THE TRIP TO AUSTRALIA
November 1, 2012
Avremele Rainitz in #854, Memoirs

R’ Zalman arrives in Shepparton, Australia and wants to start a yeshiva. * From the life of R’ Yehoshua Shneur Zalman Serebryanski a”h.

The hundreds of Lubavitcher families who ended up in Paris after the war, including R’ Zalman, were granted refugee status along with temporary residence permits. After a number of years, some of them went to Eretz Yisroel, some went to the United States, and a few families went to Australia. Some remained in France.

Upon a general instruction from the Rebbe Rayatz, each of them sought a place to settle and then asked the Rebbe for a bracha. R’ Zalman heard from R’ Shmuel Betzalel Altheus about the possibility of immigrating to Australia and asked the Rebbe about it. After receiving his positive answer, he began working on obtaining a visa for Australia.

THE FEIGLIN FAMILY HELPS THE CHASSIDIM

In order to receive a visa for Australia, you had to receive a job offer with the promise of a salary that would enable a family to live in dignity, without becoming a burden to the Australian government. R’ Moshe Zalman Feiglin, the first Lubavitcher Chassid to settle in Australia (in 5672/1912), obtained visas for seven Chassidishe families in Paris. These were the families of: R’ Betzalel Wilschansky and his son-in-law R’ Dovid Perlow, R’ Isser Kluvgant, R’ Shmuel Betzalel Altheus, R’ Nachum Zalman Gurewitz, R’ Abba Pliskin, and R’ Zalman Serebryanski.

The Rebbe Rayatz thanked R’ Feiglin for his efforts and wrote:

I was very pleased that you were able, with Hashem’s help, to obtain visas for seven families of Anash refugees from Russia. [You] my friend need to make great efforts to obtain more and more visas for Anash families.

In that letter, the Rebbe added:

I am sure that with Hashem’s help they will bring much blessing to their country by strengthening Judaism in all its branches and making the country of Australia a place of Torah T’mima.

After receiving the necessary documents from R’ Feiglin, R’ Zalman and his family had to undergo medical tests. The Australian government was very particular about not allowing unhealthy people to settle in the country. Whoever wanted to live there had to undergo extensive medical testing. R’ Zalman had suffered from a chronic lung problem for years and every winter it acted up again. In those days, there was no medication for this, and the only remedy was to eat a lot of fat until the lung was covered inside with fat.

Considering his poor health, he was very nervous about these medical exams. In the X-ray he would take, it would be easy to see his diseased lungs. Having no choice, he sent a friend for the tests instead of him and miraculously, all went well. Within a short time, he received his visa.

R’ Zalman informed the Rebbe of this and received a reply:

In response to the letter of my student and friend about preparing for the trip with your family, your sons who are talmidim of Tomchei T’mimim – Lubavitch, and your daughter Nechama, a talmida of Beis Rivka, surely you are busy collecting all types of material in s’farim, manuscripts and booklets, and all printed matter published by the library of Otzar HaChassidim. Hashem should strengthen the health of all of you and grant you a proper and successful trip to find a group of passengers to discuss with them matters of avoda as per the explanation of the saying “We are day-workers.” We, the Chassidim in general, and Chabad Chassidim in particular, are day-workers. As the Rebbe, my father, said in one of his holy talks, when you ensure that the ways of spiritual avoda are illuminated for someone else, the reward for this is that from Above they make luminous with gashmius and ruchnius.

THE FAMILY JOINS THE TRIP

R’ Zalman prepared to travel with his entire family. However, his son Chaim, who learned in Tomchei T’mimim in Brunoy, wanted to stay in the yeshiva and go with some friends to learn in 770 in New York. Upon his father receiving the Rebbe’s answer that referred to his traveling with his family and mentioned his sons learning in Tomchei T’mimim, Chaim realized that the Rebbe wanted him to join his family in going to Australia.

From the Rebbe’s letter, R’ Zalman understood that his journey to Australia was not for parnasa but mainly for spiritual reasons. The Rebbe had written about material and spiritual reward. Indeed, R’ Zalman fulfilled the Rebbe’s instructions and brought the light of Torah to Australia and received the brachos in full. Although he was sick and weak, he lived another 42 years and had nachas from his descendants, materially and spiritually.

After packing his few belongings and taking many sifrei Chassidus and Jewish works, as the Rebbe told him to do, R’ Zalman and his family took a train to Genoa, Italy from where they set sail for Australia. R’ Abba Pliskin and his family traveled with them.

The voyage took a month and R’ Zalman already began his shlichus to spread Chassidus on the ship. There were about 1000 passengers and half of them were Jews emigrating from Europe to Australia. Every day there were minyanim and they even had a Torah with them. R’ Zalman took the opportunity to spread Torah and Judaism. Most of the Jews on board were not religiously observant, but they had religious backgrounds and R’ Zalman urged them to preserve the Jewish spark in Australia too.

THE SPIRITUAL STATE OF AUSTRALIA

In those days, Australia was a spiritual wilderness. If people told the Rebbe Rayatz that America is different and it was impossible to maintain Jewish life there as they did back in the shtetl, the spiritual state in Australia was far worse.

In America, Jewish communities of religious people had begun to develop and in 1949 there were even some yeshivos and Talmudei Torah that the Rebbe had founded. In Australia, you could count the number of religious Jews on one hand. Out of thousands of Jews who arrived in Australia between the two world wars, very few retained their Judaism. Most of them assimilated.

