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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter XXV — The Synagogues

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Chapter XXV
The Synagogues

In the first fifty years of the twentieth century, the Jewish population in New Zealand just more than doubled itself. In 1901 the total number of Jews in the country was 1611; in 1951, the number had reached 3611, showing an average increase of about 40 souls a year. The following table indicates the increase and movement of the New Zealand Jewish population according to provinces.

Jewish communal life in New Zealand continued merrily in the four major cities of Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. Westland's small Jewish community at Hokitika met but once a year, on the High Holy-days, under the leadership of Alexander Singer, who carried on until his death. Jacob Webber, the local tailor, accepted the task of Reader, but when he left the district before the First World War, no more public services were held in the synagogue building which was bleached from the sun and riddled with ants. As trustee, Arthur E. Benjamin, the local coroner, who had played in the first North Island versus South Island rugby match, looked after the Scrolls of the Law and synagogue property in the best way he could. In December, 1924, a fire broke out in the building and Benjamin, at the risk of his life, rescued the Sifre Torah, which he sent to the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation for safe keeping. Three years later, during a flood, Benjamin, who as manager of the Hokitika Guardian, understood the value of records, managed to save the old minute books of the congregation, page 181 but when the author opened the deedbox in 1955, the books had turned irrecoverably into mould. A Trust Board created by the Canterbury Congregation now controls the principal and interest of the proceeds of the sale of the land of the Hokitika synagogue.

The Canterbury Congregation also holds a Canterbury-Timaru Synagogue Trust, the proceeds of the sale of the Timaru synagogue building disposed of by the last of the late trustees, Moss Jonas, Jacob Levien and Ernest Nordon. According to the deed of trust, the interest and principal may be used only for any future congregation established in Timaru.

As no one in Nelson attended its synagogue, the trustee allowed the building to be used, firstly, as a masonic meeting-place and later, as a band practice hall. Increasing lack of repairs forced the Nelson City Council to order its demolition after the First World War because of its dangerous condition. For many years, rates on the land have not been paid, and it is the intention of the Nelson City Council to sell the land for the recovery of payments.

In contrast to Hokitika, Timaru and Nelson, the community in Wellington gradually grew until the small wooden synagogue on the Terrace could not comfortably accommodate all the worshippers. Amidst pomp and ceremony, Van Staveren, with the assistance of his colleagues from all over New Zealand, consecrated the new brick building in September, 1929, on the same site as the old synagogue. It departed from the traditional custom in that the Almemah, usually in the centre of the synagogue, stood close to the Ark. The consecration crowned Van Staveren's long, magnificent, loyal service of over fifty years to the community. In his honour, the Chief Rabbi conferred the title of Morenu upon him. He had grown into a patriarchal figure, both in stature and demeanour. Loved by all of Wellington's citizens, he commanded in benevolent tones, leading the Jewish community in a happy brotherhood.

Owing to Van Staveren's illness in 1905, the congregation engaged the Rev. Chananiah Pitkowsky as his assistant and Shohet. He had come to New Zealand on a mission for funds for institutions in Jerusalem where he had studied and lived. The congregation could not have made a better choice. Tall, and rivalling his colleague in dignity, he earned popularity as well by his learning and gentleness.

Two cruel blows struck the community early in 1930 when both Van Staveren and Pitkowsky passed away within a fortnight of each other. According to an old Jewish tradition, many pious Biblical characters died on the anniversary of their birth. Van Staveren also died on his birthday. His sons, who conducted the business of Van Staveren Brothers, and probably under his influence, passed a resolution placed on the minutes of the firm in 1915, not to import German goods. They have never done so since. Seeking page 182 men equal in calibre to serve them, the members of the Wellington Congregation fortunately engaged Rabbi Solomon Katz as their minister. Mr Isaac Van Staveren and Mr Barend Van Staveren voluntarily conducted the services until his appointment. Katz had already had experience in a New Zealand community. He had served for nine years as assistant to Goldstein in Auckland. Deciding to add to his studies gained at a Yeshivah in his birthplace, Kishineff, and to widen his experience begun in London and Coventry, he went to the United States of America where he received a rabbinical diploma. He then served at Birmingham (Alabama), New Rochelle and New York. A clever, erudite and attractive speaker, he drew an audience whenever he spoke in public. In the tradition of the rabbis, he established adult study circles. During the Second World War when the American Forces served in New Zealand, he paid particular attention to the welfare of the Jewish troops. When Katz suddenly passed away in February, 1944, the American soldiers erected a memorial to him in the foyer of the synagogue which reads: "In grateful tribute to the memory of Rabbi Solomon Katz, Wellington Hebrew Congregation, by the Jewish men of the Second Marine Division, United States Marine Corps, whom he served with kindly devotion." His splendid range of Hebrew books and general literature now forms the Rabbi Katz Memorial Library, a section in the Central Public Library at Wellington.

