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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter XVII — Two Spiritual Giants

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Chapter XVII
Two Spiritual Giants

In the North Island, the two Jewish communities in Auckland and Wellington progressed steadily. When the seven years' lease of the Emily Place Synagogue, Auckland, expired in 1862, the congregation bought the land and improved the building as well as the Mikvah on the premises. Fortunately, with the return of David Nathan from Europe, the Keesing faction which had broken away from the main group, settled its dispute with the major section, thus re-uniting the community, although one gentleman, by his antics on the synagogue committee, continued to enjoy the popularity of those with a fondness for communal squabbles. The large Keesing family, nearly all of whom were musical and artistic, gave yeoman service to the congregation. Thomas Ralph Keesing conducted the synagogue choir for many years, besides winning admiration in the city for his organizing ability in running bowling competitions. Harry Keesing, a renowned black-and-white artist, also acted as choirmaster for a time. His brother Samuel, considered the greatest amateur artist in oils in New Zealand, went to Italy to study music and art, but unfortunately he died before completing his studies.

With the numbers in the community steadily growing larger, the appointment of a permanent minister and Shohet became imperative, and in 1864 the congregation elected the Rev. Moses Elkin, a very pious and zealous man who retained his powers of patience and persuasion in spite of the difficulties under which he laboured. After ten years' service in the community, he succeeded in persuading nearly all of the Jewish shopkeepers in Auckland to close their premises on the Sabbath. Philip Aaron Philips, the President of the congregation co-operated with him to achieve this triumph. As mayor of the city he persuaded his fellow councillors to change Auckland's market day from Saturday to Friday. It helped the Jews to attend the synagogue. Handicapped by a shortage of funds, Elkin bravely conducted both the Hebrew School and the Sabbath School. Conditions were almost pathetic. His teachers, all of whom volunteered for the work, had no prayer-books or primers from which to teach the children, and an appeal for gifts of books had to be made to the Australian congregations. No persuasion of his, however, could induce his committee to give him a decent living stipend. Difficult times made him suffer with the rest of his flock. The hardships in page 120 making ends meet, and dissatisfaction over the relationship between himself and the committee, impelled Elkin to seek a post elsewhere, but, after his fifteen years of faithful service in Auckland, other congregations considered him too old to start afresh in a new community. In 1879 Elkin returned to England where better opportunities awaited him. Arthur H. Nathan, a nephew of David Nathan, acted as Honorary Reader until a new minister was appointed.

The members of the Auckland community could consider themselves most fortunate in their next choice of a spiritual leader. They selected the Rev. Samuel Aaron Goldstein, who came from a well-known family in London and Melbourne and who, in spite of his mere twenty-five years, had already had considerable experience in congregations at Middlesborough and West Hartlepool in England, Toowoomba in Queensland, and West Maitland in New South Wales. A student of Jews' College, London, he combined dignity with scholarship. Tall, stately and refined, he soon won the hearts and respect of his congregants. He attained in 1930 the distinction of having served his congregation for fifty years. Comparative peace and friendliness reigned in the community during those years because Goldstein strove for harmony. Nevertheless, he had strong opinions and was never complacent. Democratic in thought and a man of the people, he visited rich and poor, encouraging the sick to regain good health and the young to attain their goal. Mostly highly cultured, he founded the Societe Litteraire Francaise, and himself spoke French at home with his family. A literary man and artistic in taste, he also loved music and flowers. He understood botany and was a keen gardener. He played the cello, often taking his instrument with him on the tram to visit the homes of his congregants where he would render musical items. Possessing a pleasant voice, his hearers considered him to be an eloquent preacher and the finest Ba'al Kore in Australasia. Cultured, kindly and sympathetic, his saintly character fitted him for his activities outside his own congregation, especially in connection with the Society for the Protection of Women and Children in which he took a deep interest and on which he served as acting-chairman.

