Rabbi’s visit to Torres Strait Island

Rabbi Mendel Kastel on his trip to Thursday Island last week.

IT’S difficult – make that impossible – to find kosher food on Thursday Island. But that didn’t stop Jewish House CEO Rabbi Mendel Kastel from paying a visit there last week.

Known as Waiben in the local language, the island is located in the Torres Strait around 30 kilometres from the tip of Cape York and has a population of 2938 according to the 2016 census, of which 68.6 per cent are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people.

Rabbi Kastel visited the island in his capacity as a National Mental Health Commissioner, a role to which he was appointed in September 2018.

“We were up there for about two-and-a-half days. I had to schlep kosher food with me,” he said.

Rabbi Mendel Kastel at Thursday Island Hospital.

He said the purpose of the commissioners meeting on the island was to engage with the local community and also to launch Connections, a new program aimed at talking to communities nationwide about their experiences of mental health and wellbeing. The goal is to put together a shared 2030 Vision for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.

Rabbi Kastel said the group met with local police, elders and mental health workers. He remarked that it was “beautiful to have been made to feel so welcome”.

“There’s a wonderful sense of community in the Torres Strait where they really look after each other,” he said. 

“Even something like homelessness – as far as people sleeping rough – is very low because people take in family members.

“It’s a bit isolated there but that gives an opportunity to still maintain those family links and those community links which are so important when dealing with mental health, when dealing with issues around drugs, isolation and things like that.”

Asked if the sense of community paralleled that of the Jewish community, Rabbi Kastel replied, “I think it definitely has that.”

He said poverty and housing affordability were among the issues he observed on the island, while its isolation meant that people with serious medical issues had to be transported to the mainland.

“I’ve been visiting hospitals since I was 12 years old so it was interesting to go and visit the local hospital,” he said.

He said it was “obviously limited”, with the isolation making it difficult to get support.

“From my discussion there were only a couple of social workers. There is a shortage of doctors and other workers on the islands,” he said.

“As you go even further out in the islands they’re even more isolated.”

The main takeaway form the visit, he said, “is the sense of community and isolation and the importance of us sitting in big cities being aware that there are people much more isolated”.

“Whatever services that are delivered need to be delivered to all Australians, no matter what part of Australia they’re in,” he said.

And while he said the visit was not officially tied to NAIDOC Week – which celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Indigenous Australians – he said, “The recognition of this week and its significance to Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders is significant.”

Rabbi Kastel also recently donated close to 100 new blankets to the Tangentyere Arts Centre for Indigenous families on the outskirts of Alice Springs after seeing a request for donations on Facebook.

“As a community we’ve always been taught to think of others, particularly the First Peoples of this land and the disadvantage they experience. When I came across the call-out I thought it was a wonderful opportunity,” he said. 

“Part of our tikkun olam is to bring support to these communities.”

Charity organisation Thread Together, which is run by former Our Big Kitchen general manager Greg Fisher and has several Jewish directors including founder and chair Andie Halas, is donating over $40,000 worth of clothes to the centre.

GARETH NARUNSKY