• (From left) Rabbi Ari Rubin and Rabbi Yossi Rodal in 'Outback Rabbis'. (SBS)Source: SBS
The search is on in ‘Outback Rabbis’.
Gavin Scott

25 Jul 2018 - 10:12 AM  UPDATED 25 Jul 2018 - 2:39 PM

Rabbi Ari Rubin and Rabbi Yossi Rodal take their mission to connect Jewish people seriously. In the latest installment of documentary series Untold Australia, the two religious leaders invite viewers to join them on their road-trips throughout remote Australia as they look for “lost Jews” – those who have lost touch with their faith, those who are not part of a Jewish community and those who have no idea they are Jewish.

Accompanied by their families, the two rabbis hit the outback trail – something they both do fairly regularly – visiting small towns and far-flung regions in an effort to find every last Jewish person. It’s not an easy task, with many dead-ends along the way, but the two men remain optimistic throughout.

We chatted to Rabbi Ari and Rabbi Yossi about the experience…


Rabbi Ari

Have you always been comfortable approaching strangers and talking to them in the street?

At first it was extremely awkward to ask random strangers to help us out, but once I saw how everyone was so helpful and happy to help, it broke the barriers down and it’s become really fun! 


Most of the people we see you meet are quite friendly. Have you had any negative experiences on the road?

Funnily enough, I just had my first ever anti-Semitic incident the other day. I was in the mall and a guy flicked off my skullcap and said Hitler should have finished us all off. It does happen, although that’s an exception not the rule. Sometimes people are surprised by our question [of whether they know any Jewish people], mostly they’re curious but hardly ever are they negative.


We see you meet some people whose families have lost touch with their faith and sometimes have been brought up in other religions. What would you like to see happen in those circumstances in terms of those people's faith? Is it an all or nothing situation?

We want every Jew to have a chance to be part of their community and heritage. I always call beforehand and never visit those who don’t want our visits. Everyone we visit vary on the spectrum of Jewish observance, but we don’t care what level they are on, we just want them to feel that they belong and that there are people who care about them. Our mission is to try and make this world a better place for everyone and we believe a strong sense of community will help change the world for the positive. If they do even one good deed to one person after our visits, we would consider it a phenomenal success.

When you discover people who are Jewish, how do you follow up with them — especially those who do not currently practise at all?

When we meet a Jewish person whom we have never known about before, we will first put them in contact with the other Jews in that region and the nearest places for them to celebrate the Jewish festivals. Every festival has its own rites and rituals, and if they want to be a part of it, we would love to help them in whichever way we can. We have main events in Townsville and Cairns, and will invite those in some proximity to join there. If they are too far, we will try to send them the materials to enable them to celebrate the festivals with whomever they wish around them. Other than that, we make sure they know that we are there for them in any capacity we can help, be it physically or spiritually. We just recently made a trip to the old city of Jerusalem in Israel for Jews from all over North Queensland.


How confronting was it for you to see the Nazi memorabilia you encounter in the doco?

Being of German descent, having my great-grandparents killed by the Nazis and my grandparents live as survivors, it is always difficult seeing imagery of Germany in WWII. I think the war re-enactment society does a great job, though, because we need to have an active reminder of it to make sure it never happens again. Every modern society should have etched in their consciousness how a democratically elected government could make the first ever systematic genocide of a people based on their perceived race. It was hard but necessary to see that imagery.


Rabbi Yossi

This trip wasn’t so successful for you. Was that unusual?

In general, these trips are tremendously successful, with an average trip seeing us meet up with over 100 Jewish people. This particular trip was novel in the sense that we travelled to uncharted areas which we knew had very little if any Jewish population. We did not expect to meet lots of Jewish people, just a few, and I think that the trip went according to the expectation.


Besides travelling around the country, do you use other methods to try and find Jewish people, like social media?

We try to use any methods at our disposal to locate Jewish people. The best tool is word of mouth, but we also rely on social media, the White Pages, radio interviews and newspaper articles.


Most of the people we see you meet are quite friendly. Have you had any negative experiences on the road?

The vast majority of people we meet are friendly, however we will meet some people that are not excited to see us and even a few that can be quite unpleasant. Even on this trip in the Alice Springs caravan park, our neighbour was completely drunk, threatening my wife and kids and using vulgar language. But this is extremely rare.

How disheartening is it when you travel such long distances and come up empty?

It can be disheartening at first glance, but when we think about the general mission that we are on, then it is all part of the plan. We can only do the best that we can and the success is up to God. Also, these places are under our responsibility and they need to be visited to see if there are Jews there at least once in a while, so this is all part of the job. We were not expecting big crowds, so we were not disappointed.


People probably assume your trip is about "recruiting" people, but that's not right, is it?

When we visit people, we look at it as if we are welcoming them to join in the Jewish family. Many are already involved in some way and we encourage each on their level to become closer. We like creating small communities in each place so the greater Jewish family of Australia and the world has a local branch in each given place.


You have a conversation with a man about converting — and you say you don't encourage it. Why is that? Why is it a "really, really tough road"?

Judaism will generally discourage converts until we are certain of their sincerity. It is hard to be a Jew and it demands a lot of commitment. To convert means that one needs to accept all of the commandments and essentially one has to become a religious Jew. Obviously this is very difficult, so we just need to make sure that one who wishes to join the family is sincere. Once they are sincere, then we encourage them and they are treated as equals in every respect.


Watch Outback Rabbis at 8:30pm Friday 27 July on SBS VICELAND and anytime at SBS On Demand:

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