The holiday of Lag B’Omer, with its celebratory bonfires and barbeques, brought warmth to wintry Australia this week, with more than 10 large community bonfires and 20 smaller gatherings organized by local synagogues and Chabad-Lubavitch centers springing up all across the city of Melbourne alone.

“The bonfire event I attended this year was for university-aged students,” said 21-year-old Yaron Esterman. “It left me feeling inspired and uplifted. Sitting around with my friends, playing musical instruments, you couldn’t help but feel a sense of unity. I think bonfires have that power.”

Celebrated on Monday night and Tuesday this year, Lag B’Omer marks the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the mystic sage credited with authoring the foundational Kabbalistic text of the Zohar. Before his passing, he instructed his students to celebrate the day as heralding the dissemination of the Torah’s esoteric teachings.

In modern times, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, encouraged communities everywhere to hold parades and other large gatherings as a demonstration of Jewish pride.

“While sitting around the fire, you see people of all types: some who are just beginning to discover their roots, and some who are rediscovering them every day,” said Shifi Bendet, a 23-year-old commerce and law student. “It’s amazing how everyone gets involved. The atmosphere was really something.”

All told, scores of celebrations dotted the Australian commonwealth, from Sydney on the East Coast to Perth on the West Coast. In Melbourne, Jewish residents found the events to offer something for everyone.

“People from all walks of life are able to find something that caters to them, regardless of their background or level of involvement,” said Bendet.

Rabbi Moshe Kahn, director of Chabad Youth, said that his organization celebrated the night with four different events, each catering to different age groups.

“The Family Carnival attracted more than 300 people and provided both children and parents alike with a fun night out,” he detailed.

In addition, more than 100 high school students attended their own functions, and more than 100 university students enjoyed a bonfire of their own.

A coordinator of the Chabad Teens program in the Malvern section of Melbourne juggles fire.
A coordinator of the Chabad Teens program in the Malvern section of Melbourne juggles fire.

Across the city, another bonfire was organized by the Katanga synagogue, an offshoot of the larger Mizrachi community that adopted its name from an African country that broke away from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1960. This year, close to 200 people attended, availing themselves of assorted entertainments, from a gymnasium to laser tag and a magic show.

“Lag B’Omer in Mebourne had a great unifying effect,” said Atara Rubin, 23, an occupational therapist. “After attending the Katanga event, it’s evident that people from across the spectrum of the community come together to celebrate. There’s a fantastic energy to the night, with a range of events to suit everyone.”

Kahn summed it up by referring to Australia’s geography.

“Australia is the first to bring in every festival,” he said. “We experience it before the rest of the world, and we celebrate before the rest of the world. And if you’re living in Melbourne, we celebrate in style.”