Conscientious Rev. Samuel Kantor assisted Katz as Shohet, but resigned about the same time as the Rev. Joseph Wolman, Katz's successor, who resigned in 1951. They both entered private business. The next two ministers in charge of the congregation, one of whom was Rev. Benjamin Skolnik, did not remain longer than three years. Fortunately, when they left, the community did not remain without a Shohet. A learned, Yeshivah-trained, new resident, Rev. Hillel Kustanowicz, undertook the task, and his piety and sincerity give him the courage to carry out the minister's duties besides his own until the appointment of a minister is made.

In spite of the many changes in spiritual leadership after the death of Van Staveren, the Wellington community remained united although several minyanim had been formed on different occasions. They served the small group of orthodox Jews who did not ride on the Sabbath or who desired to pray according to their own liturgy. I. Josman held a minyan at Kilbirnie in the middle twenties. About 1930, Israel Ketko formed a minyan at Newtown followed by David Boock's minyan at Aro Street. Solomon Triester conducted a minyan on Saturday afternoons only. A few who had escaped the German persecutions formed a small minyan before the Second World War under the leadership of S. Holcer. After the war, N. Rosemann for two or three years conducted a minyan for the High Holydays only. An increasing number of Jewish residents in Lower Hutt stimulated the proposal to build page 183 in the area a synagogue, for which the Government gave a grant of land, but dwindling enthusiasm finally led to the abandonment of the scheme.

Auckland's community also retained its unity under the wise, scholarly and cultured direction of Goldstein. Beloved by his flock, he celebrated, in his seventy-fifth year, the fiftieth year of service with his congregation, on which occasion the Chief Rabbi honoured him with the title of Morenu. An eventful year in the congregation, 1930 also marked the eightieth birthday of N. Alfred Nathan, the younger son of David Nathan, the founder of the community. As the acknowledged leader of New Zealand Jewry, he was presented by the Auckland Congregation with a silver model of the synagogue of which he had been President for over thirty years. He had wide interests. Director of many companies, including the chairmanship of L. D. Nathan and Company, which he had assumed on the death of his brother in 1905, he also served as President of the Chamber of Commerce and as a trustee of the Auckland Savings Bank and the Auckland Racing Club. Besides his association with many charities, he also served as Honorary President of the Auckland Zionist Society of which Goldstein was President for eighteen years. In order to welcome the inauguration of the Sabbath, N. Alfred Nathan would serve wine and cakes at home to all members of his staff on Friday mornings.

The year 1930 also marked the arrival of the Rev. Joir Adler to assist Goldstein. Previously Goldstein had had Katz to assist him, followed by the Rev. Samuel Nathan Salas of Jerusalem, who, after a few years' service, went to lead the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation. When Auckland enlarged its synagogue and built classrooms before the First World War, it had removed the Bimah from the centre of the synagogue to a place next to the Ark. Adler disapproved of this break with tradition and desired that the community build a Mikvah as well. He considered many of the practices in the congregation tended towards reform. When Adler danced around the synagogue on Simhas Torah night with the Scroll of the Law in his arms, the older members of the congregation looked on with incredulity. They had never seen such behaviour. In Gateshead, England, whence Adler came, such behaviour was normal. The congregation and Adler parted company, the latter forming a congregation of his own, the "Knesseth Israel", but when the community was left without a Shohet, his former employers came to a satisfactory arrangement with him whereby he remained in Auckland as Shohet until the appointment of a new minister.

The congregation selected the Rev. Alexander Astor, a former Jews' College student who had served a number of years in Dunedin. Efficient, capable and musical, he soon gained the confidence of his congregation, and when Goldstein died, deeply lamented by his community, Astor took on the leadership of the congregation. A new communal hall and classrooms com- page 184 memorate Goldstein's name and service. To assist Astor, the congregation appointed the Rev. Marks Salas, a brother of the Rev. S. N. Salas, as assistant minister and Shohet. When Rev. Marks Salas retired in 1955, the congregation brought out the Rev. Gerald Rockman from London, but, dissatisfied with conditions, he returned to England after only four months' service. Shehitah arrangements remain not altogether satisfactory in Auckland. Although the community had continued as a united body for over a hundred years, the first serious attempt at creating a division occurred at the end of 1955 when a few families, mostly originating in England, invited Rabbi Ferdinand M. Isserman of St Louis, Missouri, whilst on sabbatical leave, to address them on Reform Judaism with the object of establishing a Reform congregation in Auckland.

