By Kathryn Crosby
This is an inspiring story of peoplehood. Of community. Of the special magic that is people doing great acts of kindness for others they don’t know.
Wayne Robinson, a Jewish man who lived in the rural New South Wales town of Goulburn where there is no synagogue or established Jewish community, was nearing his final days.
At his request, staff at the Goulburn hospital called the nearest Shliach, Rabbi Shmueli Feldman, Director of Chabad of the ATC (Australian Capital Territory), who traveled the hour long drive from Canberra to Goulburn and talked and prayed with the man.
During their discussions, Wayne discussed whether he should be cremated, as many of his family had been, and asked what the position of Jewish Law is on the subject.
Rabbi Feldman advised him that it is much better to have a proper Jewish burial, and he agreed. However, there hasn’t been a Jewish burial in Goulburn since 1943. The Jewish Cemetery in North Goulburn is no longer operational, with many tombstones destroyed or missing and graves unmarked, and is now maintained only as a historical site.
So Rabbi Feldman very quickly organised with the local council to set aside a new Jewish Section in the main Goulburn Cemetery. They took it to the next council meeting, which happened to be that very night, and got the necessary permission.
Two days later, Wayne passed away, aged just 59. Rabbi Feldman had organised for his body to be cared for by the Chevra Kadisha in Sydney while he set himself to the task of quickly organizing a minyan to both consecrate the new Jewish cemetery and give this man a proper Jewish funeral.
The call went out on Friday for anyone who could travel to Goulburn on Sunday to please do so to make up the minyan. On Saturday night, Rabbi Feldman didn’t think they would make it to 10.
By Sunday morning, he was calling people in Sydney to tell them they weren’t needed. The call went out and they came: two full minyans of Jews who had traveled from Sydney, Canberra, and places in between, so this man they had never met, but who was one of their own, might receive a proper Jewish funeral. Some were observant, some were not but understood this was important. Some came alone, some came with their families, women and children travelling as well to be a part of this very rare and special day. All left with renewed strength and pride in the Jewish people.
Rabbi Feldman described the day as momentous and heart rending. “Any words do not do it justice,” he said. “It was a stunning display of the strength and resilience of the community,” Rabbi Feldman said. “You could see the secret to what has kept our people going for so long.”
By word of mouth, a number of Jews were discovered in the Goulburn area. One of whom, Jewish but not practicing and aged in his 60s, revealed that he’d never had a bar mitzvah.
After the consecration of the new cemetery, and the funeral service which Rabbi Feldman described as one of the most incredible and spiritual services he has ever done, some of the travellers from Canberra went back to the South Hill Art Gallery in Goulburn, and gave him a bar mitzvah.
This beautiful estate, a historically spiritual place which used to be a nunnery, served as a perfect backdrop while he put on tefillin and said the prayers in front of his wife, daughters and the travelling minyan who were all singing joyously. Rabbi Feldman described the day as incredible. “You could feel the spirituality – it was amazing to be a part of.”
It is certainly a day those involved will never forget, particularly those who traveled to make up the minyan, doing a great and very rare mitzvah for a man they would never know.
Rabbi Shmueli Feldman interviewed on ABC Radio