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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Australia

From 1973 to last October, some 4,300 Jews arrived in Australia from the Soviet Union. Considering the Jewish population of Australia totals only 70,000 the Soviet inflow represents more than five percent of Australia’s Jewry. This is a much higher proportion — perhaps almost four times as many — than the number of Jews who came to the United States. In the same period, about 90,000 Soviet Jews immigrated to the U.S. or about one-and-one half percent of America’s estimated six million Jews.

What brings the Soviet Jews to Australia? “Favorable climate and economic opportunity,” an immigration expert explained to this reporter in the Foreign Ministry in Canberra. Noting that Australia is absorbing “a constant flow” of Soviet Jews, this official said “we regard their arrival as a humanitarian program and accept them under favorable conditions since they come under strong Jewish community support. If there were no community support, there would be more difficulty in their entry and the number allowed to enter would be much less,” he said.

While Australians such as that official appear generally to regard Soviet Jews much like other immigrant, since Australia is rapidly becoming a polyglot nation, too, Jewish communal observers offered a variety of assessments ranging from deep pessimism about their ultimate commitment to Jewry to the outlook that they will fill the gaps in the population caused by assimilation and desertion.

Statistically, the immigration flow, the distribution of the immigrants in Australia, and the Jewish population as a whole are being studied by Walter Lippmann of Melbourne (no relation to the late American journalist) whose report is awaited with much interest. Lippmann was for 20 years president of Australia’s Jewish Welfare and Relief Society.

SITUATION OF SOVIET JEWS

In Sydney, where a thousand or more of the emigres live, Soviet Jews are considered “basically Jewish.” They have organized a Jewish club and conduct a restaurant. About one in three Soviet children — below the Australian national Jewish average — attend Jewish schools from kindergarten through senior high school. Inter-marriage was said to be “fairly rampant.” Those who marry in the synagogue belong in the main to Orthodox congregations. As in the general population, divorce is “fairly high.” However, young Russian Jews were reported as looking for their roots in Judaism.

In Melbourne, one is informed, are some 2,800 Soviet Jews of whom some have assimilated rapidly into Australian life. They are in the trade and service industries, like restaurants, and some are taxi drivers. “They are not terribly Jewish ond only a few are circumcized,” one observer noted. “They are Jewish only because their passports say so.”

But another pointed out that “most of the Russian Jews “are still coming out of their shells. Jewry to them means persecution. They do not yet feel they are living in a country where that won’t happen. A relatively high enrollment of the immigrant children in Jewish schools also was noted as a positive sign.

In Sydney, signs are multiplying that Soviet Jews are drawing closer to the established community organizations. While they are forming their own groups — like the Shalom Club which was described as “very vigorous” with some 200 families associated with it — they are less prone to shy away from communal contact, although it is still difficult to have them develop the kind of associations community leaders would like.

In the giant Victoria Market in Melbourne, for example, there are Soviet Jewish merchants and other Jewish entrepreneurs. A Polish-born haberdasher, in Australia for 33 years, pointed out Russian Jews in the market but he said he did not know them because they like to be by themselves.

LUBAVITCHER WORKING WITH SOVIET JEWS

As in other countries, the first concern of Jewish leadership for Soviet Jews after the immediate problems of resettlement is to foster continuing identification with the Jewish community. “Their level of Jewishness — knowledge of history, culture, and certain articles of religious faith — is very low among them,” an observer said. “This is characteristic of virtually all Soviet Jewish immigrants.” Still, “most marriages wthin the migrant group have been ‘in-faith marriages’ conducted by rabbis.”

The Lubavitcher, who came to Australia about 25 years ago, were said to be actively working with Soviet Jews. In Melbourne, the Lubavitcher conduct two schools with some 800 children. While most of the immigrants are in Sydney and Melbourne, a surprisingly high number — about 300 — were reported living in Perth, about 3,000 miles across the Australian continent from Sydney. Adelaide is receiving some families, as is Brisbane. Canberra has one Soviet Jewish family whose breadwinner is a physicist employed by an Australian federal agency.

A summation of Australian observations on Soviet Jewry can be put this way: “Russian Jews are coming to Australia because of easier material conditions for them in Australia than in the United States. After living for 60 years with communism, they are terribly materialistic and very difficult to work with since they were brought up in a system of deceit and lying. But, in the long run, they will probably become much like the rest of us, both as Australians and as Jews.”

Monday: Part Six

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