Do You Come From a Land Down Under?

For a few magical years cheering the Bombers and feeding budgerigars was normal.

Australia—land of sandy deserts, sparkling oceans, rare wildlife, and... Jews!  There are as many as 120,000 Jews living in Australia with 80 percent residing in and around the southeastern cities, where I once lived, of Sydney and Melbourne, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

Until the age of five, my family and I lived happily in Kfar Saba, Israel. However, in 1999 our lives changed—my parents announced to us that we were moving to Australia for two years. My father was appointed as a shaliach (emissary) from The Jewish Agency to work with the Progressive (Reform) Jewish community in Melbourne. I was ecstatic! For years I had been fascinated with picture books of unique Australian animals and even at the age of five I had wanted to travel down under to see kangaroos and koalas. Even though I was nervous, I knew I was going on the adventure of a lifetime.
For me, the move was an easy one. We settled down in East Saint Kilda, a suburb of Melbourne, and slowly a routine emerged. From kindergarten through third I was a student at The King David School, a Jewish day school run by the Progressive movement. So even in the southern Hemisphere I continued my Jewish and Zionist education.

The school provided an extremely nurturing environment with an interesting mix of formality and informality. For example, we wore school uniforms yet called our teachers by their first names. The school year started in February, following the December to February summer vacation (or holiday as they say in Australia), and consisted of four semesters with breaks in between. I recall feeling welcome and at home from the very first day, an instant part of the school family.

“The Melbourne Jewish community is unique,” said my father Ron Koas. “Within it there are three primarily Jewish neighborhoods with Jewish day schools, synagogues, community centers and kosher butchers, bakeries and restaurants.”
There are 35 synagogues or small congregations and seven day schools in the Melbourne area, according to Rabbi Fred Morgan of Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne’s largest synagogue. My father explained to me that the Jewish community is close-knit and insular and “it seems that everyone knows each other.”

“Australia is an ideal place to raise a family—relaxed, affordable, not too crowded and full of beautiful places to visit,” he said.

Unlike in the United States, most of Melbourne’s Jews coexist in the same neighborhoods. This means that Jews from all walks of life, whether secular or haredi, have contact with each other and even buy their challah at the same bakery. Because of this integration Melbourne has been compared to the thriving Jewish neighborhoods of pre-WWII Warsaw.

Aside from Jewish life, I remember Australia’s laid-back feeling. Sports and leisure time were priorities in daily life. My parents were amazed when the first unit my class studied in the first grade was leisure. We went to the park with a chart that we had to fill in upon observing people participating in various leisure activities such as sports, picnicking or dog walking.

Even at such a young age I was an avid “footy” (Australian-rules football) player and enthusiastically supported the Essendon “Bombers” footy team. On weekends or during school breaks my family and I traveled near and far. I remember driving along the scenic Great Ocean Road, hiking the forests of Victoria (our state), and hand feeding wild cockatoos and budgerigars in their natural habitat—the temperate forests in the mountains. Farther from home we camped in the outback near Uluru (Ayers Rock), snorkeled in the Great Barrier Reef and hiked through the lush northern rainforests on our way to waterfalls. By the time I left Australia in 2002 I knew all about Australian flora and fauna, and had visited every Australian state and territory except for the state of Western Australia. I also had acquired a true Aussie accent and knew the entire lingo.

In 2002 my father’s shlichut ended  and we moved to New York so that my mother, after living abroad for 15 years, could be near her family. Unlike my previous move from Israel to Melbourne, it was with great regret that I moved to the United States. It was hard for me to say goodbye to my friends, school and the loving Jewish community. I lost my accent in just a few months, and sadly have not kept in touch with my old classmates. I have not visited Australia since, but I cannot wait to return (junior year abroad maybe?). I know that the experiences I had there, both religious and secular, were as my father described them – “unbelievable!”

Daniel Koas  is a sophomore at Solomon Schechter High School in Long Island. 

This article is reprinted from October 30, 2009.