It began with a small ad placed in the Melbourne edition of the Australian Jewish News by John Rosenberg, a Jewish professor who liked neither the constraints of Orthodoxy nor the lack of tradition in Reform Judaism.
A decade later, Rosenberg’s solution, Kehilat Nitzan (Hebrew for “bud”), has bloomed into Australia’s first and only independent Conservative congregation, with some 600 members.
Now the congregation is on the cusp of opening its own synagogue building.
There’s one key ingredient missing: a new rabbi.
“I went along to the first service in 1999 and have been hooked ever since,” says Judy Feiglin, Nitzan’s immediate past president. “Nobody had any idea how to run the service, but people weren’t judgmental, they were real.”
With no rabbi and no home, the fledgling community began by renting rooms in Jewish institutions. Now it must move to larger venues for the High Holidays to accommodate its burgeoning membership.
While commonplace in the United States, Conservative Judaism failed to gain a foothold Down Under until the 1990s. Orthodox Judaism was the only denomination in Australian Jewish religious life until the 1930s, when Reform Judaism began to catch on here. Since then the two movements have held a duopoly over Australia’s 100,000 Jews, with Orthodox Judaism the dominant stream.
Congregants at Kehilat Nitzan say they like the alternatives Conservative Judaism offers to tradition-minded Jews here, such as mixed-gender seating and egalitarian services.
“My 96-year-old father has always belonged to an Orthodox shul and for us to sit together is a real highlight,” Feiglin says.
For the first seven years, Nitzan was a lay-led congregation, with occasional visiting rabbis. By 2005 the community had reached a “critical mass,” and Rabbi Ehud Bandel, a former head of the Conservative Masorti movement in Israel, was appointed its first rabbi.
“Most of our congregants came from Orthodox shuls but are not Orthodox in their way of life or outlook,” Bandel told JTA. “The Conservative movement is the best place to be in both worlds – in the world of Jewish traditions and practice, and in the Western democratic world of pluralism, humanism, egalitarianism.”
Bandel says Conservative Judaism “has the potential to become the mainstream in Australian Jewry.”
Not everyone agrees. Yossi Aron, the religious affairs editor of the Australian Jewish News, admits that the “monopoly of Orthodoxy” is being challenged, but not by Nitzan.
He says smaller congregations such as Shira Hadasha, an inclusive Orthodox minyan where men and women lead the service, albeit separated by a mechitzah, are laying down the gauntlet to Orthodoxy.
“Nitzan is here to stay, but I don’t see it as a major player yet,” says Aron, who is Orthodox. “When people talk about Melbourne Jewry, they don’t talk about a third prong.”
Until the advent of Nitzan, Orthodox and Reform were practically the only options in Melbourne’s 50,000-strong Jewish community. Indeed, soon after his arrival, Bandel was given the cold shoulder by some Orthodox rabbis who walked out of a function after he was asked to say a prayer.
“Most [Orthodox rabbis] don’t want to know us,” Feiglin says. “They think we’re not genuine. It’s really quite sad.”
Nitzan’s officials are hoping their permanent home will send a strong signal of their long-term intent.
“A congregation is first and foremost the human core,” says Bandel, noting his congregants’ activism in tikkun olam, or social outreach. “Then comes the building; it’s very, very significant.”
Nitzan has a strong relationship with Sydney’s Emanuel Synagogue, originally a Reform community that now is also affiliated with the Conservative and Renewal movements. In fact, Nitzan’s roots can be traced back to Emanuel.
In 1992, several congregants and Emanuel’s Jeffrey Kamins, now its senior rabbi, began a Monday morning Conservative service. Rosenberg, who was working in Sydney at the time, was among them, and took the idea back to Melbourne.
“The origins of the Conservative movement in Australia began in Emanuel Synagogue,” says Kamins, a native of Los Angeles who was ordained at Hebrew Union College.
Now he says plans are afoot to launch Masorti Australia – “a nationally recognized movement as opposed to two independent congregations.”
Although no date has been set for completion of Nitzan’s building, which will feature a kosher kitchen, library and learning center, Bandel hopes the opening will come before year’s end.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to go home after I affix the mezuzah for the new shul,” he says.
By that time, the board must appoint a successor. Already the search committee has received more than a dozen applicants. Most are newly graduated American rabbis, but the selection committee is keen to receive Anglo, Latin and Israeli applicants as well.
Nitzan’s current president, Zvi Civins, who hails from New Jersey, says the community is looking for a “dynamic, personable, knowledgeable rabbi,” and someone who can attract young adults.
Although there is no exact deadline for applicants, he is scheduling videoconference interviews with several candidates and plans to meet some when he is in the United States in June.
“This is a really import juncture in the history of the shul,” he told JTA. “It’s a marvelous opportunity for a new rabbi to continue the growth in our new home.
“We’re the pioneers in Melbourne; we see ourselves as the vanguard.”
As for when the new Australia’s first independent Conservative shul will officially open its sanctuary, Civins says that “Rosh Hashanah was the goal. But maybe by Chanukah we’ll be ready.”