From Australia’s Jewish past: Henry Spiro – a leader of the times

August 5, 2021 by Community newsdesk
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Henry was born in Posen, Prussia in 1839 travelled to Queensland in 1861 at 22 years of age and settled in Toowoomba in 1863 and took up a partnership with Samuel Benjamin and opened a merchant store in the centre of town where they built a modern twostory brick building.

Toowoomba synagogue premises

Their partnership became known for its generosity and honesty particularly during the 1860’s depression.  The two parted company in 1868 when Samuel moved on whilst Henry continued to grow the business.

The township grew as more Jewish immigrants arrived, mainly from Poland and Russia, and a handful from England and other Australian cities, bringing with them a great deal of diversity in culture, and by the early 1870s the community had certainly banded together, and, in October 1870, 30 men assembled and the first service was held.

At first, the services were held in private homes and in Spiro’s store.  The first wedding is recorded to have taken place in March 1873 in Samuel Benjamin’s home, although it appears that Jewish weddings were taking place in Henry’s store.  It was clear that a more formal arrangement was required.

Henry became more and more involved in the town’s activities and was elected as an alderman in the municipal council in 1869 making him the second German only to serve on the council.  By 1870 he was elected mayor and also held the position as a magistrate.

He was an active member of the growing Jewish community in Toowoomba and was largely responsible, together with Samuel Benjamin for the building of Queensland’s first synagogue, known as Beth Ysrael Synagogue in Neil Street on the land which they had purchased for this purpose as well a section of the Drayton Cemetery to use for Jewish burials.  Interestingly enough, Henry and Samuel Benjamin sought funds from overseas and a £50 donation had been received from Baron Rothshild, of London, as well as other small amounts.  The cost to build the synagogue was £887, but the whole design, including internal fittings and the minister’s residence, amounted to £1800.

On 3 August 1875 the foundation stone was laid with corn, wine, and oil offerings sprinkled on the stone; together with a sealed bottle containing coins and a number of current publications — a sort of time capsule — being placed in a cavity underneath, and various citations and prayers intoned by the community leaders. Queensland’s first structure purpose-built as a synagogue was completed and consecrated on 5 July 1876 by Rev Samuel Goldstein.  Two Sifrei Torah were brought in, a choir performed and great celebrations took place

The synagogue, built in the Grecco-Doric style, measured about 50 feet long by 25 feet wide and could accommodate 150 congregants. Though small, the building was most beautiful: it boasted four chandeliers, a richly carpeted dias, a carved cedar ark lined with blue satin, and an octagonal pulpit elaborately decorated with open fretwork and a women’s gallery on the mezzanine.

Unfortunately, the enthusiasm and momentum that had brought the congregation through the journey were, sadly, not to last. Henry’s health deteriorated and on 10 December 1876, at the age of 36, he passed away. At the time of his death his business had accumulated bad debts to the value of ₤10 000, many of which were more than 10 years old.  The state of the business and Henry’s declining health are believed to be the results of his great generosity to his customers during the 1866 economic crisis, by allowing credit purchases when everybody else wanted cash.

Samuel Benjamin, Spiro’s former business partner and the synagogue’s other main patron, was bankrupt himself by 1880. Other Jewish families including Rev Goldstein left Toowoomba in 1882 and, sadly, within just a few years of its opening, the synagogue was no longer in regular use.

In 1960 the site was sold to the Lutheran Church and still stands today.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia which might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via www.ajhs.com.au or its Facebook page.

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