A man of extraordinary courage and tenderness, he cared with his own hands, without a word of complaint, for his ailing wife who suffered as a bedridden invalid during the greater part of their married life. Nor would he ever complain about his low stipend. In order to be able to educate his two sons, he agreed to sweep the floor and keep the synagogue clean. When a member once discovered him and protested, Goldstein begged him not to say a word. His humility prompted him never to seek the limelight. In 1893, during the depression, he voluntarily reduced his stipend from £400 to £350 a year, and the congregation did not restore the amount for many years. Liberal-minded himself, he did not unduly stress the customs of the page 121 Jewish faith, and when his congregants did not attend on the second day of the Festivals, he decided not to observe them officially. In 1894, however, a strictly orthodox member of the congregation insisted on the resumption of services on the second day of Festivals, and from that year onwards they have been officially celebrated.

For many years the Auckland Congregation looked forward to the day when it could build a new synagogue, for the small wooden edifice in Emily Place, even when renovated, proved to be greatly inadequate for the worshippers. As far back as 1871, Elkin collected money to build a new house of worship, but ten years later the amount was still not sufficient to purchase even the necessary land. In 1884, P. A. Philips, the city's first mayor, and later town clerk, with the help of Charles Davis and David Nathan, obtained, after many requests to the Provincial Government, the free grant of a section of land in Alton Street. Using his influence, P. A. Philips induced the civic authorities to change it for one of the finest sites in the city, at the corner of Princes Street and Bowen Crescent, where formerly a guard-house had stood overlooking a large patch of ground where soldiers had grown vegetables with which to supply the English and volunteer troops. Protesting citizens charged Philips and the City Council with using personal influence, but Philips had broad shoulders, for he loved his synagogue which he was to serve as president, treasurer and secretary for over twenty-five years. A little autocracy and vanity helped him overcome difficulties when others would have given way and failed. Only a man like Philips would have dared to have his initials inscribed on the knobs of the railings of the city's Albert Park.

Having obtained the ground, the congregation then sold the building in Emily Place, and held services for the meantime in the Masonic Hall. On the Maccabean Festival on 10 December, 1884, David Nathan laid the foundation-stone of the new synagogue. The building cost over £4000 and seated close on four hundred persons, with provision for classrooms in the basement below. Although of moderate design and externally plain, its interior built on traditional lines, could not be termed homely or beautiful. On 9 November, 1885, the veteran David Nathan did his last public duty when he performed the ceremony of opening the synagogue, an honour worthy of the man who had been the spiritual founder and pillar of the congregation. The following August he passed peacefully away, to the deep sorrow of the Jewish community and the whole city of Auckland, of which he was one of the first citizens and amongst the most respected. A procession over a mile long followed his body to the Jewish cemetery. The unity of the Jewish community and the centralization of all its activities in the synagogue could be attributed to his wisdom and sincerity.

At one time it was believed that the Jewish community in Auckland page 122 would be joined by a sister community in the same province. The gold-mining township of Thames had gone ahead, and at its peak over 20,000 inhabitants lived there. Under the lay leadership of the Mayor, Louis Ehrenfried, capable, honorary readers would occasionally conduct services in private homes whenever necessity demanded it. Later, however, Thames gold again proved unpayable, and very few Jews remained by about 1886. When the Provincial Governments were abolished, the authorities made provision for the future, and set aside free grants of land at Gisborne, Whangarei, Waimate, Onerahi and Avondale which it placed in the care of the Auckland Congregation in case communities should be formed in those places later on. None was formed. Only the land in Gisborne, from which the Auckland Congregation still derives a small revenue, proved to be of any value.

Although the only other community in the North Island, that at Wellington, numbered less than fifty souls, the members, under the leadership of Jacob Joseph and his brother-in-law, Joseph Edward Nathan, thought it necessary to engage a Reader and Shohet. In 1862, they appointed a man of fifty, Benjamin Aaron Selig, originally from Penzance, Cornwall, and who later resided in Melbourne for a number of years. Understandably, in such a small community, he could not employ his full time with his duties, nor could he be paid a proper stipend. He occupied himself mainly with his craft of watchmaker and jeweller. Possibly the clash between his responsibility towards his business and family and his responsibility towards his congregation resulted in the sudden termination of his services, for in April, 1866, the Registrar-General published an unusual public notice to the effect that: "It is hereby notified that the name of Benjamin Aaron Selig is withdrawn from the list of Officiating Ministers in the meaning of the Marriage Act, 1854."

