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The History of the Jews in New Zealand

Chapter XXVI — A Survey of Jewish Religious Practices in New Zealand

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Chapter XXVI
A Survey of Jewish Religious Practices in New Zealand

The gradual abandonment of Jewish religious practices did not occur only in the houses of individual families. The very institution—the synagogue—dedicated to promote religious observances, sometimes fell short of the maxims it should have taught. Very often members of synagogue committees served, not to further religion, but because of the social prestige that it brought them. In the early part of the century, candidates for office would send cabs to the members to bring them to the polling booths. Social class would not permit a pawnbroker to be a member of a Board of Management, whilst doubt would arise as far as a money-lender was concerned. Not infrequently, committees forced their irreligious views upon the minister with the thought that they commanded and that the minister was their servant. The minister, seeking peace within the community, and believing that by making concessions unity would be preserved, allowed his conscience to be persuaded. When one committee ordered a minister to blow the Shofar at 6 p.m., before the Day of Atonement had ended, he obeyed.

The practice of conducting daily services in the synagogue, morning, noon and night had long been almost totally abolished. Judaism is not a religion for Sabbaths and Festivals only. Yet in some synagogues, even the Friday evening service has been abandoned. In both Dunedin and Auckland, when Rabbi Alexander Astor came on to the scene, he restored the services for the inauguration of the Sabbath. Some synagogues have eliminated the Sabbath morning service altogether, even omitting the mandatory Shema prayer, whilst others commenced the Sabbath morning service in peculiar places. At one time in Dunedin, the committee introduced the triennial system of reading the Law, whereby the Pentateuch was read once every three years instead of every year. Some members suggested that since only one-third of the Sedra was read every week, only one-third of the Haphtorah should be recited. Dunedin favoured the shortening of prayers. Under no circumstances was the Sabbath morning service allowed to be prolonged beyond one hour.

A clamour for the modernization and improvement of the services did result in some synagogues in the recitation of prayers in English and in the page 188 reading of the Haphtorah in English. The introduction of consecration services for girls did not altogether meet with success. Some congregants objected to the inclusion of ceremonies taken directly from Christian rites which have no Jewish roots whatsoever. All communities, however, do now allow women to vote at synagogue elections, which, according to the Chief Rabbi, is not opposed to the Din. A resolution to allow women to hold honorary offices as committeemen, presidents and treasurers did not succeed. Nor did an attempt to introduce the organ into Sabbath and Festival services. To encourage the observance of the Passover, ministers hold communal Seder services. They have been particularly successful in Christchurch, where the Rev. S. N. Salas also conducts a Kiddush after every Sabbath morning service, and occasionally holds youth services in which the youngsters read the liturgy from beginning to end. Apparently, Succoth is not a popular festival in Canterbury. When Bernhard Ballin left £.200 for an annual Succoth entertainment, it was decided to use the money for some other useful synagogical purpose. In spite of attempts at modernization and innovation, synagogue attendances are as small today as they were at the beginning of the century. In Christchurch and Dunedin it is only on rare occasions that a minyan attends on a Saturday morning.

With the introduction of the five-day working week in New Zealand, it was thought that worshippers in the synagogue would increase. However, it had the opposite effect, for members now go out of town for the week-end. If the Passover coincides with Easter, the celebration of the Jewish Festival suffers. Many Jews who observe Kashruth in their own homes do not hesitate to eat trefah when away from it, even if it is the Passover. Very few observe the Sabbath and the Festivals in accordance with Jewish precept. It is estimated that in all New Zealand and apart from synagogue officials, only one Jew observes the Sabbath in Auckland and a handful in Wellington. Most of the Jewish children are now sent to school on Jewish Festivals. It may have been this knowledge which prompted Prime Minister Savage to reply in response to a question as to whether Jews in the Public Service were granted leave on Holydays without reduction from annual leave, that Jews were not granted that privilege. When the Wellington Congregation asked Chief Rabbi J. H. Hertz if men who did not keep the Sabbath could act as presidents or treasurers of congregations or as president of a Chevra Kadishah, he did not reply. As usual, he left ticklish questions unanswered.

