MELBOURNE, Australia—His congregation is spread out over a swath of land of approximately 420,000 square miles—the size of Texas and California combined. In Australia’s Northern Queensland region, where tropical rainforest meets parched, red desert plains, Rabbi Ari Rubin is the only rabbi from Cairns until the Sunshine Coast, a 20-hour drive. For six years, he and his wife, Mushkie—co-directors of Chabad of Northern Queensland based in Cairns—have been the sole Jewish address in the popular beach town and beyond, serving locals, tourists, Israeli backpackers and Jewish service personnel in the Australian Defence Force.

Earlier this month Rubin was sworn in as an Australian Army officer at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville, Queensland, by Chaplain Andrew Schaper.

Rubin, who starred on “Outback Rabbis”—a documentary following the travels of the Chabad-Lubavitch couples of Chabad of Rural and Regional Australia (RARA) who traverse Australia’s vast wilderness, tending to some of the most isolated Jews in the world—regularly travels to Townsville, a city more than 200 miles away, which is home to a small number of local Jews and Australia’s largest army base, Lavarack Barracks. Until now, Rubin connected with Australian service personnel off-base, as well as U.S. service personnel—the United States has thousands of troops in Australia on joint training missions and as part of the nations’ mutual defense treaty—but there was no Jewish army chaplain in the state.

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That changed when Rubin received a call several months ago from Rabbi Dovid Gutnick, a Chabad emissary and rabbi of the historic East Melbourne Synagogue. Gutnick, a captain in the Australian Army and a chaplain, like his father (Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick) and grandfather (the late Rabbi Chaim Gutnick) before him, told Rubin that “he would offer me a position that will change my life,” Rubin told Chabad.org. Gutnick told Rubin that the army had Jewish chaplains in the states of Victoria and New South Wales, where most of Australia’s Jewish population is concentrated, and now they were seeking a Jewish chaplain in Queensland as well.

Rabbi Ari Rubin teaches children at Chabad of Northern Queensland's Hebrew school about his role in the miltary and their role as "soldiers" in Tzivos Hashem.
Rabbi Ari Rubin teaches children at Chabad of Northern Queensland's Hebrew school about his role in the miltary and their role as "soldiers" in Tzivos Hashem.

Longstanding Role in Australian Defense Force

Australian Jews have long played an outsized role in the Australian Defence Force. Arguably the most famous Australian commander-in-chief of all time was Sir John Monash, who led the Allied forces to a stunning victory against the Germans in 1918. Monash was a Melbourne-born son of Jewish immigrants from Poland. His name decorates many Australian institutions, and his face graces the $100 bill. More recently, Pvt. Greg Sher, a commando in the elite 1st Commando Regiment, was killed in Afghanistan while conducting a counterinsurgency operation in the Uruzgan province in 2009. According to Jewish Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) by Mark Dapin, 7,000 Australian Jews fought for their country between 1885 and the end of World War II, and an estimated 2,000 have served in peacetime since then.

But Rubin won’t be serving only Jewish personnel; he’ll be offering counsel to soldiers of all faiths and backgrounds. “I want to make sure everyone is living a balanced and fulfilled life,” says Rubin. “I’ll be checking in with the soldiers regularly, finding out how they’re coping, how their mental and physical health is, how their spouses and families are doing back home. Anything that can make their lives and sacrifices a little easier.”

Now that he's a sworn-in officer, Rubin will soon be sent off to the Royal Military College in Australia’s capital, Canberra. Known as Duntroon, it is the Australian equivalent of West Point, where he will undergo weeks of rigorous training before assuming his duties as chaplain at Porton Barracks in Cairns.

Noting that chaplaincy is a natural extension of his role as a rabbi, which Rubin says includes a lot of pastoral care, he encourages other rabbis to see chaplaincy as part of their mission in the rabbinate. “The Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] wanted us to reach Jews in every corner of the world, in whatever circumstances they may find themselves,” he says.