The severance of Selig's connection with the congregation as an official did not leave it without a Reader. Into its midst had come Jacob Frankel from Dunedin. He had trained as a minister in England, and had acted as Reader in an honorary capacity at Greenwich, San Francisco, Hobart Town, Dunedin and Melbourne. In Wellington he received £40 a year, but his low salary did not affect his zeal as a Jew. He considered that the Friday evening and Sabbath morning services held, without a Sefer Torah, in the drawing-room of Jacob Joseph's home on Lambton Quay, were not good enough for a growing community in a city then appointed as the capital of New Zealand. Nothing but a consecrated synagogue would satisfy him. He had been one of those responsible for the building of the synagogue in Hobart Town, the oldest extant consecrated Jewish building in Australia. Together with his wife, he invited contributions towards a building fund to which many Christians donated, encouraged by the inspiring example and messages page 123 of Archdeacon Stark, the head of the Anglican Church in Wellington. Frankel also solicited donations from the other Jewish communities in New Zealand and Australia. By 1868, the congregation could afford to buy a section of land 50 feet by 100 feet on the Terrace. The growing congregation also demanded the removal of the temporary synagogue from Joseph's home to the Masonic Hall in Boulcott Street.

The happy day for which the Frankel family and the community had been waiting occurred on 15 January, 1870. Jews and many Christians, representing every denomination, mingled at the consecration service of the wooden building of 32 feet by 52 feet, appropriately conducted by none other than the Rev. David M. Isaacs from Nelson, who, as a young man, had come to Wellington thirty years previously in a "religious capacity". Frankel, who had handed over the synagogue free of debt of its cost of £ 1200, stood on the front porch with his wife and a choir of fourteen singing dedicatory hymns during the inaugural service, to music composed especially for the occasion by Frankel himself. The synagogue, called "Beth El", seated one hundred men and seventy women. Accustomed to collections being made on such occasions, a local newspaper expressed surprise that no call for funds had been made during the ceremony, but tactfully stated "that many Christians had already subscribed".

Another unusual feature of the inaugural ceremony was the "Declaration of Trust" made by the Trustees, Joseph, Nathan, Lipman Levy and Lewis Moss. It included a provisional paragraph stating: "Provided always that no person whatsoever shall at any time hereafter be permitted to preach or expound God's Holy Word or to perform any of the usual acts of religious worship upon the said piece of ground and hereditaments who shall maintain and promulgate or teach any doctrine or preach contrary to what is contained in the Pentateuch as expounded and explained by the Chief Rabbi in London, in England, for the time being, nor shall any of the aforesaid money or securities for money be applied or appropriated for any other purposes than for the benefit and advantage of persons of the Jewish persuasion who hold and abide by such faith and doctrine."

After the erection of the synagogue, the thoughts of the committee, led by Joseph E. Nathan, the President, Jacob Joseph, the blind Treasurer and his secretary, M. K. Samuels, who also acted as secretary of the congregation, turned to the appointment of an incumbent. Their first choice did not remain long. He seemed to be possessed of the wanderlust. Within a period of less than three years, the Rev. A. S. Levy, a product of London's Jews' Free School, served as a minister in Melbourne, Sydney, Toowoomba, Wellington, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose. Hardly had an invitation been sent out to Rev. D. M. Isaacs of Nelson to act as Hazzan, Mohel, Shohet and Teacher, when an advertisement appeared in the Australian Jewish Press page 124 for a married man. Objection had been raised against Isaacs, who still remained a bachelor.

In March, 1874, the congregation accepted the application of the Rev. Abraham Myers of Hobart Town, but within a month of his arrival doubts arose as to his efficiency as a Mohel. A general meeting confirmed the committee's recommendation to ask him to resign. He, given permission to speak, defended himself with dignity, stating that he had sacrificed his position in Hobart Town and would lose the respect of every community if he had to leave so soon after his arrival. He was prepared to undergo an examination by any doctor regarding his proficiency. He concluded dramatically: "You take a great responsibility upon yourselves." Once a synagogue committee forms a resolution confirmed by the congregation itself, nothing but an eruption could change the result. No eruption occurred in the case of Myers, and sadly he left the colony for Australia. An impression in the community remained, however, that the cause of the harshness in dismissing Myers was not only a question of his proficiency but also a problem of finance. The congregation had no funds in its coffers. After three years as President, Nathan could not persuade anyone to take his place. After much negotiation, Benjamin Levy, no relation of the pioneer of the same name, reluctantly accepted. He should have been able to control the congregation-he had sixteen children. In order to engage a minister, a special fund had to be created into which members paid whatever they could afford. That arrangement remained for many years.

