“They always love it when the Jewish Mob come”.
As I hiked across the Galilee with a group of Chutznikim from the Yeshiva where I had been studying for the past year, I perspired. In fact, I panted. I was also on the phone to someone whom I’d just spoken to for the very first time. The phone call was an interview for a program called Derech Eretz, to take place in Australia in some months time at the beginning of 2012. Scaling the banks of the once-flowing nachal, I was asked: Noey, why do you want to travel to remote indigenous communities with Jewish Aid Australia? Wanting to sound as sensible and composed as possible, I told them that for most of my life I had lived within the Jewish community, rarely testing its boundaries and even more rarely stepping beyond them. They asked me if I’d ever had experience with Aboriginal communities. I replied with an embarrassed ‘no’.
My responses at the time were trite. But who was I to blame? After all, I’d grown up in Jewish Melbourne, studied in Yavneh then in Scopus and now (in my third Jewish day-school) Monash University.
Several months later and 13,000 kilometres away, two people-movers were speeding across northern New South Wales, edging towards the border with Queensland. Twelve of us, young Jewish Australians, were making our way to Toomelah and Boggabilla – two remote Aboriginal communities. Led by two experienced madrichot, we were to become the 12th Jewish Aid Australia Derech Eretz group to volunteer in these two towns.
As we rounded the bend and cranked up the hip-hop tunes the sleepy town of Toomelah remained in its slumber. But soon, smiling, beautiful kids began to appear between the weathered houses. We begged them to come to the ‘kindie’ for some holiday activities. They shyly turned the other way. After several rounds through town, the cheeky faces multiplied. “Kez!” “Jo!” They yelled out the names of our group leaders. Their love was unaffected by the six months that had passed since the previous trip. They always love it when the Jewish Mob come. It didn’t take long for us to be reassured of this.
“Kick it to me! Kick it to me!” That’s something that kids normally yell, in desperation for the ball. In fact, it was me who was doing the yelling. After two hours of rugby and ruthless Ninja Destruction, my T-shirt had soaked through. The humidity was not fit for a Melbournian like myself. My muscles strained. “Mobo! Yasha!” The kids begged for more, but our activities for the day had come to an end.
As the glow outside turned orange-grey and the twilight mosquitoes came out in their myriads, I heard a faint pulse. This place made a different sound. We were told that it’s best to stay in our motel Boggabilla for the night. We took the advice.
We were tired. Playing games with the kids, morning and arvo, was exhausting. Meeting Aboriginal elders, health-workers, local residents and school teachers also took its toll. It was eye-opening and we were wrecked. They patiently explained to us the problems that the communities face. Problems that we find hard to fathom. Problems we hope to never experience.
When we asked why can’t the government just do something? Why don’t they just…? We were told that Toomelah is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Looking in, from the outside, issues can appear simple, one-dimensional. But, they are not.
Our week-long stay was just too short. The smiling faces of the kids warmed us on the inside and some of the stories recounted were too chilling to digest.
Derech Eretz was meant to be transformative. It was meant to inspire. And, maybe it did. I expected red sand dunes, a vast desert and wilderness. Instead, there was a wilderness of another sort. A wilderness that is so foreign to us. A wilderness that asks the toughest question about our lives as Australians and as Jews. A wilderness that terrifies, yet preserves a faint glimmer of hope.
All I know is that my connection to that place is not yet over.
Noey Kolt participated in the JAA Derech Eretz Program in 2012.