Australia’s Jewish communities have a lot to celebrate this Purim. The Land Down Under is emerging as a pandemic-free nation, and unlike most places in the world, the joyous holiday will be celebrated almost normally this year.

In Australia’s tropical north, a new coronavirus case hasn’t appeared in 49 days, and Townsville’s Jews will be getting their first in-person visit from their rabbi in a year. Chabad of the Great Barrier Reef co-directors Rabbi Ari and Mushkie Rubin, and their children, are taking a five-hour drive south to the remote coastal town to celebrate with a Megillah reading and Purim party. The holiday begins on Thursday night, Feb. 25 and continues through Friday, Feb. 26 (extending through Sunday in Jerusalem). On Friday, the Rubin family will be back home in Cairns, 215 miles to the north, celebrating with the community there.

In pre-Covid times, Rubin made the trek once a month to teach a class and meet with community members one-on-one. After a year of joining the rabbi in his classes via Zoom, Townsville’s Jews say they have no greater Purim joy than celebrating in person with their dedicated, albeit long-distance rabbi.

“It’s absolutely delightful that we can get together again as a community,” said Zoltan Sarnyai, who along with his wife, Katie, and their boys has been waiting for the much anticipated visit for months. “We are privileged in northern Australia, with little exposure to Covid; however, restrictions still applied and we couldn’t have many social gatherings.”

As a resident of a small coastal village, isolation isn't new for Sarnyai, a native of Hungary and a professor of neuroscience at James Cook University. “It is quite challenging to be a small Jewish community at the best of times, but especially during Covid, when we did not have a chance to celebrate together.” Rubin, to his credit, did all he could to assist the community, Sarnyaitells

“He did everything, absolutely everything, in his power to take advantage of modern technology to run Torah classes and bar mitzvah classes.” Rubin has been teaching Sarnyai’s son Benjamin over Zoom, ahead of his bar mitzvah in July. The rabbi will travel to Townsville for the Shabbat of the milestone, a rare occurrence in the town.

The Chabad center sponsored a pre-Purim hamantaschen bake.
The Chabad center sponsored a pre-Purim hamantaschen bake.

Almost Business as Usual in Melbourne

In Melbourne, Rabbi Menachem Aron, co-director of Chabad of RARA (Rural and Regional Australia) with his wife, Shevi, hasn’t been able to carry out his frequent pastoral visits to the world’s largest congregation—mainland Australia. Aron overseas Chabad activities in the more remote, outlying areas, outside of Australia’s largest cities. With the aid of rotating crews of rabbinical students and the famous, well-traveled “Mitzvah Tank,” Chabad of RARA serves small Jewish communities and individuals scattered across the vast and unforgiving continent. Travel bans and interstate border closures made some of their regular visits impossible, while others had to be scaled back due to social-distancing requirements.

Darwin, a northern Australian city closer to Papua New Guinea than to the rest of Australia, also hasn’t had a rabbi visit in more than a year. With the Northern Territory border now open to Melbournites, the Arons and their two toddlers will be spending Thursday evening (Purim eve) in the Blue Mountains region in central New South Wales before driving 70 miles to Sydney Airport to catch a four-hour-plus flight to Darwin, where they’ll be hosting a Purim party and Megillah reading for around 30 people, staying on to host Shabbat meals and visit individuals for almost another week before flying back to base in Melbourne.

Back to Synagogue in the Suburbs

At Chabad of Malvern in Melbourne’s suburbs, congregants can’t wait to return to synagogue. The city just emerged from yet another snap-lockdown in response to a case of the U.K. variant, and home gatherings are limited to five people, while synagogues are only restricted to one person per two square meters—meaning they can safely host more than 200 people. Rabbi Reuvi Cooper, youth director at Chabad of Malvern, expects more to participate in this year’s festivities than usual. “People can’t host at home; they’ll be coming to us for their Purim party,” he says.

What a difference a year has made for the Jews of Melbourne. Packing up from a lively Purim party exactly one year ago, Cooper says he received an email that was the first indication that the world was about to change. He learned late that night that the Chabad school in Melbourne would be closing for a deep-cleaning after a staff member was tested positive for a virus that was spreading through Asia, Europe and parts of the United States.

It was one of the country’s first coronavirus cases, and it marked the first school closure on the continent. “They wouldn’t return to school until well after Passover,” recalls the rabbi, as the authorities declared a state of emergency just days after Purim, with all schools shut two weeks after the holiday.

One year later, owing to its geographic isolation and tough international border closures, coupled with a robust public health apparatus that is well-equipped to deal with sporadic outbreaks, Australia has turned the corner, with few new infections being reported. Australia began its mass inoculation drive this week with aged-care residents, health-care workers and border personnel the first in line.

This is all a great source of Purim joy, says Cooper. But he is also quick to point out that as much as people are feeling more upbeat, they are not complacent, and will be keeping strictly to state and local guidelines this Purim. As he acknowledges, “we’re very hopeful, but we all know that if we’re not careful, then at any moment things could change.”