In Australia, religious communities were one part of society expressly impacted by the ‘lockdown’ directives introduced to stem the spread of the virus. On 29 March all places of religious worship were effectively closed by the restrictions that limited non-essential indoor gatherings to two people. In Victoria, lockdown came again on 9th of July, with border closures. Here, we look to faith community experiences in time of lockdown. On this page, we look to the experience of the Jewish members of the Yeshiva community of St Kilda, Victoria.
Yeshiva community of St Kilda, Melbourne
The Jewish community of Australia contains several sub-branches, made up of groups with different levels of religious observance and practice. Melbourne’s Yeshiva community is one of these, based around a large community centre in St Kilda. The Centre includes four synagogues, a school and an adult seminary for religious studies. Each synagogue has its own congregation, attracting particular members of the community, for example young adults, professionals or families. Community members tend to regularly attend one of the four synagogues, although visits between them are common. All up, the synagogues combined see 700 to 1000 regular worshippers.
The Yeshiva community of St Kilda is an orthodox branch of the Jewish community. Life revolves strictly around the traditions, rituals and laws its members share and practice. The synagogues (shul) are at the heart of this — its gathering places and the centres of its community and rituals. They are the place where religious services are held, prayers are offered and teachings are imparted. It is the place where community members see each other regularly during the day.
The COVID-19 situation affected the St Kilda Yeshiva community directly. In early March, before the government closure of places of worship, several cases of infection were reported, connected to the Beth Rivkah Colleges associated with the Yeshiva Centre. The Rabbinic leadership took proactive steps to ensure the protection of its community from further spread, issuing five Halachic rulings in 10 days that limited attendance at prayer services (Minyanim), restricted Shabbos meals (Sabbath gatherings) to only members of a single household, postponed all community gatherings and celebrations unless outdoors and closed the ritual bathing pool (Mikvah). The rulings stressed that the “absolute prohibition of putting oneself in danger, or endangering others, cannot be overemphasised.” On 20 March, nine days before the government closure of houses of worship, the leadership issued a legal edict that effectively closed the synagogues and prohibited community activity outside the confines of members of the household.
For a community where much of its daily life and routine revolves around the synagogue, their closures had a tremendous impact. Adult men, for example, are expected to pray in congregation at least three times each day (morning, afternoon and evening). The Shabbat (also known as the Sabbath) begins each Friday after sunset and involves a service on Friday evening and four to six prayer services of varying sizes on Saturday. On Saturday morning the main service of the week is held, where the traditional scrolls of the Torah are taken out and read and the congregation participates in the breaking of bread together. Afterwards, members of the community share lunch together (the Shabbos meal). All of these elements of daily life and community have been put on hold for St Kilda’s Yeshiva community.
Unlike for other religious communities, technology has not provided a solution for meeting the community’s religious and social needs. Use of technology is already explicitly banned for some areas of religious practice. On Shabbat, the traditional day of rest, congregants are not allowed to do anything that is considered work, including driving a car, using money or using a computer or a phone. For the Yeshiva, livestreaming is outside what is religiously permissible for the community. Zoom cannot replace sitting down together with family and guests to share the traditional Saturday meal.
The Minyan public prayers, which involve a quorum of 10 adult men physically present at the synagogue to occur, have not been held since 20 March. Likewise, the traditional Torah scrolls have not been opened nor read for several months now. These ritual practices have entirely vanished from the lives and practices of the Yeshiva community.
Restrictions on the use of technology also apply to the Passover, the eight-day Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people’s freedom from slavery in Egypt and is celebrated with gatherings, festive meals and services at the synagogues. The highlight of the holiday is the Seder on the first and second nights, a long gathering of family and friends where around the table the Passover story is read while family and guests eat together. Of course, none of the public and community gatherings that usually take place during the Passover could take place this year, as the celebration fell during the first weeks of the lockdown. The community was permitted to use Zoom on the eve of the Passover, but once the holiday begun it was forbidden to use or livestream video.
There is a realisation, at the level of the Yeshiva’s Rabbinic leadership, that the lockdown has impacted the community in an unprecedented way and perhaps for the first time “leniencies” have been introduced to lessen usual religious requirements. For example, during the Passover families need to clean their house in a way that removes any trace of Chametz, any food product made from wheat, barley, rye, oats or spelt that has come in to contact with work and has risen. This is usually a massive task, says one of the community members, especially for families with young children, to clean “every corner, toy and even wipe over books that may have been touched with hands that have some Chametz residue.” This year families were encouraged not to expend any more effort or stress beyond that which is strictly required. Instead, families were encouraged to focus on creating a “positive home environment” above any Passover requirements and to celebrate the holiday “in a joyous manner.” After all, the leaders said, “you are only human. The bible was not given to angels and G-D does not expect us to do more than we are capable of.”
The impact of this loss of tradition, ritual and routine on the community is perhaps more hidden than in other communities who have embraced technology as a substitute for their regular meetings or community gatherings. The familiar routine of walking to the synagogue on Shabbat as a family, greeting other members of the community on the way in this shared experience has been lost for the time being. The day, usually punctuated by congregational prayer times, is different now. One of the members of the community reflects that his prayer times are usually “a lot quicker” now. There is no impetus or accountability in the confines of your own home to pray in the way you would usually do. For some people in the community this has provided “relief” and the “freedom” to build new routines. Families are reflecting on what is important to them, on what traditions and rituals will be maintained. For now, it simply means “dressing up for Sabbath meals” or “having an extra treat” to show the kids that Saturdays are different and special.
Families are reflecting on what is important to them, on what traditions and rituals will be maintained.