When people think of Australia, cities like Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth come to mind – all three of which are located on the coast. Not all of Australia’s 25 million citizens, however, live near the beach. Roughly 700,000 of them – or 3 percent of the population – live in the country’s vast interior, known as “the Outback.”
Serving many of the Jews in this area is Rabbi Yossi Rodal, a young rabbi originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He heads Chabad of RARA (Rural and Regional Australia), which was recently the subject of a documentary in Australia that was watched by over half a million people on television.
The Jewish Press: Can you speak a bit about your activities?
Rabbi Rodal: We conduct eight sedarim for Pesach and organize services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur throughout Australia. On Chanukah, we have 24 parties around the country.
We visit Jews in South Australia, Western Australia, and in remote areas. People not only come to our mitzvah tank to lay tefillin but to view our mobile library from which they can take books.
I assume you skip territories where there aren’t any Jews.
There really aren’t any territories like that. Part of our mission is trying to explore every town and city to discover a Jew. We will travel for hours to visit one Jewish soul.
Have you encountered anti-Semitism on any of your trips looking for Jews in remote areas?
No, I think we’ve encountered more anti-Semitism in Melbourne than on the road.
Do you find people are generally receptive to you?
Yes, we’ve had an amazing reception from both Jews and non-Jews alike. Often we find that a non-Jewish partner [of an inter-married couple] will encourage the Jewish partner to be more active [in Judaism].
Do you stay in touch with the Jews in the Outback once you’ve connected with them?
Definitely. We try to visit them once a year although obviously it is challenging to visit those living in the Outback. But by using social media, we can organize functions, distribute the weekly parsha, conduct weekly online adult classes, and organize programs throughout the year. We also do online bar mitzvah classes.
Also available is a one-on-one Jewish learning program over the phone that pairs up religious Jews from Melbourne and Sydney to Jews in rural areas. We are in contact with 3,500-4,500 Jewish people in remote areas around Australia.
Who uses the mitzvah tank aside from yourself?
Groups of young post-rabbinical students from Australia, America, and Europe are recruited to do long road trips lasting about 7-8 weeks using the mitzvah tank. We advise them which routes to take.
Most Chabad emissaries are based in one city. You’re traveling around in unknown territories. Is that unsettling?
It depends. The trip can be unsettling for the kids, but we plan ahead and know how much our family can take. Chanukah is our craziest time. Last year we drove over 60 hours in a week to three different states within Australia.
Do you find people maintain the practices you introduce to them?
Yes, to a general extent. Obviously every person is different. To date, we have affixed over 1,000 mezuzahs on homes throughout rural Australia. As a result of our trip, we have over 30 men who put on tefillin daily who were not doing so before.
Every mitzvah happens for a reason. Even if the person only puts on tefillin once, we take delight in that. Who knows how that mitzvah will affect him?
What’s the most interesting experience you’ve had in the Outback?
In December 2015, during Chanukah, we were returning from a three-week trip – we drove past many kangaroos – and we had a man on our list named Joshua who said he was half-heartedly interested in seeing us.
My wife Malki said, “Maybe we should skip him if he’s not so interested and go directly home.”
[But we ultimately decided to go] and when we arrived, Joshua told us he had a brother who became religious and was driving him crazy about putting tefillin on. We talked for a while, and at the end, I said, “I don’t want to put pressure you, but I have a pair of tefillin with me, and if you’d like to put them on, I’d be happy to guide you.”
He had never put tefillin on in his life, but to my surprise Joshua said, “Yes.” Afterwards, when we took a picture of him, he broke down and cried. It was an awakening of his Jewish soul. It was amazing to witness.
A week later I got a call from Joshua who [asked me about saying the beracha for tefillin]. I said, “Joshua, it’s really wonderful that you’re into this, but you only say this blessing if you are putting on tefillin.”
He replied, “Rabbi, of course I’m putting on tefillin. Since we met I got in touch with my brother and I am now putting on tefillin daily.” In the beginning, he was putting tefillin on Shabbos but we corrected that.