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Leaders of Melbourne’s ultra-Orthodox community are pleading with the state government to let them gather in small prayer groups during Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, which begins on Wednesday evening.
A letter written by nine rabbis and seven medical providers, seen by The Age, was sent to Premier Daniel Andrews, Health Minister Martin Foley, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar on Monday.
A young man argues with police outside a synagogue in Ripponlea, in Melbourne’s south-east, last week. Credit:Darrian Traynor
It implored Victorian authorities to work with the ultra-Orthodox community to create a COVID-safe plan so they can gather for communal prayer during Yom Kippur.
“We respectfully request that the government … accommodate the needs of our constituents and formulate a workable protocol allowing us to attend our services,” the letter reads.
Last week police were called to a synagogue in Ripponlea during Rosh Hashanah, the two-day holiday celebrating Jewish New Year. Eleven fines of $5452 were issued to people who attended the illegal gathering on Tuesday, and investigations are ongoing.
The authors of the letter say they represent the strictly Orthodox Jewish population in Victoria, which is made up of between 1200 and 1500 families, and say Jewish law means that, unlike other religious groups, they cannot use electronic broadcasts or technology on festival days.
“For Orthodox Jews, this is the one day in the year that almost every Jew in the world would attend synagogue without fail. Our members could not fathom the idea of not praying together on this day. The importance, and obligation, in Jewish law and custom, of praying together as a group is beyond the scope of this letter,” the letter says.
“Suffice to say, many of our members are still agonising from last year’s closure of our synagogues during the high holidays and festival days, especially from being prevented to attend a normal and proper Yom Kippur service.
“There is a very real emotional and psychological impact that will leave a lasting toll. We cannot overemphasise the centrality of Yom Kippur, and the tone it sets for one’s entire year.”
The authors of the letter propose that small groups of 10 men plus those running the service be allowed to gather, with strict density quotients, pre-registration, masks and social distancing in place. Services could be held outdoors if possible.
They have asked the government to reply by noon on Tuesday.
A Health Department spokesperson said on Monday that restrictions on gatherings were based on public health considerations and there was no “mechanism” for Professor Sutton to “consider a request for an exemption or exception to the limits on public or private gatherings, unless they relate to end-of-life events”.
“We know how tough lockdowns are on all Victorians,” they said. “But we all have to play our role in keeping case numbers low and protecting our health system for everyone who needs it in the coming months.
“The fastest way we can return to gathering with families and friends is to get vaccinated.”
Restrictions were eased slightly last week to allow Melbourne’s Jewish community to mark the new year. Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Russell Barrett said exemptions had been granted to allow the blowing of the shofar – an instrument made from a ram’s horn that is traditionally sounded in synagogues to usher in the new year – while members of the community were out walking.
Rabbi Yaakov Glasman, president of the Rabbinical Association of Australasia, said in a letter of support for the latest call that communal prayer played an “indispensable role” in the lives of Orthodox Jews and an inability to gather in small groups during Yom Kippur would “prove devastating”.
“We believe the measures suggested in the accompanying letter are entirely reasonable and workable and I would urge you to please consider working with the group of rabbis who authored the letter towards a mutually agreeable outcome,” he said.
Rabbis from Israel, the US and Russia have also sent letters of support.
Representatives from the American Orthodox Jewish organisation Agudath Israel of America said they were dismayed by reports from people in Melbourne of “draconian restrictions”.
“We recognise, of course, that these restrictions are intended to minimise risk of further spread of the COVID pandemic,” said chairman Shlomo Werdiger and executive vice-president Rabbi David Zwiebel.
“With all due respect, however, we implore the Victorian government to appreciate the centrality of communal prayer to the practice of the Jewish faith, especially during this high holiday season, and to work with Jewish community leaders to devise a system of allowing for Jewish communal prayer without jeopardising the health and wellbeing of worshippers.”
Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar and Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef also sent letters of support.
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