Keep calm and kosher: Melbourne Jews spending Yom Kippur in lockdown

Melbourne Jews spending Yom Kippur in lockdown

Yom Kippur is traditionally observed with a 25-hour fast, followed by a prayer, synagogue services, and a feast with extended family. This year, Melbourne Jews are spending their High Holidays ~ and Yom Kippur in lockdown.

When Ash Shenker logs onto the computer each day, he doesn’t wear pyjamas or trackpants — like many Australians in lockdown — but rather, two black boxes with leather straps.

He places one box on his hand, the other atop his forehead, and wraps the black straps around his left arm, hand and middle finger.

These items are known as tefillin, or phylacteries, and they’re worn by Orthodox Jewish men — including Mr Shenker — during prayer.

It’s an ancient ritual, but in the COVID era, the practice has become linked, even enhanced, with technology.

“Our faith is devoting ourselves to the daily observances and fulfilling those commandments,” says Mr Shenker.


Like communities across Australia, Orthodox Jews have embraced video calls for connecting and worshipping. In Mr Shenker’s home city of Melbourne, the synagogues have been closed for months.

And this week, the inability to gather has been particularly felt. Last weekend, the community celebrated Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year, and today is Yom Kippur. It is known as the Day of Atonement and regarded as the holiest day in the calendar.

Tyla Chapman, an education student also living in Melbourne, says it’s the one day a year when all Jews — even those who aren’t particularly religious — connect with their faith.

“It’s not just atonement for your sins,” says the 22-year-old, who is one of seven filmmakers featured in the ABC TV’s Lockdown Stories, premiering 9:30pm Tuesday night.

“It’s also reflecting on who you are as a person and how you can better yourself every day, to make those around you happier and make yourself feel like you’re living a more purposeful and meaningful life.”


Tyla Chapman
Tyla Chapman documented her COVID-19 experience in ABC TV’s Lockdown Stories.(Supplied: Tyla Chapman)

Holding onto faith

Yom Kippur is traditionally observed with a 25-hour fast, followed by a prayer, synagogue services, and a feast with extended family.

While grateful to live under the same roof as her kids, Tyla’s mum Linda says she misses interacting with her community in person, and observing millenia-old religious rituals.

“It was almost like grains of sand that we’re all trying to hold onto … we’re tenaciously holding the link [to our faith] for 2,000 years,” she says.

For Mr Shenker, there are correlations between the difficulties of 2020 and the hardships faced by Jews historically.

“When we think about our ancient ancestors in the times of Egypt, we can’t compare the direct situation they were in, but the concept of being isolated, and refrained from your civil liberties, in a way, we can resonate with that,” he says.

“We can take the lessons of their bravery and their devotion and make that relevant today.”


Rabbi Gabi
Rabbi Gabi playing the shofar (ram’s horn) outside for Rosh Hashanah.(ABC News: Erwin Renaldi)

Paying it forward

Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann from Melbourne’s ARK Centre agrees the themes of Yom Kippur are particularly pertinent during a global pandemic.

“It’s the day of atonement where we recognise our mortality,” he says.

This year, the prayer of Kol Nidre — traditionally chanted in synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur — will take place inside the home.

According to Rabbi Kaltmann, it’s a prayer in which Jews annul all the negative thoughts they’ve been holding onto.

“I’m releasing myself of those emotions, I’m opening myself up and starting from new,” he says.

“[It’s a moment to realise] this life that’s been given to me is special, and I’m not going to waste it.”

But Rabbi Kaltmann knows that not everyone in his community will be able to shed negative thoughts during the continued lockdown.

“I’m dealing with people who have lost their jobs and can’t get out of bed in the morning,” he says.

“They’ve got their kids at home and their wife is running the household because they’re dealing with depression.”

Since the first wave of COVID-19, ARK Centre has been running a volunteer-staffed kitchen, and sending meal and care packages to isolated, vulnerable and lonely residents.


 Volunteers at the ARK Centre in East Hawthorn
Volunteers at the ARK Centre in East Hawthorn have been preparing meals during lockdown.(ABC News: Erwin Renaldi)

Rabbi Kaltmann says he’s been overwhelmed by the generosity of people wanting to donate their time and money.

“We’ve raised thousands of dollars and teamed up with our local member of parliament giving out food to people who are having a tough time,” he says.

“We’re all going through this hard time together, but ultimately, we’ve rallied. The [ARK Centre] kitchen can’t keep up with the demand of people wanting to pay-it-forward to send someone a meal.”

Sweetness in a dark time

For the Chapman family, religious outreach services were indispensable when they went into lockdown.

Tyla and mum Linda Chapman lighting candles in their home.
Linda Chapman says every Friday night, for Shabbat, she has a “spiritual word with the Almighty”.(Supplied: Tyla Chapman)

“From the initial lockdown, a whole community swung into action, it was a whole army of Jewish psychologists, teachers, yoga instructors, food deliverers,” Linda says.

“I connected with them to get a kosher food drop of meat, it was delivered in on my doorstep when we were in isolation and couldn’t get out.”

Last week, like Jews around the world, the Chapmans celebrated Rosh Hashanah with another Jewish food tradition — the dipping of apple into honey — which is meant to represent hope for a “sweet New Year”.

“It’s very interesting to be welcoming in a sweet year in a dark time,” says Tyla.

“But I guess it’s cool that we can start the year on the lowest foot, and then only go up.”


O Hashem
As an Orthodox Jewish man, Ash Shenker wears the tefillin during daily observance.(Supplied: Ash Shenker)

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