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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter XIV — A Canterbury Tale

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Chapter XIV
A Canterbury Tale

As soon as the first Jewish settler in Christchurch, Louis Edward Nathan, could muster a sufficient number of Jews, he founded the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation. It did not seem exactly right to include the name Christchurch in the name of a synagogue. One very orthodox Jew in the town could not bring himself to utter the words "Christ" or "church". Whenever he wanted to mention the town he would refer to it as "cher-cher". Before Nathan established the congregation, he held services in his home in St Asaph Street, Mark Marks acting as the officiating minister. Receiving a government grant for a cemetery as well as for a synagogue, the congregation built a wooden edifice for a sum of £300 on a block of land between Worcester and Gloucester streets, on the very site where the present synagogue now stands. Five able readers assisted in its consecration in June, 1864—E. Phillips, A. Phillips, Phillip Phillips, D. Davis and H. Joseph. The congregation sought a Reader, Shohet and Mohel, but the insufficient stipend did not attract a professional man, nor did the abrogation of the law that he had to be a married man over thirty years of age. A regulation in the laws of the congregation then had to be promulgated for the compulsory appointment of an Honorary Reader by the members. A refusal by the elected Reader to act would have been been met by the infliction of a heavy fine. Phillip Phillips received the unasked-for appointment in the first instance, but in order to give the congregation a permanent official to supervise affairs, it engaged a beadle at one pound a week. His duty consisted of "making himself generally useful". One beadle did. He used the Kiddush wine to excess, and had to take the pledge. Like his promise, his position did not last long.

Determined to carry out the affairs of the congregation on traditional lines, the community sought its religious requisites from every part of the world—a Shofar, Ketuboth and Mezuzoth from Melbourne, a Sefer Torah from London, a Lulav and Matzoth from Sydney and an Ethrog from the Holy Land. The congregants may not have observed religious practices as they should, but they expected the institution and the officials to keep the formalities of the faith. They told the beadle he must not work on the Sabbath whilst holding office. They would not call M. Raphael or his sons to the Torah, as the congregation did not recognize Reform Jews. Some of the customs to which they held, other communities had long abandoned. When page 104 the Kaddish prayer was recited in the synagogue only one mourner would be allowed to read it. During the recital the other mourners would stand in the aisles close to the Bimah. The President had complete discretion as to which mourner would be given the honour of saying the Kaddish on behalf of all. Barmitzvah boys would be called up to read the sixth portion of the Sedra of the week on the Sabbath marking their thirteenth birthday. The congregation insisted on marriages being held either on Sunday or Wednesday in accordance with ancient Talmudical tradition. So as to be purely impartial in allotting the Aliyoth for the High Holydays and the appointment of a Hathan Torah and Hathan Bereshith, the committee introduced an old Polish custom of allotting these honours by ballot. The congregation recognized the need of a Succah and only the lack of finances prevented the placing of the order for its erection. Members had to obey the laws of the institution or suffer the penalty of a fine or reprimand. Charles Lezard, who refused a call to the Torah on the Tabernacle Festival, received a severe castigation. Though H. Moss sat on the committee, his colleagues did not hesitate to inflict a heavy fine upon him for creating a disturbance.

Poverty prevailed amongst the Jews of the Christchurch community. The donations given by those called to the Reading of the Law became so low that the committee had to introduce a by-law that such donations should not be less than one shilling. An attempt to revive the original Philanthropic Society failed, but the synagogue did continue to dispense charity through a Charitable Aid Fund. Later, the community formed a Benevolent Association, which received its main source of revenue from Kol Nidre night collections and from money collected at funerals, but remained in existence for only a very short period. In fact, in Christchurch, all communal endeavour emanated from the synagogue. Funeral arrangements were made, not by a Hevra Kadishah, but by a burial committee of the congregation.

Hebrew instruction was not well organized. After services on Saturday morning, lessons would be held in the synagogue under the auspices of the Canterbury Jewish Sabbath School. Weekday classes were held irregularly owing to the many changes in ministers, the scarcity of funds and the lack of enthusiasm of the members. In 1891, the Hebrew school closed altogether, and the minister was ordered to instruct the children privately in their homes. His protest that his health would suffer thereby did not avail. Not all the members were indifferent to education. Hugo Friedlander, an influential farmer in the Ashburton district, arranged that the minister should travel the long distance to his home one day each week so that his children might receive religious instruction.

The early Jewish settlers in Christchurch were not firmly established in their businesses. In 1865, about thirty-five heads of families attended a general meeting of the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation. Soon after, when page 105 the Hokitika goldfield opened, only ten of these families ordered Matzah for the Passover. The others had left for the West Coast. Henry Jones, the first paid Reader of the congregation, suffered dire privation by reason of the poverty of his brethren. On the dismissal of the drunken beadle, the committee appointed him to the office. He had met with plenty of equally bitter experience in Hobart Town. There he had faithfully served the congregation as a general menial flunkey for a pittance, and as a reward for his devotion, had been summarily dismissed with a sailing ticket for New Zealand for a fault which was not his. Although he had a large family, the Canterbury Congregation employed him for £1 a week, but discovering him to be a man of ability, appointed him as Reader, Secretary and Collector for the magnificent sum of £1 12s. 6d. a week, Phillip Phillips resigning his honorary office as Reader. Trouble dogged Jones's footsteps. Against his wishes the committee ordered him to wear a gown, white tie and bib during the services. They told him that "if he conducted the service as he did yesterday, he would risk his situation". They also told him that he had no right to add to or diminish from the prayers unless he had the permission of the President and committee. His crippling stipend and the sickness of his wife finally led to the severance of Jones's connections with the congregation, and though no other minister was available at the time, the committee would not re-employ him. D. Davis took his place in an honorary capacity.

