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 organise a religious quorum or minyan, and on 12th September 1841 the first organised 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.

Religious Life

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.

Melbourne prospered firstly in the years after the gold rush and then the development of a metropolis, leading to the great economic development of the 1880’s. As early as February 1861 Nathaniel Levi was elected to the Victorian Parliament and a number of noted Jewish citizens were also elected. Noted among them was Sir Benjamin Benjamin (1834-1905) , three times Mayor of Melbourne, a Member of the Legislative Council and thirteen times President of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation.

In the 1880’s he was foremost among Melbourne citizens. Another leading personality was the Hon Edward Cohen, President of the Congregation for five years, Mayor of Melbourne (1862-1863) and a Minister in the Victorian Parliament . When he died in April 1877 his funeral was the largest seen in Melbourne. The Governor, Sir George Bowen in his carriage followed the funeral procession. Ephraim L Zox, President (1883-1885) of the congregation was also a greatly respected Victorian Parliamentarian.

A suburban Melbourne growing in wealth and public achievement developed a proud Congregation. The building was re-consecrated in 1877. However, it was felt there was a need for scholarly religious leadership, and the Congregation in 1883 called a new spiritual leader – Rabbi Dr Joseph Abrahams – with his great Rabbinical and secular knowledge – to teach and to judge ( “yoreh, yoreh, yadin, yadin”). He was a great and erudite scholar with a Ph D (Leipzig) and M A (Melbourne).

His religious determination over the next forty years helped shape the destiny of Melbourne and indeed Australian Jewry. Joseph Abrahams was the son of Rabbi Barnett Abrahams, headmaster of the Bevis Marks School, London, and the brother of the noted Jewish Scholar at Cambridge – Israel Abrahams. He himself had studied at Hildersheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin under Ezriel Hildersheimer, David Hoffman and Abraham Berliner – these rabbis being the principal Orthodox rabbis in Germany in the closing years of the nineteenth century. His great scholarship paved the way for his successors at Melbourne – Israel Brodie, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth (1948-1965), Harry Freedman, a modern world authority on Hebrew, and Rabbi Dr Hugo Stransky, also a graduate of Hildersheimers.

Joseph Abrahams had many demands made upon his knowledge . He allowed a mixed choir. This followed requests for organ music to accompany the service. He was opposed to this, and as a compromise permitted a mixed choir. He fielded many requests for conversion to Judaism and always felt that such conversions became his responsibility and reflected upon him. In the century that elapsed from his arrival to the retirement of Rabbi Dr Rapaport in 1979, the religious authority of the congregation was considered paramount.

The new Melbourne Synagogue in Toorak Road was completed in 1930. The earliest years saw numerous activities around the congregation, including a flourishing youth group, enthusiastic Ladies’ Auxiliary and a large religious school. In April 1937 great disappointment was felt when Rabbi Israel Brodie returned to England. In August 1938 Rabbi Dr Harry Freedman, a brilliant scholar, became the new incumbent. Jewry in the world at large went through very difficult and tragic times – the Holocaust in Europe and continual unrest in Palestine / Israel prior to 1948. By 1946 for the first time in history the congregation had a full membership, and Australia welcomed to its shores some 15,000 European Jewish migrants.

Until this period the Congregation largely comprised families of the English migrants of the 1851-1855 gold rush era and the way of life enjoyed by the Congregation indeed changed very little for over a century. It was a proud Congregation that had celebrated the marriage of John and Hannah Victoria Monash in 1891, the Barmitzvah of Sir Zelman Cowen in October 1932 and had conducted the funeral service in February 1948 for Sir Isaac Isaacs, first Australian-born Governor General. That service took place in the presence of an august congregation including the Governor General Hon William McKell, the State Governor Lord Dugan and the Lieutenant Governor Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Herring.

In December 1947 Rabbi Dr Hugo Stransky was appointed Chief Minister. A Hildersheimer graduate, he held the post for the next four years. He was succeeded in September 1952 by Rabbi Dr Izaak Rapaport, a scholar who studied for his Rabbinical ordination in his native Poland and at Jew’s College in London. His twenty-seven years of office coincided with a resurgence of Jewish observance and outstanding growth in Jewish education in the community. As Rabbinical leader he played a key role in this era. The membership had changed, and many families now came from a traditional European background and expected a greater commitment in the religious activities of the Congregation. In 1973 a scheme to develop Stained Glass Windows within the Synagogue was commenced under the guidance of the noted architect Dr Ernest Fooks. These windows, especially the clerestory windows in the dome, add much grandeur to the Synagogue. Rimona Kedem, a noted Israeli artist, designed the windows.

Since its beginnings, the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation has prided itself in the achievement of its membership. In former times the membership was largely composed of business people. Today there is a broad membership of professional and semi professional people and acknowledged leaders in law, medicine, accounting, commerce and also many prominent communal and philanthropic figures.

The current building in Toorak Road, South Yarra, dating back to 1930, is a splendid, ornate building often referred to as the “Cathedral Synagogue” of Melbourne.

With a membership of some 1300 people in addition to extended families, the 1300-seat Synagogue runs regular services on Thursday mornings in addition to all other Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh, and Festival services. The Thursday early-morning minyan in particular is a very enjoyable and intimate gathering held in the Herscu or “minor” Synagogue, and followed routinely by a catered breakfast in the Synagogue Boardroom. As with all services, all are welcome. The Synagogue also regularly plays host to communal and high-profile events. MHC publishes the high-quality glossy magazine, Destiny, on a quarterly basis, regularly runs Bar-Mitzvah and Bat-Mitzvah classes, and a Rabbinical Shiur, and also variably runs Lecture series and other cultural and sporting events. Regular historical exhibitions highlighting Melbourne Jewry have been curated using extensive MHC archival material, and are often displayed in the Synagogue foyer. At various times, high-quality media productions including DVD’s, celebrating important events such as the 75th Anniversary building celebrations, the “Helfgott meets Helfgot” concert, and the recent publication of the splendid coffee-table book on the Architecture and Stained-Glass Windows, are created and forwarded gratis to members.

MHC’s membership is diverse, spanning families of many generations’ standing with descendants of its earliest members and leaders, through the post-war migration and newer generations, and with a wide occupation base, from business people, through professionals and semi-professionals, and lists many well-known and prominent figures amongst its members. Most importantly, it is highly inclusive, with attendants whether regular or not, always acknowledged and involved whether by way of call-ups / aliyahs or acknowledgement, and with a very reasonable seat fee structure.

The Synagogue’s intrinsic beauty and grandeur, its proximity to St Kilda Road, with its increasing residential profile, and the central business district for those who work there or stay in hotels there or nearby as tourists, as well as the south-eastern suburbs, in which much of the Jewish community resides, make it an attractive and logistical choice for membership and attendance.