would lead to anti-Semitic abuse and sentiment against the Jewish community.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews are a small minority, estimated to represent less than 5 per cent of the Jewish community in Australia.
The Council of Orthodox Synagogues of Victoria, which does not represent ultra-Orthodox people, also condemned the actions of the group.
“This particular congregation reported in the media over the Jewish New Year holiday, is a fringe element of Melbourne Jewry and is not a member of the Council of Orthodox Synagogues of Victoria.”
A Victoria Police spokeswoman said 11 fines of $5452 had been issued to people who attended the illegal gathering on Tuesday, and investigations were ongoing.
The Age was unable to reach the leaders of the synagogue for comment.
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