Not until Nathan went to London in 1876 did the congregation contemplate appointing another incumbent to the post of minister. He selected a married man of twenty-seven years of age who had been ordained at nineteen —the Rev. Herman Van Staveren. The congregation never regretted Nathan's choice, nor did New Zealand, for Van Staveren, like Goldstein in Auckland, achieved the distinction of serving his flock for over fifty years, during which time he earned the deep love and affection of all who knew him, and a reputation throughout the country for kindly benevolence. Born at Boloward in Friesland, he received his education in Antwerp, Belgium, and at Jews' College, London, where the Chief Rabbi, Dr Nathan Marcus Adler, ordained him. When he came to Wellington, he arrived with one child. Over the years his wife presented him with four sons and nine daughters, and as their family increased, the house behind the synagogue where he lived had to be enlarged. Although they had such a large family, Mrs Van Staveren assisted him religiously in all his work, especially in the visitation of the poor and sick, and in the teaching of the young. Tall, dark and handsome with a long, black, flowing beard, Herman Van Staveren became a picturesque figure in Wellington and a legendary personality throughout the country. His very presence and loud, deep, stentorian voice commanded obedience.

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He used it to effect whenever he had to help the poor and afflicted. Sometimes he would look stern—only, however, when he wanted to gain an advantage for the needy. His sternness was only a pose, for he was a jovial and merry man with a constant twinkle in his eye and a heart as soft and tender as a woman's.

Jewish life in the colonies centred around the synagogue, and life in the Wellington synagogue centred around Van Staveren. He dominated the scene. For distant transport he had a horse, Yankel, which grazed in a paddock at the corner of Clifton and Everton Terraces. One of the sights of Wellington was to see Van Staveren return from the Jewish abattoirs at Petone in his "bell topper" and with his black frock-coat tails flying, urging Yankel along Lambton Quay in strange and inexplicable Hebrew. Another happy scene which pleased the townspeople was the sight of Van Staveren taking his family for a walk. In those days places of amusement would provide family tickets. Proprietors gasped when they had to provide seating accommodation for fifteen Van Staverens. For the summer season, Van Staveren purchased a house at Rona Bay across the harbour, to which travellers crossed by ferry. He bought an annual family season ticket on the first occasion, but in the following year found that the shipping company which ran the ferry had altered its rules in regard to family concessions.

Not long after he arrived, Van Staveren began to interest himself in the charitable and educational institutions of the general community. In 1878, he helped to establish the Benevolent Home, whose committee elected him as chairman for twenty-one consecutive years. The Government also selected him as the first chairman of the Wellington Hospital Board and the Wellington and Wairarapa Charitable Aid Board. When the Government introduced public elections for posts on the Hospital Board, he topped the poll annually except for one year. Occasionally, he would notice a lone hearse without followers leaving the hospital or the home for the cemetery. He made it his invariable rule on those occasions to walk behind the hearse, and would not leave the cemetery until the poor soul had been buried. Before Van Staveren came to Wellington, the committee of the synagogue dispensed charity to needy Jews. The President had power to give £2 to any needy person, or up to £5 if he consulted two other members of the committee. Van Staveren helped to found a Jewish Philanthropic Society. He also encouraged Joseph Zachariah to establish a Hevra Kadishah after he, as minister, had consecrated the new Jewish cemetery at Karori in 1892. At the time, the Board of Management expressed the hope "that with the Almighty's blessing the day may be far distant when the cemetery would be brought into requisition".

