The Great to celebrate its 140th

February 4, 2018 by Henry Benjamin
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Sydney’s The Great Synagogue is the spiritual home of Australia’s oldest congregation established in 1844 and is to celebrate the 140th anniversary of its current location built in 1878.

The oldest synagogue in Australia was built in Hobart in Tasmania in 1845. Ballarat in Victoria is the home of the oldest surviving synagogue on the mainland and was built in 1861.

J-Wire asked The Great Synagogue’s current spiritual leader Manchester-born Rabbi Dr Ben Elton who arrived in Sydney in 2015 to tell us some of the building’s history.

JW: We know that there were Jewish convicts on the First Fleet in 1788, but when did the first free Jews arrived in Sydney.

RBE: We think the settlers arrived in small numbers over the next 30 years.

JW: The congregation was established in 1844. Where did they worship before the existing synagogue was built in 1878?

RBE: They were minyans in converted premises in Bridge St from the early days.  The first purpose-built shule was established in York St in 1844. There was a breakaway congregation in Macquarie St in the 1850s. The Great Synagogue was a reunification of those two communities into one ‘great’ synagogue.

JW: The Great Synagogue had many high-profile members since it was founded. Can you name a few?

RBE: In recent times of course there was the late Syd Einfeld who played a very important part in helping Jews to leave Nazi-devasted Europe and come to Australia to established new homes. He was a highly respected politician having served in both the federal and the NSW State parliaments. Thanks to his efforts, Australia’s immigration policy was changed to accept more Holocaust survivors than other country per capita in the world.

Fanny Redding was the founder of the National Council of Jewish Women.

The shule had distinguished rabbis including Rabbi Porush and Rabbi Apple. In the early days there were numerous judges of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and many leading Jewish figures. The shule’s current president Stephen Rothman was a former president of The New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies and member Peter Wertheim is the executive director of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

JW: Were there infamous identities among the membership?

RBE: We have been lucky enough to have a whole range of members of the community with some gaining notoriety,

JW:  Tell us more about your predecessors.

RBE: I am the seventh chief minister of this congregation since 1862. The First Chief Minister was the Reverend Alexander Davis who had been the Chief Minister at York St and had founded a range of institutions including education. The Board of Jewish Education, the BJE, can trace its roots to the classes which Reverend David started. He made the Great Synagogue was possible as he had been such a highly-respected and popular figure that the two communities could unite under his leadership. Rabbi Cohen who succeeded him founded the Sydney Beth Din. Reverend Einfeld later founded the Chevra Kadisha. Rabbi Porush arrived in Sydney in 1940. He started the GSY, the Great Synagogue Youth, which was incredibly important in producing so many marriages. Rabbi Raymond Apple was Chief Minister for 33 years and was very involved in interfaith relations and he taught at the universities. Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence also was highly active in interfaith projects.

JW: The shule’s building houses a museum. When was it established and are there plans to expand it?

RBE: The museum was founded in the 1980s in memory of A.M. Rosenblum and his wife Sadie. A.M. Rosenblum was the synagogue’s president in the 1960s. In the museum we have the first chumash to be used in a service in Sydney in 1828. As you could imagine we have old textiles and silver torah ornaments. But we have wedding records going back to the 1830s and the 1840s. The museum has recently enjoyed a new lease of life under a guest curator. We expect a 140th anniversary exhibition to be launched in May. In terms of expansion, there will be more exhibits, more research into the collection and more variety within the expansion.

JW: The synagogue gets many visitors. With the increase of cruise ships visiting Sydney is the number of visitors on the rise?

RBE: We are getting a healthy number of visitors from cruise ships in season and land tours but we don’t depend on visitors. For example, last week we had a service for honourees following the Australia Day awards.  We always welcome visitors and they add variety to the congregation. Our congregation has a  growing membership  and we are overwhelmingly a Sydney shule with a large Sydney congregation.

JW:   The building has been listed as heritage but there have been stories about the air space above it. What does this mean?

RBE: There is a scheme whereby a heritage building can sell its air space in order to raise money for the upkeep of the historic building. This was done in the 1980s and the regulations have been recently amended and we are now investigating the best way to exploit the space.

JW: In recent decades, the Jewish community has moved away from the locale in which the shule stands. Today, there is significant increase of residences being built in the city. Has the increase of homeowners in the city made an impact on the membership?

RBE: Even in my time, we’ve seen more people who now live in walking distance from the synagogue. They come from the CBD, Woolloomooloo, Ultimo, Surry Hills, Paddington, Darlinghurst, Rushcutters Bay, Potts Point as well  a large congregation who live across Sydney who we value very much. So now were seeing a group of locals emerge. I fully anticipate over the next year we will see this group increase and make an impact.

JW: You have introduced more involvement of the congregation’s women. Please tell us about it and are you aware of this increase of women’s involvement in other orthodox synagogues in Australia.

RBE: We are a modern orthodox synagogue. We want to do everything we can to increase the participation of women within halacha. At the end of the service before adon alom at the point in the service where historically a Batmitzvah girl would give her address to the congregation, we invite three women to the bima. One woman recites a prayer for the congregation in English, another woman opens the ark and the third woman closes the ark after the prayer. The prayer for the congregation is recited earlier in the service by the chazan in Hebrew. This allows women to mark their yahrzeits or a simcha in a ritual way with the confines

Rabbi Ben Elton

of orthodox Jewish practice.  I understand that at least one synagogue has adopted our practice. It’s nice to see that The Great Synagogue is leading the way.

JW: On a recent visit to St Petersburg, we noticed the main synagogue has a kosher restaurant in its grounds. Has The Great considered those who people who work in the CBD and observe kashrut?

RBE: That’s a very interesting idea and I think we will explore that. We are always looking for ways to be relevant and more useful to the Jewish population. We run a mincha service through the week for city workers.

JW: We have discussed the past and the present. What’s in the future for The Great.

RBE: The future will be better than the past. We are looking forward to the next 140 years.We are gaining members every week. People find it a synagogue with real sense of community and warmth where they can find inclusive authentic orthodox and religious meaning. We are planning more social and educational activities. It will be an exciting future for The Great. The 140th anniversary in March will celebrate the past and prepare for an exciting future.


The Great Synagogue’s 140th event:  March 3rd



One Response to “The Great to celebrate its 140th”
  1. Gary Luke says:

    The correct name is Reverend Alexander Barnard Davis, not Reverend Alexander David.

    The first formally constituted congregation was established in 1832, not 1844. An earlier informal congregation of ex-convicts began holding prayer meetings in 1820.

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