|July 1, 2005
Hobart’s historic shul
JUDAH Solomon left 10 children and a pregnant wife in England when he was deported to Van Diemen’s Land with his brother Joseph in 1819.
The two were convicted of hiring burglars to steal goods that, oddly enough, had already been stolen from someone else.
The Jewish community in their hometown of Sheerness must have felt a twinge of pity at their unhappy exile because they sent the brothers a large sum of money.
It enabled them to open a store in the main street of Hobart Town with the blessing of colonial authorities who wanted to develop a local infrastructure.
The brothers prospered. Judah built himself a mansion, found a mistress and fathered a child, but his blossoming comfort was shattered when his long-forgotten wife arrived from England with several of their children.
Unsurprisingly, Esther Solomon took unkindly to her husband’s unfaithfulness. She moved into Judah’s house, but after their attempts to live peacefully under one roof failed, she kicked him out.
Their marital battle escalated. Esther publicised his infidelity around the town and undermined his attempts to gain an official pardon, while he accused her of prostitution and gambling.
Judah decided to offer the garden of his grand mansion — which Esther had usurped, but which he still legally owned — to the emerging Jewish community and it was there that Hobart’s first synagogue was built.
Hobart synagogue now houses the oldest functioning congregation in Australia — and on Monday, July 4, it will be exactly 160 years since Judah Solomon and the entire Jewish community of Hobart Town turned out for its opening.
Over its long history, Hobart Hebrew Congregation has both blossomed and withered. A census in 1842 revealed some 259 Jews living in Van Diemen’s Land.
Most were convicts or emancipists, many of whom opened small stores and scraped together a meagre living.
But in 1847, two years after Hobart synagogue opened, it was announced that freed convicts could settle on the mainland without permission from the governor. It caused an exodus from the impoverished island and many Jews moved to South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.
In the 2001 census, only 163 Tasmanians identified themselves as Jewish, and the Hobart Hebrew Congregation numbered no more than 70.
There was a brief resurgence when a handful of European refugees migrated after World War II, and later as South African Jews trickled in and out during waves of migration to Australia.
But the present congregation’s defining chapter came in 1994. In a distant echo of the Solomons’ marital feud, which had delivered Hobart’s Jews with a synagogue almost 150 years earlier, another row erupted which would again have positive results for the community.
During the late 1980s Lubavitch Jews in Melbourne decided to reach out to Tasmania’s community and a Chabad House was established in Launceston.
However, many Jews in the Hobart community were uncomfortable with this and as a reaction began leaning towards Progressive Judaism.
By the early 1990s, there were more Progressive than Orthodox Jews in Hobart, and they voted to affiliate the shul with the Australian and New Zealand Union for Progressive Judaism.
That started a bitter debate that embroiled the Council for Orthodox Synagogues in Victoria and the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, and almost made its way to the Tasmanian Supreme Court.
A group of Orthodox Jews took out an SOS (Save Our Synagogue) advertisement in the AJN and in a famous photograph they are seen davvening outside the shul wearing tefillin and tallitot beside a sign that reads: “Locked out of our synagogue.”
But unlike Esther and Judah Solomon, this time the battling parties reached a compromise and agreed to share the shul.
Hobart Hebrew Congregation president Caroline Heard told the AJN: “Over the past four or five years we’ve come to a very nice, comfortable understanding.
“For Rosh Hashanah, the Progressives have their service between nine and 11 in the morning, and then the Orthodox come in at 11.30am and go until whenever they finish. And for Kol Nidrei and Yom Kippur, the Orthodox usually go to the Chabad House in Launceston.”
The Progressives have one Friday and two Saturday services a month, they help out the Orthodox with minyans occasionally, and both congregations join together for social and non-religious functions — they have a joint kiddush every month and they come together to celebrate simchas.
And so it has been ever since — two congregations, Orthodox and Progressive, sharing Australia’s oldest synagogue.
“ We’re all happy and everyone’s respectful of each other. That’s the optimum, you can’t ask for more,” Heard said. “We can all exist under the same roof.”
CAROLINE Heard moved to Hobart from Sydney after the death of her husband in 1993. One day, as she was driving down Hobart’s Argyle Street, a friend pointed out the shul.
From the street she saw its symmetrical, grand stone facade sloping backwards like a modern pyramid from behind a dark iron fence. She passed between the tall carved pillars that stand before its two front doors like bodyguards.
