Making Judaism Public

Photo credit Sharon Arnott

By Rabbi Alon Meltzer

In 2018 Shalom organised a series of focus groups to engage our participants in a conversation about how to make our organisation better, more focussed, and delivering more of what they want. In these conversations one thing became apparent, despite a strong Jewish pride they all seemed to have, many were very unwilling to publicly shared their Judaism.

Photo credit Sharon Arnott

Fast forward one year, and we are sitting in the middle of our biggest project yet, Succah by the Sea, which I have previously written about on this platform here. Succah by the Sea, as part of Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea, Bondi 2019 exhibit, is one of the largest public displays of sculptures and art – over half a million people will walk through the village of Succot and 110 artworks lining Sydney’s most famous coastline.

Photo credit Sharon Arnott

In this past year we have seen a rise in anti-Semitism, the shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, we have seen public discourse become much more divided. We sat in the week’s leading up to the exhibit planning the exhibit, workshops, tour guides, podcasts and everything else related to the event, along with the ‘in emergency break glass’ press release in case of anti-Semitic vandalism or commentary around our exhibit. We were also worried whether our younger members of the community would engage in the project, after them telling us that they don’t do public Judaism because of their innate fears of anti-Semitism.

Photo credit Sharon Arnott

And then we started the exhibit, and what an impact it has had.

There are several stories that I would like share that emphasise how important being public about our Judaism is.

A French couple visiting Sydney came over to speak to me, they said “We weren’t meant to come but had a few moments and thought to do the Bondi to Tamarama walk and see the Sculptures, we never thought we would find a village of Succot. It is breathtaking to see such a proud display of Judaism – we could never see this in France.”

I was sitting in one of our Succot, doing some work between tours, and next to me was an elderly non-Jewish couple, she was reading an essay I had written in the official exhibition brochure, Suddenly she said, “this is incredible, ancient ritual turned into art, discussing such modern topics, this is what art is supposed to be.”

To be honest, we have had comments each and every day to our guides on site, and on Facebook and Instagram. But perhaps the most moving was the following.

An elderly couple were sitting in one of the Succot and overheard me talking about the Succot and the village. The man stood up and the following happened;

Man – “did you say these are Succot and you were the director of the project?”

Me – “Yes”

Man is now crying, and speechless, he then hit me with a water bottle.

Man – “Thank you, thank you, I never thought we could be proud of being Jewish again.”

Me – now also in tears – “Thank you, that is all I can say”

The man happened to be a holocaust survivor. He was brought to tears by this incredible public display of Judaism’s ancient rituals, brought to life by Shalom, and inspired by Reboot.

At a time when reports of anti-Semitism’s growth seems to be making headlines across the world, this project is a true display of Jewish pride, showcasing Jewish ideas and ritual to nearly half a million people over the three weeks of the exhibit. With the project being showcased on national radio and print media, and in a specially curated podcast for the exhibit which is on both Apple and Spotify, the general public have an opportunity to see and hear Judaism’s voice on societal issues like homelessness, impermanence, displacement, environmentalism, and imperfection, and we the Jewish community, have an opportunity to realise that being public about our Judaism is a strong stand to say that we are here, and we value our place in the discourse of society.

As a father, rabbi, and sociologist, Jewish community is everything to Alon Meltzer. Currently he serves as Director of Programs at Shalom and Rabbi of Or Chadash Synagogue in Sydney, Australia.