Becoming part of a community

By Craig Nudelman

In the middle of June I was privileged to perform in the Sydney Opera House’s newly refurbished Concert Hall as a chorister; the Sydney Philharmonia Choir’s Chorus Oz performed Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony, also known as the Symphony of a Thousand

There were almost 1 000 people performing, and I was one of 850 singers bringing this incredible piece to life. I’ve been part of productions before, but this was a mammoth work. And the amazing thing was that there were only two days of rehearsal before we performed the piece. Others who had done it before said that they’d taken at least four months to rehearse and polish until they were ready. However, with choirmaster Brett Weymark at the helm, the choristers and orchestra were simply marvellous. 

It’s been a while since I’ve performed in front of a larger audience than a shul congregation – and the Latin and German was a bit different to the usual prayers that we sing on a Shabbos. But after going through the score and listening to the practice tracks numerous times, I was ready to go ahead. The magnitude of this piece was not only difficult in terms of the musicality, I was not prepared for holding my sheet music and standing for many hours. The last time I’d sung in something physically difficult was for Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis with the Symphony Choir of Cape Town. Pushing the choir through to making sure that this was the best experience for both the choir and the audience was how we became a community. 

After nearly three months in Sydney, it was nice to form another community, even though it was only for a weekend. Of course, we have family, the girls’ schools, work, and Shul communities. And for new immigrants, community is the most important thing to form. After leaving friends, family, and colleagues, we need to ensure we can belong to something for a support system, social interaction, and engagement. There have been many studies which point to community involvement as being a method to enhance our mental and physical health. 

Lauren Zuchman, writing in the Psychiatric Times, speaks about community involvement and community engagement being critical for our mental health and wellbeing. She writes, “I have found that community involvement is really key to a sense of belonging and really feeding our soul as we think about maintaining our mental health.” And in an article in Painted Brain, an organisation dedicated to mental wellbeing, a lack of sense of community can increase depression by loneliness, which raises stress levels, increasing the risk of depression, sleep deprivation, and anxiety. 

For a new immigrant, the latter were not options (but who sleeps with young kids anyway?). I got involved in a shul choir two days after landing in Sydney and spent the next two months adjusting. Gabi’s new job has made her transition into Australia as easy as it can be, and Livi has had no trouble adjusting to the Joeys group in her nursery school. Jessica has had a more difficult time coming to terms with saying goodbye to her friends back in Cape Town. We have provided her with a safe space and she has a posse at school (the Harry Potter Club and the Green team); she isn’t alone, but for a young child who had such a tight community and was taken away from it, it’s been a challenge. And it’s a challenge for Gabi and me, which we’ll have to deal with it as it comes. Perhaps we need to find a community for parents of distraught South African children. 

I remember, when I was a child, I was quite lonely. I had epilepsy, and I didn’t really have a community to go to to discuss what I was going through. I also wasn’t as outgoing as Jessica is, and my friend groups were either small or constantly changing. That was hard. And I know that many people, not just children, go through that. I acknowledge that loneliness and exclusion is not just a childhood issue but something that happens in all facets of adult life. 

What can you do about it if you’re feeling left out and alone? Well, the best step is to find out what you’re interested in. Sports, dancing, bridge, poker, music… The list goes on. And it isn’t only a favour we’re doing for ourselves. Communities grow from newbies, and not just in numbers. When we come together as a collective, we can learn from one another, share experiences, and share knowledge. We build each other’s self-esteem and a new support network. 

I am lucky to have been part and still be a part of so many incredible networks which have changed my life. Being a South African, Jewish, a Limmudnik, a Nahum Goldmann Fellow, a chorister, a Jewish professional, a singer, actor, tour guide, dad, and husband (and an epileptic) have given me opportunities to build my networks of support and encouragement in different guises. I am grateful to have various areas of my life which give me support where and when I need it. From my dad group on WhatsApp (called Dadvice) to my fellow actors from Cape Town community theatre — and everything in between — I am #blessed to belong. 

The question to ask ourselves, even if we’re happy and included, is who is being excluded and how to make sure that opportunities are there for others to join our communities. For example, how do community theatre groups and choirs in Cape Town, whose rehearsals and performances are difficult to access for people from townships around the city, become accessible? When I performed in the Symphony Choir of Cape Town my peers were mostly middle-aged or elderly white people. Who is being left out of the tent yet could create such a difference for our organisation or community?

A former Capetonian, Craig Nudelman is now based in Sydney, where he has settled into Australian life with his wife Gabi, and two daughters, Jessica and Livi. He works for the Jewish Communal Appeal and enjoys singing as a member of Sydney’s Central Synagogue choir and the Sydney Philharmonia Choir. The Cape Jewish Chronicle is privileged to continue to receive regular articles written by Craig.

• Published in the July 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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