The lot of the ministers in Christchurch was not always a happy one. Before Zachariah died in 1906, waning interest in the congregation allowed him to receive only a small honorarium instead of a regular stipend. However, the Hon. Charles Louisson, and later Phineas Selig, in spite of decreasing members and increasing apathy, zealously maintained the communal institutions and helped to engage the Rev. Isaac Amber Bernstein, born in Ballarat, as its minister and Shohet. The committee impressed upon him that he had to call twice a week upon the President, that he must not take gifts from members, and that he had to attend regularly in synagogue. The climax of strained relationships came when the committee instructed Bernstein not to preach on Rosh Hashanah and to blow the Shofar on Yom Kippur at six in the evening. Bernstein preached, published his sermon in the press, and received the admonition he expected. The congregation also objected when he accepted public positions without its permission. Eventually Bernstein resigned, and the congregation brought out the Rev. David Schloss from England, but in so doing departed from regular custom. Schloss was no Shohet, which meant that the community had no Kosher meat-supply. The Chief Rabbi protested, but it did not seem to worry the community unduly. Pangs of conscience ultimately struck the hearts of the committee, who decided to send Schloss to England for six months to learn Shehitah and Milah, but it was six years after the time of his appointment that he eventually sailed in 1922. After his return, Schloss remained but another three years, and as the terms of his appointment allowed him to engage in business in his spare time, he probably left the ministry for commerce.

For four years, E. Friedlander, a layman, conducted services in the synagogue until the appointment of the Rev. S. N. Salas of Auckland as a full-time minister and Shohet. After twenty-five years' service with the congregation he still leads it faithfully and ably, doing his utmost to enable the small community to retain its affiliations with Judaism.

Dunedin, the most southern Jewish congregation in the world, changed page 185 its minister many times. Adolph Treitel Chodowski left in 1909 to be followed by a Shohet, A. Spiro and a lay Reader, J. Rittenberg. Three years after Chodowski had departed, the congregation appointed a qualified minister, the Rev. Morris Diamond, who had served in Newcastle, England, after acting as conductor of the choir at the Great Synagogue, London. He remained for eleven years, resigning on account of ill health, and once again J. Rittenberg filled the breach, assisted by E. Friedlander. A happy relationship existed between the next minister, the Rev. A. Astor, and the members of the congregation, and after serving for five years he left in 1930 to fill the vacancy in Auckland. The next incumbent, the Rev. Abraham Hyman Karwan, did not feel so happy. A very orthodox Jew, he could not accustom himself to the concessions made to environment in regard to Jewish life in the colonies. His departure just prior to the Second World War marked the end of Kosher meat for Dunedin. The difficulty in obtaining a qualified Shohet in war-time and a dwindling congregation, led to the abandonment of this need. Fortunately, the congregation engaged a victim of the Nazi terror, the Rev. Caesar Steinhof (Stanton), to teach the children and to conduct the services. He remained from 1940 to 1944, and from the time he left, the congregation has not employed another qualified minister. From 1948 onwards, Mr E. Hirsh, a layman, has bravely conducted services and fulfilled other religious tasks for the community, paying particular attention to providing hospitality and arranging meetings for the Jewish students from all over New Zealand attending the University of Otago at Dunedin.

Outside New Zealand's four major cities, little Jewish activity took place. From 1934 onwards, Mr Karpel Cohen conducted services and voluntarily taught the children at Hastings. In November, 1953, the community held its first annual general meeting. It then hired a hall for Sabbath and Festival services led by either Mr Ivan Zelcer, Mr Louis Zelcer or Mr Morris Goldman. Occasionally, a minister from Wellington would attend in order to encourage the small community. At the beginning of the century, Nathan Phillips held occasional services at his home at Waihi when gold-mining flourished in the area. From 1914 onwards, High Holyday services have been held at Palmerston North which also has its Zionist associations. Hamilton also has its Zionist societies, and occasionally services have been held in private homes, but being within easy travelling distance of Auckland, the Jews who live in Hamilton usually go to the larger city for any religious services they require. Van Staveren did consecrate a Jewish cemetery at Gisbome in 1904. It was thought at the time that many Jews would settle in the town. Few did. Amongst them Herbert H. De Costa achieved prominence, serving on most of the important institutions in the area including over thirty years on the Borough Council, often as deputy mayor.

There are no signs that any synagogues other than those at present stand- page 186 ing in Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin will be built within the foreseeable future. They stand, as memorials of Jewish_religious zeal and piety of the past. Modern New Zealand Jewry does not emphasize its Jewish affiliations through public worship and prayer or through its adherence to orthodox Jewish practices, although hardly any Jew misses attendance at synagogue on the first day of the New Year and on the Day of Atonement. Most Jews are formal members of the synagogue. It represents Judaism with which they are more or less in accord. However, many do neglect its ceremonial precepts although they may realize that they are not altogether unnecessary. For the majority of members of modern New Zealand Jewry, the synagogue is a symbol.