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    Retirement address to the Australian Jewish Historical Society

    Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple to the Australian Jewish Historical Society on 27 February 2005 on the occasion of his retirement from the Great Synagogue (published in the Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in June 2005, Vol. 17, Part 4).

    I feel like an archival relic. I have been involved in the Historical Society for fifty years, since the time when Rabbi LM Goldman brought together a small group of his friends and students to establish a Victorian branch of the Society. Exciting days!

    Sir Archie Michaelis was the chairman, Lionel Fredman was the secre­tary (succeeded by myself when Lionel went overseas to study), and Stuart Cohen was the treasurer. Dr Leon Jona, Isidor Solomon, Newton Super and others were on the committee. The gentry of the community were members. Meetings took place in private homes, often heritage mansions in Toorak and elsewhere. Our enthusiasm was unbounded.

    Despite my lack of years, I even gave papers at some of these meetings. I felt so proud when David Benjamin, as edi­tor of the Journal, actually published some of my researches.

    Then I went off to study overseas and joined the Jewish Historical Society of England which had its headquarters at the West London Synagogue, the citadel of British Reform, with Rev. Arthur Barnett as the secretary. Here too the membership was a roll call of the gentry. Once or twice I delivered papers for the Society, which normally met at University College in Gower Street. It was flattering when the incumbent president took me and my wife to dinner first – a nice habit which might be adopted by our Society in Sydney. Anglo-Jewish history became a personal addiction and still is, and I have done some writing on the subject.

    My first address to the Australian Society, after returning to this country fifteen years later, married my interests in Anglo and Australian Jewish history. It was a paper about Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, utilising manuscript material I had researched at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. I became a committee member, spent several years as president, am now a patron, and zealously supply the archives with periodicals and ephemera, some­times borrowing the material back for the purpose of my own researches.

    I have busied myself over the years with a number of historical projects, but it is not primarily as a historian that I have been involved in the contemporary Jewish experience. My role has been in the rabbinate – not entirely a novel job for a Jewish boy, but marked by three special areas of activity, the old world and the new, the congregational and the national, the activist and the academic. Let me speak briefly about each of them in turn.

    First, the old world and the new. Every Jewish community has its own flavour and style, usually reflecting the ethos of the host society. Eastern Europe was traditionally passionate and emotional; Western Europe, stately and precise. America was adventurous; Britain, where I began my career, proper and genteel.

    Australia? In order to arrive at a delineation, let us go back a little. Until 1939 this was a colonial outpost. Jewish identity was synagogue-based and not every synagogue or minister was comfortable with Jewish peoplehood or Zionism. Religious reform was mooted from time to time but mustered little support in a community that was content by and large with undemanding orthodoxy. British institutions were our model; quasi-Anglican terminology was our idiom. Little migrant groups protested but gradually adopted the prevailing ways. (There is an area for research in the so-called “foreign” shules of the pre-Holocaust era.)

    The new era brought massive change, which a number of histo­rians have documented in detail. There was a sea-change in the rab­binate. Indeed the decisive move from ministers to rabbis is one of the major signs of the change. The religious centre has become uncertain; the right and left have gained considerable ground. The community is diverse and no longer automatically defines itself in synagogal terms.

    What does all this say about Australian Jewry, and does it help us to arrive at a word to delineate the Australian Jewish ethos?

    My answer is “No” – or rather “Not yet. We are a significant segment of world Jewry, tenth largest Jewish community in the world, and still going through a period of growth and development, not that we have emerged from being a derivative community, echoing a range of places of origin, albeit no longer merely or mostly British. But we do not seem to be independent enough to have a style of our own, able to be articulated in a word or phrase.

    Does this say anything about me as a rabbi? Only that 32 years in office at the Great Synagogue have given me countless opportunities of openly or surreptitiously placing my own stamp on the community accepting communal diversity, living with all sections, but insistent that religion be the most evident characteristic of our communal identity and that, while acknowledging dissent, the Judaism of tradition be the face of that religious identity.

    I said about myself a minute ago that my role has combined the congregational and the national. Few rabbis have that privilege. With me it was inherited. I stepped into my predecessor’s shoes, though I have developed my own priorities. The senior rabbis of the Great Synagogue have all been public figures. In my case I have often stepped boldly into national debate, careful to respect the para­meters of Jewish teaching but not always attracting the uncritical support of my constituency. It helped me that I was an Australian and that I knew the Australian idiom and could even use the great Australian adjective, accent and wave.

    I am both activist and academic. Ethical activism, the mark of the Biblical prophet, ought to be part of the role of the rabbi. Sometimes it is; sometimes it frightens some rabbis or their con­gregations. Fortunately Australian Jewry has abandoned the “trem­bling” Israelite stance which pleaded, “Don’t be too conspicuous, don’t attract attention, don’t cause antisemitism”. We are mature enough to know that in a multicultural society all are entitled to be themselves and that antisemitism is not caused by Jews: it is caused by antisemites. Result? With others, this rabbi has made his contri­bution towards enhancing the quality of Australian society and encouraging Australians to appreciate and celebrate Australia.

    Being studious by nature, I was always inclined to read and learn, not for the sake of career advancement but because knowl­edge ought to inform whatever one does as a rabbi, a Jew and a pub­lic figure. It may surprise you, but I am more ignorant than I was as a child. The more I learn, the more I realise I have yet to learn.

    A busy professional life has militated against the level of study for its own sake, which ought to go with the rabbinate, and I hope to rem­edy this in my retirement. But I have been constantly impelled to study for the sake of teaching, and I have made teaching, of adults as well as children, a major part of my week. I have also been able to teach at university level, sometimes developing new courses, sometimes taking over difficult established courses at a moment’s notice. I have former students everywhere; some actually acknowl­edge the fact.

    I began by implying that had things been different I might have been a professional historian. I think I made the right choice. I prob­ably could have done more historical research and writing, even with the demands of my congregational and communal position. This too I want to remedy in the years ahead and I already have pro­jects, such as a history of the Australian rabbinate, on which work has begun.

    But without false modesty, I hope I may say that my ministry has sometimes enabled me to write history, sometimes to make history, but above all to try to understand history. When you understand history, you know who you are and what you can do with your life. And I appreciate the implication that the Historical Society thinks I have spent my life usefully.

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