“Welcome to Australia. It’s worth the shlep!” This was the phrase on a colorful refrigerator magnet at a Jewish gift store in Australia.
When you think of Australia, perhaps images of kangaroos, koalas, nature and underwater snorkeling come to mind. If so, you are “spot on” as the Aussies or Kiwis would say. However, after a month-long journey through Australia and New Zealand, we now envision a vibrant Jewish community, dozens of synagogues and a world down under with dedicated Jewish roots.
In search of the Jewish connection as all our travels are centered, it’s almost impossible to do justice to this engaging Jewish life that spans an enormous, magnificent country. Join me as I scratch the surface and highlight the heimishe happenings and interesting standouts of spectacular and beautiful Australia and New Zealand.
Atlanta to Port Douglas
Our monthlong trip began with a flight through Los Angeles to Brisbane, Australia, and a short flight to the city of Cairns and its seaside nearby Port Douglas. Sounds like a quick trip, but hold it right there. Around 25 hours and three flights later, we arrived at the tropical north part of Australia. This coastal Australian resort area is best known for the World Heritage Site of the Great Barrier Reef and the wet tropical rainforests surrounded by a vast amount of adventure activities. It is also Australia’s largest beachside city.
To give you an idea of the Great Barrier Reef’s scope, it’s the combined area total of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Hundreds of coral types, fish species and underwater sea creatures inhabit the ocean.
A Quicksilver reef cruise took us to a diving opportunity for my scuba-certified husband Ed, who reassured me after diving and spotting the popular clownfish, Nemo is alive and well and is definitely not missing. The next excursion included the World Heritage Site, Daintree National Park, and a treat touring the terrain in the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway cable car cascading for 4 miles over the rainforest. A highlight was the Kuranda Scenic Railway through the mountainous area with skyscraping views of the spectacular gorges.
Melbourne Here We Come
From Port Douglas, we headed to Melbourne (be sure to pronounce the name with a silent R) and began our significant Jewish connection with a wonderful Shabbat dinner with the extended family of our niece Shira Levine (daughter of Esther and Mike Levine). Shira and her Australian-born husband Dan Halperin and two sons recently relocated there for a career opportunity.
A vibrant, insular, active Jewish community of 60,000-plus is heavily located in and around Shira’s intown suburb, called Caulfield. This suburb and nearby St. Kilda are referred to as the “Bagel Belt” or “The Shetl.” With 53 synagogues for such a small population, there is a shul for roughly every 1,000 residents. Melbourne’s tight-knit Jewish neighborhoods remind me of Atlanta’s early 1960s with an identifiable Jewish population in specific Jewish areas.
As I searched for the Jewish connection in Melbourne, Shelley Cohney, one of the most well-respected and knowledgeable veteran travel guides of Amazing Melbourne Tours was highly recommended.
Shelley is a highly credentialed leading specialist in Jewish Melbourne tours. She and her business partner Michelle Brown provided two days of in-depth highlights into the beautiful world of Jewish Melbourne. We experienced firsthand the Jewish-lined streets of St Kilda, the Jewish Museum of Australia, and the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, called the “split off” synagogue from the earliest days of Melbourne.
Add endless street-lined kosher bakeries, butchers, Judaica gift stores to alleys owned primarily by Jewish merchants and it’s easy to see why Melbourne is so popular.
Melbourne also offers recreation that includes every imaginable interest, from hiking to biking, to beachcombing and hang gliding. A tourist delight is on Phillip Island, a few hours away if time allows, featuring the Penguin Parade as the penguins arrive each evening at dusk in the thousands and then return to the sea as part of their natural habitat.
Off to Hobart, Tasmania
From Melbourne we journeyed to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, which we learned is home to the Hobart Synagogue www.hobartsynagogue.org, known as the oldest synagogue still in use in Australia, and the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere since 1845.
Hobart is also home to magnificent fjords, rock formations, seals and the Tasmanian devil, a less than attractive animal you’ve probably referred to. (You handsome little Tasmanian Devil!)
While the Jewish community there is far smaller than the larger cities, the most spectacular attraction in Hobart, not to be missed, is the magnificent MONA [Museum of Old and New Art] built into the cliffs of rock and surrounded by the sea.