Kashruth, one of the fundamentals of Jewish home life for which leaders of communities have to accept responsibility, has never been in an entirely satisfactory state in the country. It is estimated that, in a large city like Auckland, only 25 per cent of the Jewish population take Kosher meat. They are not encouraged when they have to obtain their Kosher meat-supplies from a butcher shop where trefah meat is also sold. One of the difficulties page 189 is to make satisfactory arrangements with a non-Jewish butcher to sell Kosher meat. A Jewish purveyor would not have enough customers to make a living. Without constant supervision, non-Jewish butchers could not be expected to observe Kashruth laws in their shops as strictly as Jews. Consequently, the state of Kosher meat-supplies has often been atrocious. In Wellington, where a more orthodox element have lived than in Auckland, the situation has been better, and it is estimated that between 60 per cent and 75 per cent of the Jews buy Kosher meat. Until the arrival of the Rev. S. N. Salas in Christchurch, the community, for a number of years, could not obtain Kosher supplies. To its credit it supported its minister, and a number of members who previously did not purchase Kosher meat do so now in spite of the fact that beef cannot be obtained. Having no casting pen, the Shohet is not permitted to kill animals over 70 pounds in weight, and the community has to be satisfied with mutton, veal or fowl. The Dunedin community takes no Kosher meat. At one time the question arose as to whether the congregation should spend money on a Shohet or on the repair of the synagogue. It chose to repair the synagogue.

As far back as 1908, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals attempted to ban Shehitah. It tried to introduce a Bill in Parliament requiring the stunning of animals before slaughter. When it realized its absurdity as far as the Jewish ritual was concerned, it dropped the proposals. Another campaign undertaken all over New Zealand about 1950 by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to prevent Shehitah, seemed to introduce an element of anti-semitism. Most of the previous objections to Shehitah concerned the manner of casting the animals in preparation for slaughter. When the Jewish communities bought casting pens which overcame this objection, the Society began to object to Shehitah itself, although it had incontrovertible evidence given by the greatest scientists in the world of the humaneness of the Shehitah method. Without notifying Rabbi Astor, the Society removed his name as vice-president, but it retained the name of Sir Ernest Davis as a patron.

All the communities in New Zealand strictly observe the ceremony of circumcision. As it is a religious rite, Mohelim should always be observant Jews, but the Australian Bate Din has made it a practice to grant certificates to Jewish doctors who are not at all observant of Jewish precepts.

Many of the funeral rites which were a feature of Jewish life in Europe have fallen into disuse in New Zealand. Full Shivah at a death of a relative is seldom kept. Kaddish is rarely recited for a full year, nor is Yahrzeit frequently observed. All of the four main centres have an established Chevra Kadishah, most of them formed prior to the First World War. Auckland conducted its Chevra Kadishah in conjunction with its Benevolent Society and the sale of Kosher wine. For thirty-eight years Luis Marks, a popular page 190 communal worker, led the Society. Besides being a founder of the Auckland Zionist Society, he was also one of the pioneers of the New Zealand Labour Movement, being later elected a vice-president of the Auckland Labour Club. During the slump, he represented Auckland in the movement to aid the unemployed.

At Dunedin, the Annual General Meeting of the Chevra Kadishah would be held immediately after the Annual Meeting of the congregation. Proceedings would take only a minute. Office bearers would be elected by the formula, "the same as last year". On one occasion, the meeting wanted to know the actual names of the President and committee. They looked back through the files and discovered that the President and committee were all dead.

Problems arose in New Zealand in regard to the care and disposal of old cemeteries. With the expansion of the cities, the old cemeteries were situated in busy districts. At Auckland, the Chevra Kadishah presented the City Council with its unused portion of the old cemetery at the corner of Symonds Street and Karangahape Road. The City Council wanted it for a water scheme. Later, when the scheme was not carried out, the Chevra Kadishah wanted a section of the ground returned in order to build a Metahar House on it. After a stormy meeting of the Auckland City Council, the Mayor gave his casting vote in favour of the Chevra Kadishah, which in due course built its mortuary.

The last Jewish interment in the old cemetery in Hereford Street, Christchurch, took place in 1885. Its dilapidated state urged the committee to try to sell the land and either cremate the remains of the thirty-four persons buried there or re-inter them in the Linwood Cemetery. After many years, during which relatives of every one of the deceased had to grant permission, and after a Special Bill had been passed through Parliament, the bodies were removed to the newer cemetery.

The Dunedin Congregation sold its old cemetery to the City Council, returning the purchase money on the condition that the graves in the cemetery be looked after by the Council in perpetuity.

None of the communities now has a Jewish cemetery of its own. They share a portion of the general cemeteries with other denominations. Cremations are infrequent, but when they do occur, it is the practice to recite prayers before the removal of the body to the crematorium, although one minister, the late Rev. C. Steinhof (Stanton), would have nothing at all to do with the recitation of prayers for Jews whose bodies were cremated.

Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin conducted Philanthropic Societies, but not like that of Auckland in conjunction with the Chevra Kadishah. Not many calls were made upon them. The Canterbury Jewish Philanthropic Society had one call in eight years. In Auckland, a Hebrew Aid Society had page 191 been formed in 1905 by Nathan Phillips for the purpose of lending money to needy persons without interest. The women, in 1928, established a Jewish Women's Benevolent Society in Auckland.

After the First World War, a childless couple in Wellington, Max and Annie Deckston, who had come from Poland just before the end of the century, moved by the sufferings of their relatives, brought many of them to New Zealand. Having accumulated savings after hard work in factories and on farms, they made a trip to Europe in 1929. What they saw inspired them to establish a Jewish Orphanage in New Zealand where children could be reared in an atmosphere of peace. The movement started with the immigration of one orphan girl, followed by twelve children in 1935 and a further twelve in 1937. Annie Deckston passed away in 1938 and her husband the year following, he leaving the residue of his estate to the Deckston Hebrew Institute, the name by which the orphanage was known.

With the object of rescuing Jewish children from Nazi terror, the trustees obtained an entry permit for thirty full orphans between the ages of five and eleven. All efforts over a number of years through the Ort-Oze and the American Joint Distribution Committee to bring children out were unavailing, and then New Zealand Jewry began to realize the extent of the Jewish catastrophe wrought by German brutality. There were no orphans left to come out. The few who had managed to escape had been taken to Israel.

The unavailability of children directed the trustees' attention to the desirability of extending the Trust. Eventually, a scheme was propounded whereby assistance could be given to any institution caring for orphans or aged persons or to any religious, educational or social organization normally found in a Jewish community. During the hearing in the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice, Sir Humphrey O'Leary, found it difficult to believe that from amongst the millions of Jews in the world, a sufficient number could not be found to fill the Deckston Institute. The trustees were then able to point out the enormity of the Nazi crimes. The Supreme Court granted a certificate for a Bill to be brought through Parliament for alteration of the terms of the Trust. At the third reading, objections by a former inmate of the Institute who claimed she had been adopted by the Deckstons, prevented its smooth passage through the Legislature. She had no documentary proof, but stated that she had been adopted "in the traditional method of adoption by members of the Jewish faith by taking your petitioner between their knees, and in accordance with the passage in the Bible, Genesis 48, verse 5, referring to the adoption by Jacob of Ephraim and Menasseh and declaring that your petitioner was their adopted daughter". The Select Committee of the House, impressed with the evidence and that of witnesses who claimed to have seen the strange ceremony, granted the applicant certain relief which was incorporated in the Bill.

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The Deckston Hebrew Trust Act, 1949 provides, among other things, that the income can only be used for any Jewish orphanage, any Jewish institution for the care of the aged and infirm, the Wellington Hebrew Philanthropic Society, the Wellington Jewish Welfare Society and the Wellington branch of the Friends of the Hebrew University.

With the object of caring for the Jewish aged, the Deckston Trust Board has negotiated with the Methodist Social Service Trust to erect a Deckston Wing at Eventide Village, on an area containing 150 acres of land, situated twelve miles from Wellington amidst beautiful and ideal surroundings. It is planned to settle twenty aged Jews and Jewesses either in villas or rooms with a central Kosher kitchen. The whole village will remain under the control of the Methodist Social Service Trust, but its Board will contain members of the Deckston Trust. Another body which has been registered, the Wellington Jewish Care of the Aged Society, will concern itself with domestic requirements, entertainment and general welfare of the inmates.

It is intended to cater first for the aged in Wellington, and later for the Jewish aged from any part of New Zealand.

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Auckland Synagogue, 1889. The foundation-stone was laid on 10th December, 1884 by David Nathan and the Synagogue was opened by him on 9th November, 1885. This was the last public duty of this highly respected citizen of Auckland.

Auckland Synagogue, 1889. The foundation-stone was laid on 10th December, 1884 by David Nathan and the Synagogue was opened by him on 9th November, 1885. This was the last public duty of this highly respected citizen of Auckland.

Auckland Synagogue today.

Auckland Synagogue today.

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The Christchurch Synagogue. The foundation-stone for tin's building was laid on February 8th, 1881 by Mr L. E. Nathan, then President of the Christchurch Hebrew Congregation. It was completed the same year and has been in continuous use for Jewish worship ever since.

The Christchurch Synagogue. The foundation-stone for tin's building was laid on February 8th, 1881 by Mr L. E. Nathan, then President of the Christchurch Hebrew Congregation. It was completed the same year and has been in continuous use for Jewish worship ever since.

The interior of the Christchurch Synagogue.

The interior of the Christchurch Synagogue.