The Hobart Hebrew Congregation’s synagogue at 59 Argyle Street is the oldest in Australia. Consecrated on 4 July 1845, the building continues in use today as the home of Jewish worship in southern Tasmania.
There had been a Jewish presence in Tasmania (formerly Van Diemen’s Land) long before the founding of the synagogue. Jews were among the earliest convicts and free settlers, some arriving in the first convict ships to Van Diemen’s Land.
By 1842 it had become obvious there was a need for a Jewish place of worship. The congregation was formed to supervise the arrangements, and the synagogue’s foundation stone was ready for laying on Wednesday, 9 August 1843. Conscious of the historic moment, the congregational president Louis Nathan placed a sealed bottle in a specially prepared cavity. It contained a parchment record in both English and Hebrew of the names of the subscribers of money for the building, along with gold and silver coins of the day and other relics. The bottle is believed to still be in place, but its exact location is unknown.
Then-Governor Sir John Franklin had previously refused to make Crown land available for the synagogue, citing a law restricting land grants to Christian organisations (even though the restriction was no longer enforced in Sydney). Judah Solomon, a leading member of the Jewish community, stepped in to donate a plot. Solomon’s home was Temple House on the corner of Liverpool and Argyle Streets, and the congregation was given a section of his garden. Today, Temple House forms part of the headquarters of Tasmania Police, who spent a considerable sum restoring it from a state of disrepair.
The synagogue was designed in the briefly fashionable Egyptian Revival style by James Alexander Thomson, a Scot who had been transported in 1825 at the age of 20 for attempted jewel robbery. He was later assigned as a draftsman to the Public Works Department where he worked with architects John Lee Archer and David Lambe. After being pardoned in 1839, he set up in business as a valuer, estate agent, map printer, engineer, surveyor, and architect. By 1841, he had started to operate in casual partnership with another former convict architect, James Blackburn.
To fund the construction and fitting out of the building, it was decided to advertise for subscriptions from both Jews and non-Jews.
A tender to build the synagogue for £717 was accepted, but as insufficient funds had been raised, an appeal was made to the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews in London, Sir Moses Montefiore. He responded positively, as did many others in Britain. The overseas interest in the synagogue is apparent from the donation lists affixed to wall panels in front of the ladies’ gallery.
Even so, the final cost of the building including fittings at £1447 far exceeded the total subscriptions of £877. Fifteen members of the new congregation made up the difference in the form of loans.
The synagogue was designed during a period when the scientific exploration of ancient civilisations had come into vogue, sparked in part by research carried out in the wake of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt 50 years earlier. Egypt was synonymous with antiquity, and the Egyptian appearance of the Hobart synagogue building was intended to suggest, among other things, Judaism’s ancient roots. The front is bold and massive, with an entrance comprising two sculpted pillars that support an architrave and cornice and over which is carved a Hebrew inscription from the Book of Exodus: “B’chol hamakom asher azkir et sh’mi avo aleicha uveirachticha” (In every place where I shall cause my name to be remembered, I shall come to you and bless you).
The consecration festivities on 4 July 1845 had been delayed due to difficulties in obtaining the splendid interior fittings of marble, timber, and bronze. The special choir which sang at the dedication service was organised by the same young men on whose initiative the congregation’s first meeting had been assembled. With elaborate ceremony the doors of the synagogue were thrown open, and to the sound of psalms the first Torah scrolls were brought into the building. The service was so successful that a collection of 100 guineas (£105) was made. We also know that the non-Jewish guests were most impressed by the beautiful music and the fervent prayers for the welfare of Queen Victoria and the royal family (a similar prayer is recorded on a board still attached to the northern wall of the synagogue).
The Exodus story that is so powerfully evoked in the design and inscription of the building had a special resonance for the generation of Jews who were responsible for its construction. For them, nothing was more important than freedom. Many had been born in Europe into privation and squalor, had arrived in their new home as convicts, and had painfully won their freedom. The building was erected as a celebration of that freedom, and of their belief that they had found a new promised land.
Once the synagogues in Hobart and (a year later) Launceston were completed, the government issued an instruction that “all prisoners of the Jewish persuasion” not actually under a sentence would have leave to refrain from work and attend services on the Sabbath. The Hobart Town congregation made provision for the convicts to receive two free Sabbath meals. It also sent an enquiry to the Chief Rabbi in London asking whether convicts could be counted as members of a minyan, and whether they could be called to the Torah. The responses were affirmative to the first question, and negative to the second.
The numbered benches originally at the back of the synagogue were for the use of convicts and the poor. The Hobart synagogue is thus believed to be the only place of Jewish worship in the world with seats set aside for convicts.
A number of men were instrumental in the effort to build the synagogue. One was Louis Nathan, the first president of the congregation. He came to Hobart in 1834 as a free settler with his wife and four children, having been deeply impressed by the success of his brother-in-law Moses Joseph, a former convict who later became president of the first synagogue in Sydney.
Another influential figure was Phineas Moss, the first secretary of the congregation, whose portrait hangs in the synagogue. After his arrival in Hobart in 1835 as a free settler he worked as a clerk at the police station in the country town of Bothwell, where he also became the librarian of the local Literary Society.
The main contributor to the fundraising drive for the synagogue was Isaac Friedman. He is believed to have been the first Hungarian migrant to Australia, and was variously an innkeeper and pawnbroker in Hobart.
The survival of the congregation has been the result of obstinacy, loyalty and diligence – against all odds.
There were plenty of obstacles, and sad and dispiriting years to overcome for the small community. Many of the most successful Jewish settlers hastened to return to England as soon as they were in a position to. Numbers were also decimated by the gold rush in Victoria from 1851, as well as the opening up of the rest of Australia.
It was not until refugees fleeing the ravages of World War II started to arrive that numbers increased once more.
However, through it all, the doors of the synagogue were never permanently closed.
In memory of those who perished during the Holocaust, we have on display a memorial Sefer Torah which came to us from the former Czechoslovakia. It is one of 1,564 scrolls seized from desecrated synagogues in that country by the Nazis, and gathered in the Prague Jewish Museum. After the war, the scrolls were eventually stored in a disused synagogue in the suburbs of Prague and were there neglected. In 1963, they were purchased from the Czech government and transported to the Westminster synagogue in London.
Most were repaired and can now be found all over the world, more often than not in small communities which find it difficult to buy new scrolls due to lack of funds. It was not feasible to fully restore our possibly fire-damaged scroll, and so it is not used in worship. Instead, it is housed in a display case in memory of the millions of Jews who died during the Holocaust.
The other Torah scrolls we own and use are thought to be as old as the synagogue, apart from one in a beautiful silver case that came to us from India in 1951 but is probably of Syrian origin.
As you may appreciate, the maintenance of a heritage-listed building is an ongoing challenge for our small community, and we welcome your donation to help us continue the commitment of our Jewish forebears in Hobart Town.