As Heard wandered inside, she walked past polished pews and little wooden benches originally used by convict Jews (who in the shul’s early days were granted permission by the governor to pray).
She climbed the winding wooden staircase to the women’s mezzanine, from where she looked down on the tiny synagogue’s interior — its antique lights dangling above a carpeted bimah and a plaque on the wall dedicated to the memory of Judah Solomon, who, it read, had “handsomely contributed towards the building”.
Shortly after, Heard was on the board. “It’s like a family that I don’t have anywhere else,” she said. “There’s a wonderful sense of belonging here. The people are so welcoming and they’re really more like an extended family.”
Heard has now been the shul’s president for more than five years. Her fellow congregants describe her as a blessing to the community.
She compiles a regular newsletter, is active with several national Jewish organisations and has delicately helped smooth out the congregation’s differences.
She has lobbied the local Coles supermarket to stock kosher food, and although she is Progressive herself, she often helps with Orthodox simchas.
The synagogue has only 32 financial members, she lamented. It can’t afford a rabbi and they rarely have the numbers for an Orthodox minyan. But in spite of this, the entire congregation has overcome its differences and is now experiencing a mini-renaissance in Jewish life.
THE Hobart Hebrew Congregation is a very special one, according to Yossi Gordon, the Melbourne rabbi who visits every couple of months to help out with bar mitzvahs, weddings and other occasions for which the congregation needs a rabbi.
As in Heard’s case, he said that most people who have gone to live in Hobart experienced a big increase in Yiddishkeit during their stay.
“There’s something very special there that brings out Yiddishkeit in many people who previously didn’t have it,” said Rabbi Gordon.
“There would be close to 100 people around the world who have observed the first Shabbat of their life in Tasmania. And Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in Tasmania are not matched anywhere else, in the sense that the whole community observes them together. They sit until midnight or 1am chatting, reading, enthused and asking questions.”
Much of this enthusiasm is derived from David and Penina Clark. Their house is at the core of Hobart’s Orthodox community. Every Shabbat they open their doors to countless guests who enjoy a meal with them.
They recently bought a double bunk so they could accommodate more visitors. Their house has become popular as a haven for Jewish travellers and many young Israelis come to stay with them — they have hosted more than 40 guests in the past three months.
“When another Jew arrives in Tasmania, the excitement of David and Penina is overwhelming,” said Rabbi Gordon.
“Their hospitality is literally like Avraham Avinu. There are people coming and going from their house all the time and they are literally the centre of Yiddishkeit in Hobart and all of Tasmania.”
Indeed, the Clarks have listed their house in the phone book as an unofficial Jewish community centre.
On Saturday mornings when they’re not at shul they hold improvised services in their house. They have an Aron kodesh (holy ark) and a Torah in their dining room and a library containing several hundred Jewish books.
Their home is kosher to the highest standards, despite the absence of kosher shops, and they host simchas for both the Orthodox and Progressive congregations.
Pnina teaches cheder classes at their house and she and David perform the duties of a chevra kadisha, preparing Jewish bodies for burial.
“The first few deaths were a learning experience, but we just do the best we can now,” said David Clark.
He is, to some extent, accustomed to unpleasant duties. In 2002, when Hobart city council established a construction site on the city’s colonial Jewish burial ground, David spent a month transporting the remains of 52 bodies to the modern Jewish cemetery.
Each day he piled bones of Hobart Jewry’s founding fathers into the boot of his car and drove them to their new resting place.
There are many fascinating stories that surround the Hobart synagogue and its congregation. It is the home of one of Australia’s oldest, most beautiful and unique Torah scrolls, which was donated to the congregation in the 1950s by an Indian aristocrat, Lady Rachel Ezra of Calcutta.
The scroll is thought to have originated from Syria and is housed in an ornamental silver casing, artfully designed in the Sephardi tradition.
With so many chapters in its history one wonders what the future holds for Hobart Hebrew Congregation.
“Only God knows,” said Rabbi Gordon. “But as long as there are people like David and Penina and Caroline there, Yiddishkeit will thrive.
“Sure, the people there are not big davveners. But to me that’s not very significant. Their success is not through davvening. It’s through the communal meals, the discussions, the shiurim, the Shabbat services, and the observance of mitzvahs... many people could learn a lot from the congregation down there.”