Moriah closes

December 9, 2012 by David Zwartz
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The final graduation and closing ceremony for Wellington’s Moriah College was an emotional event, expressing pride in the school’s achievements over its 25-year existence, nostalgia for what was being lost in its closing, but anticipation of fresh Jewish education efforts for the capital’s small Jewish community.

Holocaust Centre director Inge Woolf QSM (left) receives a symbolic box, decorated by pupils with buttons out of Moriah College’s 1.5 million button collection, from Pauline Goldberg, one of the Moriah College parents deeply involved with the Moriah Button Project which because of the school’s closing will now be carried forward by the Holocaust Centre. Photograph by Ernie Rosenthal

The two graduating students, one Jewish and the other non-Jewish, who go on from the primary level Jewish day school to a secondary level public or private school, each received  a Tanach from Wellington Hebrew Congregation’s newly-arrived Rabbi Mizrachi.

Farewell messages were presented or read out from former teachers, pupils and parents, as well as from the school’s founders who include Peter Wise, now prominent in Sydney’s Jewish community.

Jewish education for the community’s children will move to after-school classes as well as enhanced Sunday schools.

The hugely important and successful Moriah Button Project was formally handed over to the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand. Former pupils and teachers collected 1.5 million buttons from all over the world, representing the children who died in the Shoah, and designed a memorial to house them. It will now be the Holocaust Centre’s task to fundraise for the sculpture housing the buttons, to be set in an appropriate public place.

From Sydney, Peter Wise wrote the following to be read at the closing cerremony:

“When I was appointed Chairman of the New Zealand and Wellington Regional Jewish Councils in early 1986, I was determined to implement a program that would see the establishment of a Jewish Day School in Wellington.

Peter Wise

I prepared a detailed interim report, elicited the support of an establishment committee and announced it to the AGM in April 1986 in the following terms:

“Acknowledging the ideological, technical and financial difficulties in establishing a Jewish Day School in Wellington; being fully aware of the small numbers of Jewish children it will cater for in the short term; and recognising that it is a bold step for which the full consequences cannot be measured, the Wellington Regional Jewish Council will nevertheless instigate activities which will result in the establishment of an independent Jewish day School in Wellington in February 1987.”

The apathy was predictable and palpable, but I had predetermined a course of action whereby we would operate as a bulldozer; Jeff Durkin would be the driver; Arthur Salek would be the surveyor; and I would be the caterpillar track that crushed anything that got in the way. Janet Salek was tasked to oil the wheels; and despite a timetable of only eight months, we collectively put in place everything that makes a school tick, including the pivotal recruitment of Ailene Sher as Head Teacher.

There had been many battles on many fronts, but the final battle to get enrolments was the most stressful and critical of all. Against all the odds, we had done it – and I have to say that when Moriah opened its doors spot on time in February 1987, it was a day filled with pride and emotion. The school had become a reality and I recall that opening day with a glow of satisfaction.  In the months that followed I often stood silently and anonymously in the corridor outside the classrooms – just listening – and enjoying.

Despite all that we had dreamed of; all that we had fought for; all that we had funded; and all that we had built – I intuitively knew back then that a day would come when the school could be forced to close. But as the product of Holocaust surviving parents, my philosophy was and is that where there’s life, there’s hope; that your worldly possessions may be taken from you but that no-one can take from you your education; and that children who don’t know where they have come from will not know where they are headed.

Notwithstanding the distance that now separates me from Wellington, I reflect on the statement that I made to that AGM way back in April 1986 and I am perhaps more saddened than anyone else that Moriah will be no more. But beneath that, I am happy that for over a quarter of a century, children in Wellington have received a Jewish education that they otherwise would not have had.

I suppose I can say with a degree of contentment – “Mission Accomplished”.

Peter Wise


December 2012


Peter Wise was formerly Chairman of the New Zealand Jewish Council; Appeal Chairman and President of the JCA Sydney; and Hon Treasurer of the ECAJ. He is currently an Honorary Life Governor of JCA; an ECAJ Councillor; and the Chairman of the Council for Jewish Community Security NSW.

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