In the week leading up to Pesach, I attended a dinner at the stately Government House in our Royal Botanic Gardens. I’ve been fortunate to have visited this splendid State House on several occasions, but this time it was different. Our Jewish Governor, the Honourable Linda Dessau’s invitation was to a “Multi-Faith Youth Passover Dinner”. This was a dinner for young, Jews, Christians and Muslims, and a handful of religious leaders. It’s the brainchild of Governor Linda, as a way of promoting our State (and Australia) as a centre of tolerance and multicultural excellence; last year she hosted an Iftar Dinner for young people of different faiths.
The evening program was run by several Jewish students from different youth groups – Hineni, Betar, Chabad Youth, and Habonim who presented different aspects of the Pesach Story and Seder.
Sitting in the lavish State Dining Room with its telescopic table of exquisite Spanish mahogany and Australian redwood with some 54 participants (almost the length of a cricket pitch) felt like a scene out of “The Crown” or “Downton Abbey”. This was accentuated by the team of waiters behind our chairs, gently gliding our seats towards the table, synchronising their service so we all received our plated food at the same time. This, I thought, is what the Seder is supposed to be like – a royal table to sit back at and feel like you’re a free and privileged citizen! Sadly the waiters weren’t available for our family Seders a few nights later…
While the setting was elegantly colonial, and embellished by portraits of the Royal Family and Dame Nellie Melba, the menu was decidedly different (see picture): Traditional Gefilte Fish, Clear Chicken Soup with Matzah Balls and Beef Brisket!
While the indulgence and luxury was enjoyable, this dinner was meaningful in several ways: Firstly, it was an affirmation of how fortunate we are to live in a free, open and accepting country; a place where our Judaism is not just tolerated, but celebrated.
Secondly, it confirmed the importance and value of our multi-faith society. In Australia today there is a vigorous and respectful conversation across our country’s tables; we invite a multiplicity of cultures and faiths to be part of our civil discourse.
Thirdly, it affirmed my confidence in the youth of our nation: the Jewish participants were eloquent, passionate and proud in their presentations. They spoke of the joy of being Jewish and their conviction that fear and distrust of the other can erode our society whereas the courage to reach out to the stranger can only strengthen it. The Christian and Muslim that were on either side of me at the dinner were equally passionate in their principles and conviction that the way forward is through dialogue, trust and working together to create a better society for us all.
I was especially moved by the young Somali Muslim woman, Ayan, who works as an ER nurse and also for a Muslim charity (charity is interestingly called “Zaakah” in Arabic). She spoke of her admiration of our Jewish community and the way we do “tzedakah”; she also spoke warmly of her Jewish and Christian friends and colleagues at the Alfred. You may argue that women like her are exceptions in their defiance of the stereotype. I would counter that I have met many exceptions and even if they are exceptions, they are the people we should embrace and assist to help counter Muslim anti-Semitism and extremism. If we seek to oppose Jewish stereotyping, we need to ensure we aren’t Muslim stereotyping.
We can only grow as a Jewish community and as a society when we move out of our insular spaces and converse, meet and work together in our public spaces. Finally, being at Government House and sharing a Kosher meal with a Jewish governor was sheet naches!
I was also fortunate to be at Government House this past week to receive my OAM award from the Honourable Linda Dessau AC. Standing there with my family I felt a deep sense of indebtedness to Hashem, this country, to my family and to you the members of the Jewish community, who have supported and trusted my work and vision. I am indeed, in Tennyson’s words, “…a part of all that I have met”. You share this honour with me.