The Tiny Community of Conservative Jews in New Zealand

The traffic in San Diego was driving me crazy. I had to get away. What was more remote, I thought, than the land of kiwis?

So I bought a ticket and endured the daylong flight. I purchased a van and rigged a bed in the back. For the next couple weeks I surfed and explored isolated beaches with views of snow-capped volcanoes. I hiked exquisite mountain treks that were featured in the Lord of the Rings.

I slept in my van and woke up to breathtaking views of breaking waves and mountains with not another soul around.

After traversing the Taranaki Peninsula’s Surf Highway 45 on the north island’s west coast, I came to a town called Wanganui. From here it was a short drive to interior national parks where I could have lived as Thoreau did, existentially pondering in solitude amongst natural beauty.

But instead, something led me to drive several hours out of my way. That something: Jews.

With Passover approaching in a few days, I felt the urge to celebrate with my fellow He and Shebrews.

My destination: Wellington, the most southerly capital in the world, home to two synagogues and 2,000 of New Zealand’s estimated 6,500 Jews.

My van and I found our way to Webb Street right in front of the grey, non-descript building that houses the Wellington Hebrew Congregation’s Beth El Synagogue and the Jewish Community Center.

This JCC had no swimming pool nor fitness center nor Krav Maga classes. It was very spartan.

In the main dining hall a portrait hung of Queen Elizabeth. New Zealand is a member of the British Commonwealth, but it was still odd seeing her alongside Theodore Herzl and Israeli President Chaim Weitzman.

A proper British doctor doing her residency in New Zealand would later tell me that even in England, the synagogues there don’t display portraits of the queen.

Wellington has had a Jewish presence since 1840. Jewish shareholders in the New Zealand Company, which at one time was directed by Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, settled here.

But it was Abraham Hort who is credited as being the Jewish pioneer of Wellington. Hort received the blessing to establish an orthodox synagogue by the Chief Rabbi of London at the time, Solomon Herschell.

Like an Okie bravely venturing out to California, Hart left England with his wife and five daughters.

I soon met the bouncing Rabbi Chaim Dovrat, who invited me into his unpretentious office. I gave him my sob story: a hungry backpacker with no place to stay, just hours before Sabbath. Surely he would help me out?

With his tired, droopy eyes, aloof and distant stare and laconic reaction, I thought the rabbi wasn’t very moved by my story. New Zealand is a popular tourist destination and Wellington is a major stopover, being a gateway to the visually stunning, glacier-studded south island.

I guess the rabbi had met the likes of mooching backpackers like me before.

“Are you coming to Shabbat service tonight?” the rabbi asked me.

“I’d like to very much. What time do services begin?”

“Be here at 6:30 … You’re not going to come dressed like that I hope?” asked the rabbi, looking at my thuggish beanie and wrinkled, not-so-clean t-shirt and hiking pants.

“No, of course not,” I replied, wondering what in my small duffel bag I could pull out that wouldn’t make me look more suited for a Friday night rugby match.

“I’ll make an announcement after the service to arrange one of the members to put you up for the night,” said the rabbi.

Finally, some kosher Kiwi hospitality.

Approximately 300,000 people live in greater Wellington and about half as many live downtown. For any size city, Wellington is very fun, funky, liberal and cosmopolitan. Imagine a mini San Francisco surrounded by stunning natural beauty.

Like Chicago, Wellington is a windy city, but it is surrounded by several bays and steep high rocky cliff faces, perfect for taking long hikes and killing time before Shabbat service.

I didn’t have any luck finding a public shower, so I arrived at the congregation early and found a bathroom. I washed my hair in the sink, while praying nobody, especially the rabbi would walk in on me.

Feeling refreshed, I also put on a somewhat wrinkle-less button-down shirt and made my way into the sanctuary.

Only 13 men and three women attended the service. Seated next to me was a man who had to be the fastest Hebrew speedreader in the world. The sounds that emanated from his mouth seemed more auctioneer than a Jewish worshipper.

Did he come to services because he felt obligated, rather than doing so to feel spiritually connected and renewed?

Listening to a handful of men behind me sing ‘Lecha Dodi’ in perfect harmony made me feel spiritually renewed and thankful for my decision to come here.

After the service, I struck up a conversation with two secular Israelis who where staying at the backpacker hotel sandwiched between the synagogue and the church.

I was planning on spending a late night with them, walking clown Cuba St. , Wellington’s bohemian pedestrian mall. They offered me a free place to stay in their dorm room. I accepted the invite, and a second later, the Hebrew speed reader approached me.

