Yitzchak, age 3, was throwing a tantrum in the freezer section of the supermarket. “I want a popsicle!” he screamed. It was a hot day, he was tired – it was a reasonable request. But this was in Port Augusta, a tiny city in South Australia with nary a Jew in sight, let alone a selection of kosher food. Yitzchak could not be consoled. Improvising, his mother, Malki found kosher frozen blueberries and mashed them into a makeshift ice pop.
Rabbi Yossi and Malki Rodal head Chabad of RARA – Rural and Regional Australia. They travel for weeks at a time in a “Mitzvah Tank” – a customized motorhome – through the most remote areas in Australia; from Coober Pedy to Kalgoorlie. The goal? To find and meet every Jew. “You have to be flexible, always ready to adapt,” says Yossi, understating the challenges of keeping kosher on roads barely travelled.
Some towns have as many as 100 Jews, others have one solitary Jew. The Rodals, based out of Melbourne, and their colleagues, Rabbi Ari and Mushkie Rubin, based out of Cairns in North Queensland, make frequent treks to find and meet Jews. Volunteer Rabbinical students join in the search and together they cover tens of thousands of miles every year.
With the scarcity of people, large supermarkets are often hard to come by. Even the ones they do come across have precious little in the way of kosher products. Everything needs to be prepared in advance. The Mitzvah Tank is equipped with a kosher kitchen and large freezers. Up to six weeks of menus are planned in advance, and all the meat, dairy, bread, crackers and other essentials are brought along from kosher hubs such as Melbourne or Sydney.
The space for kitchen equipment is minimal. “It’s amazing how much you can cook with an electric frying pan,” says Yossi. “With that and a mini toaster oven we can cook most of a Shabbos meal – challah, schnitzel, pasta, rice, soup, dips and more. Heading out to Newcastle for Shabbos for a Bar Mitzvah, Yossi says he will have no kitchen facilities at all to cater a kiddush luncheon for 100 guests, and a Friday night meal for another 20. “I’ll prepare schnitzel and other meat that can be eaten cold in advance, and we’ll enjoy a lot of salads. I’ll have to wait for another week to have hot cholent on Shabbos.”
Aside from the full freezers on the Tank, the RARA teams will attempt to purchase as much kosher food as is available on the road. For the most part, even products that are certified kosher do not have kosher symbols on the label. The teams rely heavily on the Kosher Australia app which lets them know what brands and items are kosher. “Our eyes are constantly going back and forth from our phones to the shelves,” says Malki. “We are very grateful whenever we have service in a supermarket. Often, in these remote towns service is spotty, and we have to leave the store to see what products are kosher, which can be very frustrating.”
In addition to catering their own meals for the long excursions, the teams will bring kosher food and supplies for the Jews they meet on the way. Like Jewish communities the world over, food helps break the ice and makes people feel comfortable and at home, even though they may have never seen a Jew before and might be intimidated at first by the sight of Chassidic Jews. It is vital to the mission to be well stocked always have a bite ready to offer.
For Israeli backpackers RARA meets on the road, the offer of a good barbecue will bring them in to the tank, while for others the invitation for “bikkies and a cuppa” (Australian for cookies and coffee) is far more enticing and understandable than Tefillin and Shabbat candles.
It’s not unheard of for some expeditions to run out of food. Such eventualities are easier to deal with for the students, who are able to make do with instant ramen soups and pasta. But for couples travelling with children, it is important to have three proper meals scheduled each day. Running out of hot dogs, chicken or yogurt would be far more problematic. “It’s very tough to arrange logistically,” Rabbi Rodal says. “We spend weeks agonizing over each trip planning and scheduling.”
Jews are scattered throughout Australia thanks in large part to Holocaust survivors who escaped to rural cities to hide their Jewishness. Many Jews RARA meets only found out they were Jewish later on in life when old family documents were discovered, or a grandparent made the revelation on a deathbed. It is common for people talk about having Jewish grandparents or great-grandparents without knowing they are Jewish themselves.
One Friday evening, about an hour before Shabbos, a pair of RARA volunteers out in Warrnambool were in a supermarket searching frantically for a kosher ingredient. They were expecting 14 guests for their Shabbat meal, Jews who may not have another Jewish experience all year! Checking the Kosher Australia app as they ran through the store, they were quite a spectacle and drew the attention of a man in his 80s who approached them. Though he himself he was not Jewish, he told them, his maternal grandmother was Jewish. Though hurried, the students explained that he was as Jewish as Moses. He had never before seen or heard of Tefillin in his life, but he put them on right then and there in the supermarket as Shabbos approached.
One of the core missions of Chabad of RARA is to assist Jews in rural areas in keeping kosher themselves, which can be a daunting challenge. One Jew in Alice Springs, deep in the Outback, decided to keep kosher. He learned about the requirement to toivel his dishes (immersing kitchen utensils in a natural body of water), but living In the desert, he wasn’t going to wait for months until the next rainfall, and he wasn’t going to hear of any leniencies or loopholes. He made the four hour drive to the nearest stream, and spent hours dipping his brand new pots, pans, cutlery, crockery and appliances in the muddy creek, much to the delight, fascination and amusement of the indigenous locals who surrounded him to watch.
Jewish ignorance plagues many rural Jews. In anticipation of the Rabbis’ visit, an elderly lady procured a glatt kosher duck which she cooked lovingly in kosher milk to serve her observant guests. Another lady koshered her kitchen and made a sumptuous meal to serve the RARA rabbis, but cooked it all on Shabbos.
Chabad of RARA invites their constituents for Shabbatons in Melbourne, where guests are treated to five star kosher meals, and are taken on behind the scenes tours of kosher facilities. This provides an extra excitement and enthusiasm for kosher food, and helps inspire them to keep as much of a kosher diet as possible when they get back home.
Chabad of RARA ships kosher food to Jews across the country all year round, and in places where there are a few Jewish families, they contact supermarket managers and have been successful in arranging kosher sections with kosher essentials in a number of rural towns. Over the years, more and more products have been certified kosher. Now RARA teams are able to find frozen salmon, Holland House herring, and even pas Yisroel bread and bagels in Coles and other supermarkets across the country. “It was practically a holiday for us when we learned of a sorbet that became kosher that we could find in chain supermarkets,” says Yossi. “At
last we had an alternative to fresh fruit for Shabbos dessert.”
Even with the improvements, most gas stations and convenience stores don’t have the selection one would find in the States. “A lot of the brands of potato chips, snacks and soft drinks that are kosher in America are not
kosher here,” says Rabbi Rodal. “It takes some getting used to.”
The conveniences of kosher in the big city may be missed on the road, but the reward of sparking Jewish pride and joy in a lonely Jew days away from the closest Synagogue makes it more than worthwhile.
Chabad of RARA’s exploits were documented in the film “Outback Rabbis”, available on various streaming services.