Synagogue Turns 175

 

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 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.

 

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 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.

 

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. 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.

With thanks to the Hobart Hebrew Congretation for providing this history. Images by Alastair Bett.

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