The Hobart Synagogue is celebrating the 175th anniversary of its opening on the weekend of 3 – 5 July 2020. Consecrated on 4 July 1845, the Hobart Synagogue is the oldest in Australia. An exciting program of events is planned to mark this this historic achievement. We look forward to celebrating with guests, including descendants of past members and from the greater Australian Jewish community.
The program starts on Friday 3 July with an event hosted by the Governor of Tasmania, Professor the Honourable Kate Warner, at Government house. This will be followed by an Erev Shabbat Progressive service and a Shabbat dinner. On Saturday morning there will be an Orthodox Shabbat Shacharit service. Other planned events include a panel discussion on Saturday afternoon, with experts discussing the history of Jewish life in Tasmania. Themes likely to be covered include: Jewish convicts, the role of Jewish Tasmanians in the greater community, and post-World War II Jewish migration to Tasmania. On Sunday, guests will be able to sign up for tours of sites of Jewish significance around Hobart, including the Jewish Cemetery. There are also plans for a special concert that will recreate the music performed at the original 1845 consecration.
The remarkable story of Jews in Tasmania begins in 1803 when six Jewish convicts arrived on The Calcutta from England. More Jewish convicts continued to arrive, and eventually they were joined by opportunistic free settlers. Services were held in inns and homes, such as Judah Solomon’s Temple House, which still stands. When it was decided that a synagogue should be built, the congregation made an unsuccessful appeal to Governor John Franklin for land. In response, Judah Solomon donated part of his garden for the synagogue.
On 9 August 1843, the foundation stone for the synagogue was laid, followed by the consecration on 4 July 1845. The consecration was an elaborate event featuring an orchestra and a choir. Many of the leading citizens of Hobart Town attended. The local newspaper gave lavish praise to both the ceremony and the building, particularly to the grand chandelier found in the sanctuary.
The synagogue is designed in the Egyptian revival architectural style. Egypt was synonymous with antiquity, and the Egyptian appearance of the Hobart synagogue building was most likely intended to suggest Judaism’s ancient roots. Above the entrance is 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).
In the 1850s the Tasmanian Jewish population reached a peak of 452, but soon reduced, among other reasons, due to the end of convict transportation and the gold rush in Victoria. The decline in population continued until revitalisation at the beginning of the 20th century by Samuel Benjamin, the grandson of Judah Solomon, with help from a generous bequest from his Uncle Joseph Solomon (Judah’s son). Under Benjamin’s leadership, the congregation eventually resumed holding regular services. In 1918, the Diamond Jubilee (75th) of the laying of the foundation stone was celebrated. The event was attended by many prominent Hobartians and received extensive media coverage.
Abraham Rheuben, a founding member of the synagogue and has many living Australian Jewish descendants
The small congregation was helped by the arrival of post-World War II European migrants, which boosted the Jewish population and made invaluable contributions including the congregation’s two history books, Hobart Hebrew Congregation: 150 years of survival against all odds by Hedi Fixel, and A Few from Afar: Jewish Lives in Tasmania from 1804, edited by Peter and Ann Elias.
The synagogue is now home to both progressive and orthodox groups. Life for the small Jewish population of this beautiful island continues to be challenging, but the congregation remains vibrant and proud, led by enthusiastic members with a self-reliant attitude. Recently, there have been several young families with children that have joined the congregation to make for an optimistic future.