New Zealand’s Jewish Millennials – “Does saying ‘oy vey’ a lot make me Jewish?”
The first exposure I had to the Jewish community was at Hannukah in the Park in 2014. If I’m being honest, I only went in the hope of seeing the cute friend of a friend I had met on the bus earlier. (Side note, he was there – score.) Despite having Jewish family in Israel, I grew up completely removed from the Jewish community; but since 2014, I’ve been learning more about what Judaism means to the individual and what Judaism means to a community, and those two things are not one and the same. Many insist that being Jewish is not a race, not a culture, and not a religion… but all three. Confused? Welcome to our world.
I’ve found myself thrust into a community rich in personality and tradition, where millennial Jews encourage one another to find their own meaning in their faith. For such a small group of only six thousand people, the New Zealand Jewish community is extremely diverse. Auckland itself has two synagogues (buildings in which Jews meet for cultural and religious reasons); one synagogue identifies as reform and generally progressive and the other is seen to cater to the more traditional, orthodox community.
David, a 19-year-old South African Kiwi, and Seth, 22, both grew up in the orthodox community. Personally, they both identify as being traditionalists. They take part in the tradition Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest from Friday sundown through to Saturday, attend synagogue regularly, and follow Jewish holidays.
Traditionally, Jews on Shabbat must refrain from doing any work. Many take the opportunity to turn off their devices, and the more orthodox communities refrain from driving, carrying things or even using electricity. When Seth lived in Wellington, he would observe Shabbat by switching off his phone and walking to his local synagogue.
Also, for Seth, his belief in prayer is less to do with his relationship with G-d (for Jews, G-d is considered too holy considered too holy to be written in full), and to do with maintaining a mindful and meditative standpoint. While Seth and David both relate to many aspects of the Torah – the law of G-d – Seth and David also recognise their place in the 21st century, and their responsibility to future generations for the advancement of their community.
Seth is trying to bring change his community from the inside out, as he’s concerned that “the New Zealand [Jewish] community isn’t interested in pushing the boundaries” of what Judaism means. For him, this means greater acceptance of new traditions. During their Jewish youth camps, Seth’s youth group prays three times a day. This is an aspect of Judaism females are generally excluded from, but he knows that’s not the way toward community growth. He’d love to see his female youth leaders take more of a role in aspects of Jewish life where they’ve traditionally been excluded, and knows that change is up to his generation. He will admit he isn’t the most popular person amongst the more orthodox, older generations for holding these ideals.
Despite their interest in creating change, Seth and David still maintain some traditions. To them, finding a Jewish partner is extremely important. They want to raise children in the same community that they were brought up in, and according to orthodox law, they can only do that if their kids’ mothers are Jewish. So, they’re on J-Swipe, a Jewish millennial’s answer to Tinder. They have their settings turned to international mode, and are looking at girls who have their profiles set to “just Jewish”, “traditional”, or “orthodox”. Not that New Zealand Jewish girls aren’t all total babes – it’s just they’ve met them all. Hooray for small communities!
Justine, a Kiwi descended from generations of pure-bred Lithuanians, says she’d also prefer to marry a Jew, and it’s expected of her to marry Lithuanian Jewish. But she admits it’s pretty hard when there’s only three other gay Jewish girls in New Zealand, and she’s met them all, too.
Perry, also a South African Kiwi and AUT journalism student, is worried this statement will sound cheesy, but believes that “love should transcend all boundaries”. He’s supportive of Seth and David and our other friends who are looking for Jewish partners, but for him, a religion doesn’t define who a life partner is. He admits it might be easier, as he’ll never need to explain how to pronounce names of holidays such as Pesach (pess-ah-phlegm), but having grown up in a more progressive community, it’s never been a priority for him.
Both Seth and David also identify as Zionists, meaning they believe in the right to a Jewish homeland; for many, that Jewish homeland is Israel. But like Seth’s refusal to exclude his female youth leaders, David also defies community norms. He admits he found a connection to G-d in Israel that he could never replicate anywhere else in the world, but he doesn’t necessarily believe that everyone should make Aliyah (a Hebrew term that means immigrate to Israel). He stresses the importance of the Jewish diaspora for world education and acceptance of Jewish people, and wouldn’t want to see communities deprived of that.
Avigail, a 22-year-old politics and international relations student, also agrees that not all Jews should make Aliyah and move to “the homeland”. But unlike Seth and David, she is fervently against a Zionist mentality. Avigail describes her and her sisters as secular Tel Avivot; in other words, non-religious babes from Tel Aviv, Israel’s party central. Avigail’s anti-Zionist views have gotten her on the wrong side of some of the Jewish community, most of whom believe that Israel should be for the Jewish people. Her popularity isn’t helped by the fact she started a uni group called “Dayenu – Jews Against Occupation” who aim to educate people about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in the West Bank.
Avigail maintains that everything she fights for is for the love of her country. “I just want to smoke shisha on the beach and eat falafel with my friends.” Admittedly, she says it’s kind of hard to do that when both sides are getting the shit bombed out of them on the daily. “My Dad searched for me and my Mum’s body through rubble after a terrorist attack,” which Avigail and her mother had missed by only a minute. She says her family sprinted to New Zealand after that, and although she loves it here, she would like to move back some day. But that can only happen if the state of the nation drastically improves.
Despite identifying as more of an Israeli expat than being part of the Jewish diaspora, both Tomer a 22-year-old mechanical engineering student, and Avigail closely follow Jewish holiday seasons, which are usually about family, community, and celebrating the fact that we’re not slaves in Egypt anymore.
Like Seth, Tomer practices Shabbat on a Friday night, but for him it’s less about prayer and meditation, and more about getting together with his family to celebrate the end of the working week. It’s about plenty of food and plenty of friends, and it’s not uncommon for his house to be crammed on a Friday night.
Avi, a biology and environmentalism student, also sees traditional Jewish holidays as a defining aspect of her Judaism. She has Friday night dinners with her flatmates and they cook up a storm for celebrations, but she’s always cautious of following tradition for the sake of tradition. Part of being Jewish is being critical and asking questions, so Avi challenges her family with vegetarian replacements of traditional Jewish dishes – an extremely unorthodox move when it comes to Jewish food!
A Jewish millennial in New Zealand is made up of all these viewpoints and more. We’re a combination of old and new, a junction between tradition and progression. Judaism shares a number of ideals with other religions, like the idea of family, tradition, and not being a dick, and for many of us, these are the main teachings we choose to take from Judaism. Combine all that with a dedication to your community and a proclivity for suffering, and you’ve got yourself a Jewish millennial.