Although appointed as Chairman of the Terrace School Committee, he did not neglect the education of the Jewish children whilst labouring in page 126 public endeavour. When Myers had been appointed minister, the congregation had sent for five pounds worth of books, and had intended opening Hebrew classes. They never operated. Horrified to see the children deprived of their educational heritage, Van Staveren, immediately on his arrival, established a Hebrew School with himself as the teaching headmaster. He also established a Sabbath School, but the committee insisted that both institutions should be under the entire supervision of the Board of Management so that pupils not conducting themselves to the satisfaction of the headmaster would have to report to them. Van Staveren agreed to the arrangement because of its obvious futility. He had no trouble in regard to discipline. His commanding voice, eagle eyes and an occasional cuff were sufficient to check the noise or rebellion of any high-spirited pupil. Instruction was given three times a week, with a total of six hours' tuition. Boys and girls were taught separately. The students' roll reached its peak in 1894 with sixty enrolments, but by then the students neglected the mid-week classes and attended only at the week-ends. Year after year in the annual reports, Van Staveren would complain about the apathy of parents towards their children's Hebrew education. His complaints went unheeded. It became a matter of form for him to complain and for the congregants to ignore him. Thus, as the price of peace, Israel's heritage waned. A highlight of the children's school life occurred at the half-yearly examinations. It was considered a great day in the community. Parents, officials and prominent citizens would attend the public oral examinations, at the end of which the successful pupils would receive valuable and cherished prizes. For one prize-giving, F. M. Moeller had a silver medal struck for the dux of each of the boys' and girls' sections of the school.

In both the Hebrew and the Sabbath schools, Van Staveren received teaching assistance from volunteers amongst the members of the congregation. Trained teachers were not available. Those who taught with the Education Department could not, by regulation, teach elsewhere. Van Staveren arranged that they should be allowed vacation on the first day of Jewish Holydays. He also arranged that Jewish university students should not sit for examinations on Sabbaths or Festivals.

Van Staveren also received assistance in the synagogue for the High Holyday services. Jacob Frankel took the place of the Rev. David M. Isaacs, who had come over from Nelson before Van Staveren's arrival. Joseph E. Nathan, the leader of the community before he finally settled in London in 1900, often assisted Van Staveren. Isaac Phillips, Benjamin Cohen and the Rev. I. Zachariah also helped on occasions. However, from 1899 onwards, a grand partnership commenced between Van Staveren and his eldest son Isaac, and worshippers were often touched and moved by the harmony of page 127 voices and spirit which could be seen and heard in the small wooden synagogue on the Terrace in Wellington.

Jewish ministers of religion have found it far easier to win recognition outside the community than within it. It is almost a tradition in Anglo-Jewish communities, even where the ministers are loved, to harden their lot and to reduce their stipends to a minimum. Van Staveren won his laurels the hard way. When he came to Wellington he received £6 a week, for which he had also to act as collector. Fifty years later he was not receiving a penny more. Nor would he accept any perquisites. Any member or friend who sent him a monetary gift would have the envelope returned to him. His committee told him to preach on Festivals only, or at a graveside as directed by the Board of Management. They expected him to advise them on religious matters only. But Van Staveren was a very independent man. When they told him how to carry out his task, he wrote: "Dear Mr Hyams (Secretary), In answer of yours of even date, I beg to inform you I shall not live up to the resolution of the Board. I shall, however, continue to do as hitherto and if the same does not fall in with their views, they can only obtain someone else in my place. Kindly lay this before them and oblige." So ashamed did the committee become of the reprimands Van Staveren wrote to them, that they had to seek the approval of the members to expunge them from the minutes.

A law of the congregation forbade the minister to engage in any mercantile pursuits, under pain of dismissal. The congregation tried to prevent his children seeking his business advice. He regarded this intrusion as impertinence, and finally succeeded in having a clause inserted in his six-yearly agreements giving him permission to advise and counsel his children in their trades. A great portion of his children's mercantile success could be attributed to him. He had a good business head. He was the first to introduce Kosher preserved meat on the market. Like a Talmudical patriarch, he wisely carried out the Mishnaic injunction to teach children to win their daily bread, and to fear and love the One God. By the end of the nineteenth century, the members of the congregation realized that Van Staveren was master. In Anglo-Jewry, annual synagogue meetings are often times when the minister is a common target for the members of the congregation. At the end of the century in Wellington, general meetings lapsed time and time again for want of a quorum. They could not make sport of Van Staveren. He was their leader and led them well. He was a man amongst men.