The Lost ANZAC Torah and a Remarkable Rabbi

April 27, 2021 by  
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This is the story of an important historical Sefer Torah, which was gifted to an Australian Jewish chaplain by the head of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Cattaui Pasha in Cairo, during World War I.

It was used by Jewish ANZAC troops fighting in the Middle East and Europe, was lost and found over the course of a tumultuous century.

The Torah’s story begins with Major Reverend (Rabbi) David Freedman, official ANZAC chaplain. Reverend Freedman was an Orthodox Jew from Perth who served Jewish troops in the various war zones.  It was his policy to write home to the family of every Jewish soldier whom he met.

The story goes that In February 1916 the British War Office appointed Reverend Freedman chaplain to all Jewish men in the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force in France.  He served without a break for two years, for which he was mentioned in dispatches.

By July 1916, Rabbi Freedman and his Torah had joined the Australian Third Division with 20,000 troops training near Salisbury, England, who would be deployed to the Western Front. There, Freedman was photographed holding the small, beautifully encased Torah in the Sephardi style.

And there the historical record ends and Rabbi Freedman returned to Perth in 1917, his war appointment terminated.

Rabbi David Freedman

In further delving, The Jewish Herald referred to Cattaui Pasha in its 4 June 1915 edition, which published a letter to the British Chaplain Reverend Adler, from Maurice de Cattaui Pasha of Cairo, which stated:-

“I am happy to learn that you have had the prayer books distributed to Australian soldiers in Egypt to enable them to take part in religious services every Saturday.

”In the Jewish Herald of 7 April 1916, Reverend Freedman wrote: “In Cairo, where I spent the last days of Pesach, Cattaui Pasha presented me with a small Torah for use at my services in the different camps.  ‘’The last service I held was in the desert at a spot not far from where the Children of Israel crossed the Red Sea. Probably our ancestors had trod the ground we were standing on.

The Torah, after weathering years in the desert, travelling between training camps and battlefields, and crossing multiple oceans, found its resting place in a museum back room.  It finally found its way back ‘home’ in 2003, escorted by a celebratory parade to the ark of the Perth Hebrew Congregation. There it remains, a symbol of the Jewish contribution to Australia and the historical ties that bind the community to the country.

In 2002, one of the few remaining original copies of the Book of Honour contains a number of photographs under the heading ‘Australian Jewish Services in the Field’.  It was one of these photographs, of ANZAC chaplain David Freedman holding up a beautifully encased small Torah of the Sephardi style at a prayer service of Australian Jewish soldiers, that caught the eye of Joe Lederman who delved further.

Reverend Freedman was a truly remarkable man from a remarkable Jewish community.  In Australian Jewish history, there would be few other Orthodox rabbis who have attracted as much acclaim and respect from the wider general community. He was, from his arrival in 1897 until his death in 1939, one of the key personalities in Perth, and a pioneering founder and leader of many institutions of that city in its early days.

He was, of course, the Rabbi of the Perth Hebrew congregation though he acquired his rabbinical semicha ordination) only while in Egypt during the war. This was conferred on him in Egypt by the exiled Rabbi Goldenbloom of the Yeshiva of Jaffa and the Hassidic Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Keizer, both of whom Freedman met in Egypt in 1916.

The high rate of recruitment and mortality of the Jewish men who enlisted into the AIF at the commencement of the Great War were factors which led the Perth general community to support the commemoration of a special Jewish War Memorial in Kings Park.  Its foundation stone was laid by General Sir John Monash in December 1919.  The Perth Jewish War Memorial is unique as it has become part of the tradition of governors and premiers to always lay two wreaths on days of public commemoration, one being for the Jewish War Memorial.

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 http://www.ajhs.com.au or its Facebook page.

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