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Strictly Jewish: Inside a rarely seen world

Producer Dan Goldberg reveals how Mint Pictures was given unprecedented access inside an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect in Melbourne for Strictly Jewish.

Aryeh Goldman stands in traditional dress in synagogue/Emmanuel Santos

Producer Dan Goldberg reveals how Mint Pictures was given unprecedented access inside a reclusive ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect in Melbourne for Strictly Jewish.

For many people, living without television, internet or mobile phones is an impossibility, but for a community in Melbourne’s south-east, it’s a part of everyday life.

That community is Adass Israel, the most ultra-Orthodox sect in Australia, who despite living amongst the trendy restaurants and cafes of Ripponlea, near St Kilda, are entirely self-sufficient, with their own shops, cemeteries and even ambulance services.

“They really are a world unto their themselves,” producer Dan Goldberg from Mint Pictures says.

“The fact that they’ve managed to construct a cradle-to-grave society in the modern era and maintain 5,000-year-old traditions is something I find very special.”

Goldberg says the Adass Israel community is so reclusive and separate from contemporary Australia, they are almost akin to a secret society.

Not anymore.

In the new SBS documentary, Strictly Jewish, audiences are taken inside the lives and homes of three Adass members – Rabbi Aryeh Goldman, elder Shlomo Abelesz, and matriarch Raizel Fogel.

Through rituals and their experiences over the course of a Jewish calendar year (which also includes a trip to Israel), they shed new light on the strict Adass lifestyle and tight-knit community, from monitoring mobile phone activity to the distinctive attire of furry black hats and long coats.

Although not everyone in the 2,000-strong community approved.

“We had to walk a very tight diplomatic tightrope to just get in and out unscathed,” Goldberg says.

“There was never any suggestion of anything untoward other than some people made it clear that they didn’t want us pointing cameras in their direction, which we respected.”

This was a challenge when capturing moments such as the baking of the crackers (known as matzah) for Passover, which involves an enormous assembly line, as the men have just 18 minutes to knead the dough, roll it, bake it and get it out of the oven.

“You just don’t see that ever, anywhere. It’s the only place in Australia, certainly in Melbourne, that does it to that degree,” Goldberg says of the sequence – his favourite in Strictly Jewish.

“The sense of community and belief in that room is powerful. The whole thing is just so antiquated, but beautiful.”

Shlomo Abelesz reading synagogue/Emmanuel Santos

Goldberg, who used to be the National Editor of the Australian Jewish News, says during his time at the newspaper they would write about Adass Israel from time to time. When he first started making Strictly Jewish he just assumed Adass Israel was the equivalent to the Amish, living as they did hundreds of years ago, with no contact to the outside world.

“But what I discovered was they’re not the Amish because they actually embrace modernity as long as it’s on their terms, and as long as it’s been deemed Kosher,” he says.

“So they do have phones but they have to have a filter and they’ve actually got an organisation called the Technological Awareness Group, who come around to all the houses and make sure the phones are kosher.”

And while most young Australians can’t get enough of email and selfies, Goldberg says a lot of the younger generation of Adass Israel were actually the ones who didn’t want to be filmed and seem to be becoming even stauncher in their beliefs.

“I think the older generation had more exposure to the outside because they arrived here as young children and were still establishing the community,” Goldberg says.

“But to think that in 2016 children can grow up in Australia living cheek-by-jowl with the latte society, but yet barely having to engage with them, is staggering.

“That still surprised me the degree to which they can actually live their lives virtually without having contact with the outside world.”

Strictly Jewish is the third documentary in the three part series Untold Australia and airs Wednesday April 27 on SBS.