The few Jews who did not assimilate sufficed with two to three hours of religious instruction that were given to their children once or twice a week after a day in public school. The situation was so bad that rabbanim who were considered Orthodox arranged mixed dances for Jewish boys and girls in an attempt to prevent intermarriage. That was considered a religious achievement in those days.

The situation did not improve even after World War II when Jewish refugees began arriving from Europe en masse. Religious Jews who came with beards quickly realized that they would not get a job with a beard. When they walked in the street, children laughed at their obvious Jewish appearance. They did not withstand the test and removed their beards. Some askanim from Agudath Israel wanted to establish a branch in Australia but discovered that this was impossible.

SHEPPARTON: AN ISLAND OF SPIRITUALITY

One of the few who managed to develop Jewish life in Australia was R’ Moshe Zalman Feiglin who, as mentioned previously, was the first Lubavitcher in Australia. Shortly after he arrived, the government put up for sale a small farm in the Shepparton area, which is 200 kilometers away from Melbourne. R’ Moshe Zalman and his family, together with other Jewish families, rejoiced at the opportunity and bought the farm.

There, in the fresh country air, R’ Moshe Zalman established a Jewish community. The Rebbe once said, “Hashem sent the British to Australia to settle it, and the Feiglin family in order to bring Yiddishkait there.”

A wooden shed in the center of the farm was the shul, and R’ Moshe Zalman brought a melamed and shochet. The melamdim and shochtim arrived, found it difficult to live in a small village, and were replaced regularly. As a result, R’ Zalman studied sh’chita and when there was no shochet, he would shecht for the Jews of the village and also serve as the melamed.

The community grew and after World War II there were over 100 people. This village was the first Lubavitcher community in Australia.

The influence of the Feiglin family extended far beyond the parameters of the little village and reached Melbourne. R’ Moshe Zalman’s children were among the founding fathers of the Mizrachi movement in Australia, which was the only Jewish movement in those days. If not for the support of the Feiglins, one can assume that the Mizrachi movement would not have been able to exist.

R’ Zalman Serebryanski and his family arrived in Melbourne on 18 Elul 5709/1949 and quickly sent a telegram to inform the Rebbe of their arrival. The Rebbe responded immediately with a telegram welcoming them, which was followed two days later by a letter:

In response to the telegram, I responded with a telegram blessing your successful arrival. May Hashem strengthen your health and the health of your family and help you in settling down properly with a good and ample livelihood.

And towards the new year that is coming upon us and all the Jewish people for goodness and blessing, I bless you and your family, amongst Anash and amongst the Jewish people … with blessings for a k’siva va’chasima tova, for a good and sweet year, materially and spiritually.

R’ Feiglin’s children joyously welcomed R’ Zalman and R’ Abba and their families and hosted them with great honor in their home.

HOW DO YOU START 
A YESHIVA?

In Melbourne, they met with the Altheus, Kluvgant and Gurewitz families who had arrived a few weeks or months before them. They heard from them that Melbourne had many possibilities for business. However, R’ Zalman, who was utterly devoted to the Rebbe, did not think about business. His mind was occupied with thoughts of how to open a yeshiva and turn Australia into a place of Torah.

In a letter that he wrote to the Rebbe on Erev Rosh HaShana, he said: In Melbourne, I see G-d fearing people, G-d fearing bachurim, who conduct themselves according to Torah and mitzvos, and R’ Isser Kluvgant showed me boys who learn Gemara with Rashi and Tosafos. He said to me that if I am thinking of founding a yeshiva, there are boys in Melbourne to start it with.”

R’ Zalman did not think that he would be able to start a yeshiva with his meager abilities and as he put it, “Without a doubt, I do not have the spiritual strength for something like this, nor am I an effective doer, especially as I am a foreigner.”

However, he decided to do what he could in order to get a yeshiva going. Since he wasn’t interested in business, he did not want to remain in Melbourne. He joined R’ Feiglin who had asked the Chassidim that came to Australia to settle on the farm in Shepparton so he could enjoy their Chassidishe presence.

The mashpia, R’ Abba Pliskin went with him, for he also wanted to continue being involved in Chassidus and hashpaa.

Upon first arriving in Shepparton, they stayed with R’ Feiglin, who received them with great honor and joy. Now the small k’hilla had four significant Chassidim: R’ Moshe Zalman Feiglin, R’ Betzalel Wilschansky, R’ Shneur Zalman Serebryanski, and R’ Abba Pliskin. Most of the Jews on the settlement were not religious and they went to shul on Shabbos by car. After years of spiritual isolation, R’ Feiglin greatly enjoyed being in the presence of Chassidim.

Shortly after arriving, R’ Zalman began discussing with R’ Feiglin his idea to start a yeshiva. Unfortunately, at just this time, R’ Feiglin’s wife had a serious problem with her foot and was sent to the hospital. R’ Feiglin was busy with her and his response to R’ Zalman’s suggestions lacked enthusiasm and attention. In a letter that R’ Zalman wrote to the Rebbe on Erev Rosh HaShana he reported about this and expressed his hope that when R’ Feiglin’s wife recovered, R’ Feiglin would be among the first to get involved.

R’ Zalman did not want to be a burden on R’ Feiglin, especially as he was busy with his wife, so he began working in R’ Feiglin’s fields. His son Chaim, who had still not recovered completely from his condition of the summer before, and could not concentrate to learn in depth, joined him in working in the fields. His son Aharon learned alone in the shul in the center of the village. The money they received for their work was enough to cover the cost of renting an apartment and basic subsistence.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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