The Good Life In Kiwi Country
10/10/03
Staff Writer
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Auckland, New Zealand: Roy Netzer first came here as a backpacker, after finishing his five years in the Israeli army and university studies, because he wanted to "experience another country." He liked what he saw. Netzer married and worked for a year in Israel, then returned here eight years ago with his wife and without a job lined up. "I got the 'New Zealand bug,' " he says. "We came with four suitcases." Within four days he found a job with a trading card organization. Today Netzer, 38, works in financial management in an office overlooking Auckland's spectacular harbor. He and his wife and two children live in a four-bedroom house in a fashionable neighborhood. "I'm living a very comfortable life here," he says. Leaders of Auckland's small Jewish community like to point to Netzer's story as a model of immigrant success: and they want more Jews to settle here. The city's largest synagogue and the B'nai B'rith chapter in recent years have launched separate campaigns to attract Jewish immigrants from overseas, complementing a national recruitment effort that emphasizes New Zealand's low unemployment and crime rates. Both B'nai B'rith and the Auckland Jewish Immigration Organization, affiliated with the Auckland Hebrew Congregation, have directed their activities primarily toward the Jews of South Africa, and secondarily to prospective immigrants from Argentina and Israel. "These people are coming from distressed areas," says Stan Rose, chairman of the immigration orginazation (www.aji.org.nz). All three countries are undergoing economic difficulties, while Israel is faced with ongoing Arab terrorism. They are coming, attracted by New Zealand's booming economy and laid-back lifestyle, to a distant corner of the globe: three hours flying time from Australia, its closest neighbor; 10 from South Africa; 12 from Los Angeles. Next on Rose's agenda: an outreach to Jews in the United States. Unlike Australia, whose unabashed support for the American war in Iraq has made it a possible target of terrorists, New Zealand, which is aligned with the governments awaiting sanction by the United Nations of any involvement in Iraq, is not considered a target. Rose says New Zealand is an oasis from anti-Semitism. He points to the portside land donated to the congregation by Auckland 140 years ago, and the national prime minister and seven Auckland Jewish mayors claimed by the Jewish community, as signs of the society's tolerant attitudes. Another sign: Jewish sites here don't require armed guards, a rarity in the West. "New Zealand is off the [political and geographic] beaten path," Rose says. "A peaceful, nuclear-free zone: that is quite an attraction these days." Confident that its immigration campaign will succeed, the 600-member Hebrew Congregation by the end of the year will take a leap of faith, breaking ground on a multi-million campus that will house the synagogue, its day school and a community center. "We are doing this on the basis that the community is a growing community," says David Nathan, president of the synagogue. "It will definitely be an attraction" to prospective Jewish residents of New Zealand and to peripheral members of the community, says K. Roger Moses, who heads fund raising for the new complex. The $9 million campaign for the congregation's new site, at a rugby club in the suburbs, already has raised more than $7.2 million. The new campus is expected to open in a year. New Zealand, population 4 million, has a Jewish community that numbers 5,000, according to the World Jewish Congress guide "Jewish Communities of the World." Rose says the number is as high as 10,000 to 12,000, 80 percent of them in Auckland and most unaffiliated. Rose wants Jews who settle here with the help of the immigration organization (www.aji.org.nz) to join the congregation, but that is not a requirement. Any influx of Jews will help the wider Jewish community, which lacks a critical mass to sustain its activities, he says. "My attitude is the more Jews the better," he says. "I would want another 10,000. That is realistic." His work in two years has brought in 119 families. Some 230 years after the first Jews arrived here, mostly whalers and traders, the size of New Zealand Jewry, sustained periodically by small waves of people fleeing persecution, has seen little growth for a century. Today's community is the typical mix of middle-class businesspeople and professionals, as well as high-tech experts from Israel who have come in the last 18 months. Many young Jews do their de rigueur O.E. (Overseas Experience, post-college backpacking) and don't come back. "Because there are so few Jewish people, young Jews go to Australia to marry" and stay, says historian Ann Gluckman, editor of "Identity and Involvement: Auckland Jewry, Past and Present." Rose is using New Zealand's natural beauty and relaxed way of life, not the size of the Jewish community or its network of Jewish life, to interest Jews from abroad in the country. "It's really quality of life, not necessarily a higher standard of living," he says. Employees aren't expected to work long overtime hours, says Myer Lipschitz, an immigration consultant. "I can afford to leave work at 5 o'clock and spend time with my family." New Zealand, in an attempt to restrict the number of poorly trained immigrants from Asia and the Middle East, has adopted new immigration requirements that favor people from the West with qualifications in such areas as engineering, medicine and information technology, Lipschitz says. The country's goal is 4,500 to 5,000 newcomers a year. "We definitely need skills," he says. "It's felt the country can comfortably absorb that amount of immigrants." Word of the Jewish immigration campaign has spread mostly via word of mouth and the Web site, Rose says. Operating on a small budget, Rose (a volunteer, like most of the people who staff the chevra kadisha, or burial society, and the Jewish community's other organizations) placed some ads in South African Jewish newspapers after crime started increasing there a decade ago. Out of respect for Israel, Rose has not advertised there but may start in the United States. Under his aegis, members of the immigration organization meet emigres at the airport, help them with getting job interviews, finding housing and cutting through red tape. Nearly all find jobs within a few months, and 95 percent of the recent Jewish newcomers remain, Lipschitz says. While most members of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation, which bills itself as Orthodox, practice a level of observance closer to American-style Conservative Judaism, the community offers a mikveh and the Kadimah College day school. Kosher food is available, and an eruv and kosher bakery are under consideration. "It is completely possible to be frum in New Zealand," says British-born Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence, spiritual leader of the congregation and administrator of the Kosher Kiwi supervising agency (www.kosherkiwidirectory.co.nz). Jewish immigrants from South Africa, with a common British experience, feel most at home here, many members of the Jewish community say. Of the estimated 60,000 South Africans who have come to New Zealand in the last decade, about 2,500 are Jewish. "It's far easier for [emigres] from South Africa to integrate here because of the language, because of the culture," Rabbi Lawrence says. For the South African Jews, a synagogue-based Jewish community is familiar. Many get involved in communal activities, says Roy Nates, a professor at the Auckland University of Technology who came here eight years ago and helps settle fellow landsmen. "Unless you get involved in a small community, there is no community," he says. For Israelis, used to a government-supported system of synagogues and other religious institutions, a Jewish community that requires members' time and money is a process that requires several years of re-education. "When they come here, they are intoxicated with the freedom," Rose says. "The Kiwis" (New Zealanders' term for themselves) "understand [the South Africans] better," says Netzer, a Sabra. "An Israeli coming to the diaspora takes five years to realize what a congregation is," says Netzer, who has become an active member of the Hebrew Congregation. His friends originally thought he was "crazy" for moving so far from Israel, but Netzer, who visits Israel every 18 months, says he has never doubted the wisdom of his decision. "I don't have any guilt feelings," he says. The questions he now hears "all the time" from his Israeli friends: "How easy is it to live in New Zealand?" He offers as honest answer. "It's not easy to come here. It's very far away." But, Netzer adds, "I would love to see a bigger community. "We found heaven," he says. "I will stay."

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10/27/2009 - 08:47

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