Melbourne's Most Reclusive Jewish Sect Lets Cameras in
By Beau Donelly
April 22, 2016
Melbourne's most secretive Jewish sect, the ultra-Orthodox Adass Israel community, has opened its doors to the public for the first time.
Made up of about 200 families who live over a square kilometre block in Ripponlea, the conservative religious group honours ancient rituals dating back to biblical times and follows the strictest interpretation of the commandments in the Torah.
The men wear mink fur hats and black silk coats. Women cover their hair in public. Boys and girls are segregated from kindergarten. Arranged marriages are common. Children in some families number in the teens. During the Sabbath, they refrain from using electricity – no phones, cars, lights. They don't own televisions. Most shun the internet.
|Rabbi Aryeh Goldman in Jerusalem. Photo:|
The insular community is almost self-sufficient – they have their own kindergartens, schools, shops, synagogue, cemetery and medical service – and despite living in Melbourne's inner south-east have little contact with the outside world and the wider Jewish community.
But a new documentary by filmmakers Danny Ben-Moshe and Dan Goldberg follows the lives of three Adass members and gives a rare glimpse into this reclusive group.
"Getting in the door officially was really the easy part," director Ben-Moshe said. "Then it was a just a constant juggle of executing the filming. Some people were supportive and helpful and some were hostile."
Ben-Moshe said there were many scenes he would have liked to have filmed but was not allowed to, such as at the school or the group's charity work.
"This community regards Jewish law as paramount and they interpret and practise that law in the most orthodox and conservative way," he said. "Anything that distracts from that is basically not welcome. The community is not monolithic and the media is something that is quite foreign."
But there are many places where the cameras were welcome. Filmmakers followed rabbi Aryeh Goldman,who grew up as a secular Jew in Greensborough, to his eight-day-old baby boy's circumcision and on an emotional trip to the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem.
During the week-long Jewish festival of Sukkot, Goldman builds a sukkah – a temporary hut topped with branches – in his carport. While most orthodox Jews eat and spend time in their sukkahs, the rabbi sleeps there, using earplugs to drown out the Melbourne traffic and leaving a light on to deter the possums.
Grandmother and businesswoman Raizel Fogel is also profiled in the film. Fogel was born into the Adass community and with her husband runs the well-known kosher catering company and deli, Eshel. She has 37 grandchildren and one great-grandchild and works as a doula in her spare time.
"One of our principal beliefs is to be fruitful and multiply," she says. "Adass families are generally ... large."
The documentary briefly touches on the child sex-abuse scandal that has in recent years plagued the ultra-orthodox community's reputation.
A court last year ordered the Adass Israel Girls School in Elsternwick to pay more than $1 million to a woman abused by former principal Malka Leifer, who fled overseas with the help of school authorities after allegations against her first surfaced.
In the film, retired importer and Adass elder Shlomo Abeles defends the community's handling of the Leifer case, saying she was removed "the second we found out about it".
"Whatever way we got rid of her, it's correct or not so correct, but we got her away from the kids," he said. "We didn't want her in the community trying to abuse any more kids."
Leifer is under house arrest in Israel while Australian authorities try to extradite her on more than 70 counts of sexual assault.
Strictly Jewish is the third and final instalment of a three-part documentary series about hidden subcultures in Australia airing on SBS this month. It airs on April 27.