“Are you ready for Shabbat dinner?” he asked.

The speed-reader interpreted the blank stare on my face .

“The rabbi called me earlier this afternoon and told me you needed a place to stay for the night.”

A free meal and a free place to stay? I told the Israelis that I’d try to catch up with them sometime over the weekend.

Speed-reader’s real name is Simon Frank. Originally from England and a computer consultant, Simon is married to a sweetheart of a woman with Goldilocks hair. Her name is Petra and she cooked me three meals in the short time I stayed over.

Simon and Petra have a 20-year-old son, Daniel, who just returned to New Zealand from a year abroad in Israel.

Daniel’s experience in the holy land turned him strictly shomer shabbos. He is only one of a handful of Wellington Jewish youth who wear a yarmulke. Daniel would like to make permanent aliyah to Israel.

He realizes this is a Catch-22 and a problem for the Jewish community in Wellington. On one hand, if Daniel wants to live a kosher, observant lifestyle, he’ll have an easier and richer time doing so in Israel (There is only one place to buy kosher food in Wellington, at the kosher co-op located under the synagogue. A small kosher steak goes for $25NZ.).

But the mitzvah of aliyah to Israel comes at the cost of Wellington’s small Jewish population getting even smaller.

For Daniel, though, the lure of Israel is too great. He will return there.

Daniel jokes about the rabbi sometimes going next door to the backpacker’s hotel to recruit Israelis to meet the requirements for minyan.

Simon, Daniel and I stayed up late, debating like rabbinic scholars. We discussed hypothetical halachic conundrums, such as, supposing before erev Shabbos (the night before the Sabbath) , one were to access a web page about the current week’s Torah portion. Could it be viewed on Shabbat if you didn’t have to do anything to the computer? Would it be forbidden to scroll clown or even jiggle the mouse to get the computer out of sleep mode if it were to access Jewish scholarly material online?

The day after I left the Frank household, I had an early-morning appointment with Rabbi Dovrat. I wanted to get more insight into the Jewish community here.

Dovrat said that not only do some of Wellington’s Jewish youth fly the coup, many families have left, not only going to Israel, but also to areas with larger economic bases such as New Zealand ‘s largest city, Auckland, as well as Sydney and Melbourne, Australia. (Although Auckland has over one million residents and a quarter of New Zealand’s population, there are only two synagogues there, the same number as Wellington.)

“If one of our members decides to make aliyah to Israel, I will encourage it because it’s an achievement,” said the rabbi. “But if they decide to move to Auckland or Australia, I will try to discourage mem.”

Another problem facing the Jews here is that there is no Jewish high school in all of New Zealand.

In greater Wellington, Rabbi Dovrat says there are about 2,000 Jews and at no time in the city’s history has there ever been more than that many. Most of the affiliated belong to the progressive-liberal Temple Sinai, located just a few blocks away.

“The rabbi at Temple Sinai, who is a woman, admitted to me that what they do is not real Shabbat,” claimed Dovrat, who estimated that 80 percent of Temple Sinai’s members are from mixed marriages.

Despite the fractious comments, Dovrat acknowledged that Temple Sinai’s members support Israel and the two congregations celebrate holidays together such as Purim and Chanukah.

But the conversation comes back to numbers, or sometimes lack thereof.

“In 2006, we had four births, two weddings and seven funerals, so you see the numbers aren’t always on our side,” Dovrat said.

The Jewish community will always be small, the rabbi predicted, but the will always be people coming and going and one thing is for sure, the community here will always be one of an international, high-quality variety.

Passover Seder
The communal seder drew 180 people. Many of them were tourists like me. There was a large contingent of Israelis. I sat at the same table with the aforementioned British doctor, a Yemeni-Israeli working as a fruit picker for a few months in New Zealand, a longhaired hippie-type from Chicago taking college classes at nearby Victoria University, and a native Kiwi, a 16-year-old goth-punk dressed boy who probably would have rather spent his time elsewhere.

“The only thing I like about New Zealand is you can get strong pot here,” the teen confided in me, in a jaded whisper.

After the fourth cup of wine and pounding the table with my fist with the cheering on of the Yemeni-Israeli, him trying to out-shout my “Di-Di Ayenu,” and after the communal singing of Hatikvah, I was glad I drove several hours out of the way to be several thousand miles away from home and family, putting my long-awaited surf odyssey on hold.

I felt like Wellington was the promised land.

Judd Handler will continue his travels in New Zealand exploring the south island’s glaciers, beaches and Jewish communities. 

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.