Today, 60 percent of the visitors to Hobart come to see this outstanding museum filled with radical art exhibitions and works that are clearly far from the traditional museum experience. In addition, don’t leave Hobart without a boat tour of the nearby islands, which magnificently boast stunning rock formations, energetic seals and exotic birds.
Next, we headed to Sydney, another mecca for Jewish residents, with synagogues and an active Jewish community often called the city of the views. As Australia’s largest city, Sydney embraces its stunning harbor, and we were captivated by the sea and natural waterways and the grand style of the Sydney Opera House regally sitting in the harbor. It is one of the most famous iconic landmarks in the world, with instant recognition for this architectural masterpiece. With some 4 million people, Sydney continues to be a paradise for surfers, swimmers, yachtsmen, fishermen and golfers.
Sydney has more than 60,000 Jews, though the community is more spread out than Melbourne.
Well-known and experienced tour guide Darryl Shlosberg, who owns Real Sydney Tours and does outstanding Jewish journeys and Sydney landmark trips, is a wonderful authority and easily found online. A highlight to which Darryl took us was Our Big Kitchen, a working kosher kitchen that was the dream of a local rabbi’s wife. The goal of the kitchen is to feed anyone in need, while also giving training to cooks, chefs and an endless array of people whose lives are changed while volunteering there as they also make a difference to those they feed.
More than 70,000 meals are cooked and delivered yearly and the entire community came together to build this million-dollar kitchen at no cost to this viable nonprofit endeavor.
Sydney is also home to more than 30 synagogues, a Jewish museum, Holocaust memorial, nearby Bondi Beach and more. The Jewish community is vibrant and, thanks to Darryl, we had an insider’s view into its heartbeat and that of all things Sydney.
Cruising in New Zealand
Following our stay in the Sydney harbor, we boarded a cruise headed for New Zealand. When time allows, many trips to Australia are paired with New Zealand since it’s so close.
New Zealanders are known as “kiwis,” and our southern “ya’ll this” and “ya’ll that” definitely stood out.
Our entire trip was planned by Fran Penn of Easy Travel, who joined us with husband Bob, related to Fred Katz, who was also on the trip with Marcy Aronow and Perla and Miles Brett. We booked a Celebrity Cruise ship tour to New Zealand and the second two weeks of our adventure began onboard with the well-organized Celebrity Solstice.
Ironically, Rabbi Jeffery Feinstein and his wife Marcy from Marietta were aboard, leading services since it was the first night of Chanukah. Latkes and some festive song-singing added just the right touch, also allowing for Jewish networking on board.
The ship catered to travelers’ every whim, with amenities like Canyon Ranch Spa, an around-the-clock casino, indoor and outdoor pools, hot tubs, dance clubs, outstanding entertainment and the food, skillfully presented at each meal, leaving nothing to be desired. After a few sea days on board, including a spectacular cruise through Milford Sound that was quite relaxing, we were off to Wellington, Bay of Islands, Dunedin, Akaroa (don’t miss The Giants House, featuring the imaginative and whimsical world of amazing artist Jose Martin) and Napier, and we ended in Auckland. Each port had its own indigenous highlights, which included wineries, dramatic jet boat rides to see volcanic rock formations, waterfalls, natural habitat and even a glow worm cave experience led in the dark with lanterns to visit the phenomenal species in a stalagmite cave.
Of course, what would a trip be without a little Jewish geography, three degrees of separation? And I was no exception. Our tour guide while in Melbourne thought a long-lost cousin of mine who relocated to Sydney decades ago from South Africa was a friend of her friend’s. Excited with this family tree discovery, I contacted him by email only to find an unrelated Jewish gentleman who kindly thanked me for my email, which he called lovely and wished me a good life, but recalled no relation.
Still, there were other connections. Fellow cruise ship guests ranged from other Sandy Springs residents to Perla’s cousins in Florida, to Jacksonville friends of the family. Add more friends of friends and at every turn our travels gave meaning to “it’s a small, small world, especially when you’re Jewish.”
Overall this trip involved a great deal of traveling, endless flights, miles down under, and certainly was a memorable journey.
Robyn Spizman Gerson is a New York Times bestselling author of more than 50 books and a well-known media personality appearing often on local and national television.