By 1870, the gold-rush on the West Coast had ended. Miners and their followers came back in droves to Christchurch, the first town they would touch in the east. Jews of Hokitika returned also, bringing with them their minister, the Rev. Isaac Zachariah. The Canterbury Hebrew Congregation immediately appointed him as its minister and Shohet, although he could not speak English well. A Baghdadi, Sephardi Jew, he had lived and studied in Jerusalem and liked nothing better than when, in the privacy of his own home, he could eat his oriental food and dress in the comfort of his oriental garb. When he wrote to his parents that he had accepted a post as a minister in Christchurch they ceased corresponding with him. They thought he had "shmud" himself and had converted to the Christian Church. Even on explanation they regarded his appointment with suspicion which he only dispelled when on a visit to the Holy Land. Zachariah had to learn to be subservient to his masters. Every day he had to call on the President for instructions, As a favour, the committee later allowed him to call every other day, but it was compulsory for him to call on Friday and on the eve of a festival. He did not complain, and happily presented an address, goblet and salver to the first President of the congregation, L. E. Nathan, when he left for England in 1873. The standard of orthodoxy in Christchurch did not satisfy Nathan. He kept the Sabbath strictly. With D. Davis and D. Caro he would advertise in the papers that his premises would be closed on Holydays.

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On one occasion, the Press announced that in consequence of the New Year, L. E. Nathan could not attend the Chamber of Commerce to wait on the Government with reference to railway rates. The deputation was postponed until the following Monday. As the years passed, Zachariah gathered courage, and finally he openly rebelled and would not submit. He refused to obey orders. An attempt to dismiss him on that account failed. But it did not mean the end of his obeying orders. When he consecrated the new synagogue on 15 November, 1881, he had to submit his sermon to the committee before he delivered it.

The consecration was a grand affair. Eight hundred were admitted by ticket to the opening. The Church of England Cathedral opened the same week, and many of the Protestant clergy who attended the consecration of their own cathedral also attended the consecration of the synagogue. The Very Rev. the Dean of Canterbury, Dean Jacobs, followed the service in Hebrew. Zachariah had taught him to read and translate it. Bishop Sutton, the Bishop of Nelson and Wellington, as a Hebrew scholar, also followed the service from the Hebrew prayer-book. Soon after, Bishop Sutton visited the Holy Land. He deeply appreciated the letters of introduction which Zachariah had given him to the rabbis of Jerusalem. The large crowd at the consecration service enabled the congregation to collect £250 in offerings.

The increasing numbers arriving in Christchurch had rendered the small wooden synagogue uncomfortable for the worshippers, and the community, by self-sacrifice and by placing itself in debt, had erected a new building worthy of the beautiful city on the Avon. Although the exterior is not as imposing as the synagogue in Dunedin, its interior compares favourably with it, and even today the satin, saffron-coloured woodwork of the seats and almemah add to the serenity of the worshippers entering the building.

From the time of the consecration of the new synagogue, the community began to diminish in numbers and prosperity. The synagogue debt lay heavily upon it. A Jewish concert, although a social success, only improved the finances by £100. The committee then essayed to enter the frozen-meat business, intending to send Kosher meat-supplies abroad. Zachariah, a conscientious man, immediately wrote to the Chief Rabbi in England stating his opinion that frozen meat could not be Kosher. The Chief Rabbi agreed and banned the scheme. When the committee received the notification of the ban, its wrath against Zachariah knew no bounds, especially as he had communicated directly with the Chief Rabbi without submitting his letter to the committee before sending it. The relationship between Zachariah and the congregation grew to such a bad state, that each thought it wise to sever connections with the other, and, after satisfactory compensatory arrangements had been made, Zachariah resigned. He did not change his place of page 107 abode. For three years the congregation remained without a professional minister, C. J. Levien acting in an honorary capacity until he left for England, followed by S. Phillips. D. Caro occasionally helped in the services, and L. Cohen taught in the Hebrew School.

On the appointment of the Rev. A. T. Chodowski, a number of innovations were introduced. He arranged for the reading of the Haphtorah in English, the omission of the reading of the Bameh Madlikin on Friday nights, and for the baking of Matzah in Christchurch by Aulsebrook and Company. The absence of a working Shohet had affected the community's observance of the dietary laws. This Chodowski attempted to remedy. Nothing that he could do, however, could remedy the financial position of the congregation, and after two years the congregation told him most reluctantly they could not afford to keep him. He was very popular among all sections of the community. All wanted him to remain. By a supreme effort, the congregation managed to retain Chodowski's services until the end of 1894, by which time its resources had been stretched to their utmost. Giving Chodowski leave, it sorrowfully allowed him to accept a post in Brisbane.

Bravely, the congregation carried on for two years under the ministry of the Rev. Joel Falk, and then under L. Cohen, both of whom acted in the office of Reader and teacher. When the Rev. J. Jacobs offered his services, the congregation frankly told him that it could not afford to employ him. Zachariah's offer was not even seconded. To his request to teach the children, the congregation replied that he could do whatever he liked, but not on the synagogue premises. Later, a sense of shame urged the congregation to accept Zachariah's offer, although he did not possess the vigour of his younger years. The members of the community realized that as they numbered about two hundred souls, poverty alone could not be accepted as a proper excuse for their neglecting to engage a spiritual leader. However, they received Zachariah's services on most generous and extraordinary terms. They engaged him for one year at the stipend of "what is left over at the end of the year's balance".