The St Kilda Hebrew congregation (St Kilda Shule) is housed in a heritage-listed, Byzantine-inspired building with a domed roof, brass doors and arched windows. Built in 1927, it is one of the oldest synagogues in Australia. The congregation itself has an even longer history, founded in the 1800s by Jewish immigrants from Great Britain. Many of the traditions of the original congregation have continued proudly from this time, such as the wardens’ wearing of coat tails and top hats, which only discontinued recently.

The Shule today, numbering around 1,400 members, is made up of established Australian families. It has an older demographic, but not exclusively so. The Shule hosts morning services each day from Sunday to Friday, as well as the traditional Shabbat (Sabbath) services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings.

The Shule closed its doors before the government announcement of the closure of all places of worship. On 18th March, preempting the lockdown, the Shule held its last service, mindful of the demographics of its members and the potential health risks of the pandemic. For the Shule, medical concerns are given a high priority and the principle of protecting the sanctity of life made it effectively a religious obligation for the leadership to close its doors.

For a community which spends much of its time in large gatherings, whether worshiping or participating in religious celebrations, the lockdown involved a “cultural shift” said Rabbi Ronnie Figdor OAM, CEO of St Kilda Shule. “Weddings, circumcisions and Bar Mitzvahs are all celebrations in community” but it is not because there is a religious obligation to do so. “We’ve been brought up to celebrate in this way.” So, one of the main priorities for the Hebrew congregation’s leadership was to set about “re-educating the community.” They identified the page numbers from the prayer book that congregants could use at home and sent them out in the newsletter. They explained how prayers of remembrance could be said at home to commemorate the passing of a loved one. And people have come to accept the new ways of doing things for now.

Rabbi Figdor reflected, “people have always assumed a Rabbi or a Cantor is necessary but there are actually only about four prayers that require the presence of a quorum or minyan [referring to the religious obligation for 10 males, 13 years or older to be present at certain rituals or prayers].” “There is a cultural preference for the presence of leadership but one of the advantages of the Jewish religion is that many prayers and activities can be performed at home.”

The Rabbis of the St Kilda Hebrew congregation were mindful to frame the changes to their services and activities from a positive perspective. Instead of talking about the cancellation of gatherings and services or the closure of the Shule, they emphasized that their activities were continuing. “All of the services continued online, nothing was cancelled”, Rabbi Figdor noted, except for the Sabbath services, which couldn’t be moved online because of the prohibition on the use of electricity.

There were also resources from Jewish tradition that were helpful in this process, said Rabbi Figdor. Like Australian law, Jewish religious law is based on precedent and there are books of Responsa that describe how Jewish communities have responded to crises before, like cholera pandemics. The leadership identified Responsa from famous Rabbis and used these texts for decision-making. They also worked hard to provide support for those who struggled using technology, such as Zoom.

The Shule seems to have been remarkably successful in the way it has navigated the lockdown. While there are only about 60 viewers at a time watching the services live, around 7,000 people are watching them at other times during the week, a number far greater than the congregation itself. Many of these are international viewers. The interest has led the congregation to introduce a new Friday pre-Sabbath and Saturday evening service on Facebook live, gatherings that probably wouldn’t have generated enough interest to be viable prior to COVID-19. Their adult education classes, which might only see eight or nine participants usually, have now grown to around 20 people. The Shule is also gaining members.  

When asked about why this might be the case, Rabbi Figdor noted that COVID-19 has led to more “spiritual seeking”. People are also “impressed” with their service delivery and the use of singing or instruments to “change it up” each week. Their Rabbis are quite popular too.

For the moment, services at the Shule have resumed under government limitations on the number that can gather. They’ve introduced a pre-service registration system so they can collect the details of those who attend and can restrict numbers. There is also a rigorous process for ensuring that all the legal checks are adhered to before people are given the go ahead to come to a service. They have three separate synagogue buildings they can use to run concurrent services. If attendance exceeds capacity in one, they use a second or third space to run more services.

For the Shule, the lockdown has been positive in many ways because they’ve been “forced” to introduce new efficiencies in the way they work. They’ve even demonstrated that it is possible to engage older congregants using technology. For Rabbi Figdor, it is important to be open to new possibilities and not to be constrained by circumstances. If it wasn’t for COVID-19 they wouldn’t have explored new ways of doing things. For them, the lockdown “is not closing doors or windows but opening new ones.”