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Early History

A Concise History of Melbourne Jewry and the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation 

Jews were involved from the very beginning of European settlement in Australia, arriving with the first fleet in 1788. The initial settlement was in New South Wales, but soon spread to Tasmania and then to Victoria, more specifically the north end of Port Phillip Bay, now Melbourne. Of some notoriety was Ikey Solomon, a convicted felon transported to Tasmania, and on whom it is reputed that Charles Dickens based his character Fagin. There were other Solomons, unrelated to Ikey, who came looking for opportunity. Two were Joseph and Michael. Both were involved in the initial settlement of the town of Melbourne in the early 1830s. Joseph along with explorer John Batman, the founder of Melbourne, was also a member of the Port Phillip Society. 

It was as a member of that society that Joseph Solomon and others were party with Batman to receiving a grant of land from the Dutigalla aborigines, in 1835, which was to become the city of Melbourne and capital of Victoria. Batman named Mount Solomon on the banks of the Maribyrnong River after Michael Solomon, a grazier in the area. 

According to the census of 1841, Melbourne had ‘57 Hebrew souls’. Jewish religious services were regularly conducted in Solomon Benjamin’s Collins Street drapers shop. It was decided, in September of 1841, to establish the Jewish Congregational Society, soon renamed the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation. This renaming occurred 10 years before the separation from New South Wales and the establishment of the State of Victoria in 1851. Early Presidents and Board members of the Congregation were aldermen and councillors of the Melbourne City Council. After the Oaths of Office Simplification Bill in 1857 repealed the oath that parliamentarians swore:  ‘On the true faith of a Christian…’ some of our forebears also stood in both houses of State Parliament. 

In 1844, the Congregation received a land grant from the government that allowed them to establish the first synagogue in Bourke Street, Melbourne (more recently the Equity Trustees building), and where the congregation remained until 1930, when it moved to its present prominent South Yarra site, on the corner of Toorak and St Kilda Roads. St Kilda Road may be regarded as one of the world’s great boulevards. 

It was Asher Hyman Hart, our second President, who in 1850 requisitioned the Mayor of Melbourne to offer a reward for discovering gold within 200 miles of Melbourne, in order to stem the emigration to New South Wales after the discovery of gold there, that led to the gold rush of 1851. The boom times and economic explosion gave Melbourne its marvelous Victorian era heritage. The gold rush also brought many European migrants, and a big jump in Jewish numbers. The small synagogue’s participants increased in numbers.  

Since its first Rabbi Rev Moses Rintel in 1849, the congregation has been faithfully served by a number of rabbis. An outstanding example is Rabbi Dr Israel Brodie, who went from the St Kilda Road pulpit to the high office of Chief Rabbi of the British Empire in 1937. His predecessor Rabbi Dr J Abrahams had also been considered for that position, but it went to Rabbi Dr J. H. Hertz. Since its inception, the Congregation always came within the rulings of the Chief Rabbinate of what is now known as the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth. For nearly 150 years Halachic (Orthodox religious) matters that could not be resolved in Australia were referred back to the Chief Rabbi’s office. This is no longer the case. With the establishment of Yeshivot in Australia and the growth of the Jewish communities (now more than 50,000 Jews in Melbourne) and Batei Din (Jewish courts of law), there is ample opportunity for resolution of any perceived problems. 

The Melbourne Hebrew Congregation is regarded as the ‘Mother’ congregation of Victorian Jewry. After over 170 years in existence, Melbourne has grown to have some 50 orthodox congregations, albeit some are quite small, plus a number of Liberal/Reform congregations and one Conservative synagogue. 

Post World War II immigration reinforced a Eurocentric Jewish attitude. With the passing of time and the decline in the numbers of those educated in European Yeshivot, European approaches have integrated and taken on a more Australian Jewish outlook.  

Australia, generally, but Melbourne more particularly, is very cosmopolitan and multicultural. Jews have been able to contribute and succeed in this society for as long as they’ve been here, which is since the beginning of Melbourne.  Currently, there are many notables among our members who are successful in all walks of life — academics, scientists, engineers, medicos, lawyers and judges, and business people. Past members of our congregation have included two Governors-General — Sir Isaac Isaacs and Sir Zelman Cowen; Sir Benjamin Benjamin (responsible in many ways for the Exhibition building), and General Sir John Monash (the first soldier knighted in the field in over 200 years by the late King George V in 1918 for his great ability, with tactics which superseded those of the British high command to help bring the First World War closer to its conclusion).  

Our synagogue, which is of a grand design and features the best Tasmanian blackwood (now an endangered timber specie and one no longer harvested) carving in Victoria, has 1350 seats and currently a little over 900 members. With a dome over 100 feet in height, it is an iconic building with a Heritage overlay. It is often regarded as the ‘cathedral’ synagogue in Melbourne, to use a non-Jewish term. We are the primary ceremonial synagogue in Melbourne, and frequently host city, state and national occasions.  

When the current site was chosen there was a strong Jewish presence in the area. That Jewish population density has declined with the movement of Orthodox Jews to neighbouring suburbs; it is only now starting to recover, with the return of many Jewish people to the new developments of upmarket apartment buildings along the St Kilda Road and Queens Road area. 

The above is a condensed version of the history of Melbourne and Victoria’s Jews. More detail can be found in The Enduring Remnant, a history of the first 150 years of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation 1841 – 1991, published by Melbourne University Press in 1992, and available from our synagogue office (03 9866 2255).

Sun, 24 October 2021 18 Cheshvan 5782