Melbourne’s first Jews
In June 1835 John Batman and a group of settlers established themselves on the Yarra River and so began what is now the city of Melbourne. Associated with John Batman were a number of Jews. As the Port Phillip District grew, more Jewish traders, mostly involved in the soft goods trade, settled.
The first Synagogue
By 1841 there were enough Jews to organize a religious quorum or minyan, and on 12th September 1841 the first organized Jewish congregation was established. In April 1844 a grant of a half acre site of land at what is now known as 472 Bourke Street was made for the embryonic Jewish community, on which to erect a Synagogue. The administrator of the Port Phillip District, Captain Buckley, received a presentation from the
Congregation in appreciation of his efforts on behalf of the small group of Jewish settlers. By 1847 a small building for use as a Synagogue, seating 100, was erected on the rear of the site.
In those early times the Synagogue was in a very convenient location. Ships coming from Europe came up the Yarra River as near as Elizabeth Street and the goods including "slops clothing" were delivered to many traders in both Elizabeth and Queen Streets close to the Synagogue precinct.
Development of Victoria and the Synagogue
In December 1850, the new separated colony of Victoria was proclaimed to much joy. In July 1851, gold was discovered in Central Victoria, and the gold field towns of Ballarat, Bendigo, Maryborough, Stawell and St Arnaud were soon to flourish.
This was to alter the whole future of Victoria and also the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation (MHC). The Congregation was modelled on the religious traditions of the Great Synagogue, Dukes Place Aldgate in London, whose modern Synagogue building was erected in 1790. It is interesting to recall some of the records of that Congregation, especially marriage, subsequently linked to our own MHC:
- 23rd March 1836 Emanuel and Rachel Ackman, whose son Samuel Ackman was MHC President in 1906
- 10th December 1851 Edward Jacob Jones and Phoebe Jones, whose son Dr Albert E Jones was MHC President in 1926.
- 12th January 1853 Bernard and Fanny Kaufman, whose son Jacob Bernard Kaufman was MHC President in 1893.
- 15th June 1853 Jacob A and Catherine Cantor. Jacob Cantor himself later became MHC President in 1891.
- 6th July 1853 Samuel and Rebecca Solomon, whose son Rev S M Solomon was MHC Secretary 1883-1932, and whose great-nephew Isidor Solomon was President 1979-1981.
The New Bourke Street Building
The influence of the Great Synagogue in London increased following the great migration of 1852-1855, with the arrival in Melbourne of some 300 Jewish families from London and the Posen district of Prussia. A flourishing Jewish community and enthusiastic settlers needed a new and grand Synagogue. Plans were made to erect a Synagogue on the Bourke Street site to seat 650 people and David Benjamin, a generous benefactor, laid the foundation stone of the new Synagogue, in March 1855.
Numerous religious questions were directed to the London Chief Rabbi, especially the noted Dr Nathan M Adler (1803-1890). His religious advice shaped the destiny of the Congregation especially before a religious court (Beth Din) was set up in Melbourne in 1866. Rev. Moses Rintel who for some years had lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, where his father was both a businessman and poultry slaughterman (schochet) was the first MHC clergyman. He was followed by Rev E M Myers, Rev W I Marks, Rev A F Ornstein, the latter a member of a noted London Rabbinical family, and then in May 1877 by Rabbi Dr Dattner Jacobson. In a religious observance sense, these were difficult years, as the harsh environment of Australia made many demands on the new settlers. Rather than an effort being placed on religious law, the desired requirement of the community was for Jewish education for the children.