Book of Life Stories

Georges Rich – History of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation

Presented on the occasion of the launch of the Tree of Life project, 9th September 2001, Adelaide Hebrew Congregation.

Your Excellency Sir Eric and Lady Neal, Rabbi and Mrs. Engel, Distinguished guests, fellow congregants, ladies and gentlemen,

We often speak of history and fail to realize that at times we live through events that will one day have the title of history bestowed upon it. I must ask myself as to whether we are living through such a moment today; are we experiencing a high point in the ongoing path of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation? This path has been closely tied in with the history of South Australia. Indeed, amongst the very first arrivals to this settlement in 1836 which was but a wild landscape, inhabited by hunters and gatherers, were Mr. and Mrs. Philip Lee who became founding members of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. Previously, in 1834 Jacob Montefiore was appointed a commissioner for the colonization of South Australia and the hill in North Adelaide is named after him.

In 1845 the first Jewish religious service was held in the home of Burnett Nathan in Currie Street and in 1846 the first Jewish marriage was held in Hindley Street. Only 2 years later, a meeting was held not unlike today\’s, to form the congregation and a fund was established to build a new synagogue. On the 9th of August 1850, almost 151 years ago to the day, the synagogue was opened and consecrated on the 4th of September, sometime around Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that takes place Tuesday week.

The congregation moved on strongly from that point, becoming a landmark in the City of Adelaide and known to all residents. In 1863, the first Hebrew Sabbath School was founded by SM Myers under the headmastership of Solomon Saunders. The next year a kosher butcher was established with Solomon Saunders as the Shochet. Also a president, Mr. Saunders was one of those people, whose dedication was a link in the continuation of Judaism in Adelaide.

The Reverend Boas, our first Minister arrived in 1870 and stayed on for 48 years as the spiritual leader. The congregation grew significantly during those early years requiring the building of a new, bigger synagogue, consecrated in 1871. Many of the problems we face today were also tackled by our ancestors; a services attendance roster was established and those who failed to attend were fined. The current Board is now considering re establishing this fine tradition. In 1879, the first recorded complaint about the length of the service was received by the Board. It appears that in those days, people were as busy as they are today, with the pressure of worldly activities on them at all times. In 1884, at a Board meeting, consideration was given to a three-year reading cycle of the Torah as opposed to the normal one-year. Happily this was not adopted.

Closer to our own times, in 1916, an Honour Board commemorating those who fell in the war was placed in the synagogue vestry. This beautifully made timber object still stands in our Board Room, a sobering reminder of those dark days.
In 1939, the Jewish Memorial hall in Synagogue Place was opened and in 1948 the AHC\’s centenary celebrations were held, officiated by Rabbi Porush, first minister of the great Synagogue in Sydney. In 1956, the Jewish section of the Centennial Park cemetery was consecrated. Our first Mikvah or ritual bath was opened in 1966, closely followed by the establishment of the new Hebrew school at Walkerville, the forerunner of the Victor Ades Memorial Kindergarten and Massada College. In 1982, Rabbi Rafalowicz resigned after 19 years of service, to be replaced by Rabbi Philip Heilbrunn. Rabbi Baruch Davis succeeded him in 1988. On the 19th November 1989, the foundation stones were laid for the facilities we occupy today, which were opened by His Excellency the Honourable Bill Hayden, Governor General of Australia. These premises have given the community a new presence and have become the centre of many Jewish activities. Together with Massada College on the same site, the Glenside location is a most important landmark of the Jewish community.
Rabbi Davis was succeeded by Rabbi Kanterowiz who himself departed in 1998 to be replaced by our current Minister, Rabbi Yosef Engel, our first New Yorker Rabbi. That same year saw the congregation celebrate its 150th year of continuous existence, one of the longest anywhere in the world, due unfortunately to the Shoah.

But the history of our people goes back many more years and the settlement of Adelaide was but a continuation of that tradition. And throughout that history, apart from the daily acts of survival of gaining a livelihood, we have always sought to make things that testify to our presence in the world, or confirm our adherence to our beliefs. Our making of objects is fundamental to our way of life. And this would not be possible without the artisans who express their skills and vision to give our lives a higher meaning. Jewish Artisans have always occupied an important role and in many societies during the galut. In many instances that was the only role Jews were permitted to take. Indeed in our own small community we have artisans who, through their own choice, have become well known artists; namely Franz Kempf, Andrew Steiner and Annie Lipschitz.

Whether it be the Shabbat candles placed upon a treasured candelabra, that all Jewish families light on Friday nights or the 7 branched Menorah, which stood in the Temple and is now the symbol of the state of Israel. Or whether the Seder plate made of glass or porcelain, adorning the most joyous of meals held by Jews on Passover. Or the Mezzuzah, placed on the door of every Jewish home or the Kiddush cup, usually in silver from which we make the blessing for wine. Or the Torah scroll from which we read every week and which testifies to our origins, and which has been, in every case painstakingly written by a scribe with his own hands, in the most prescribed manner. There are no plans to produce a computerized version of the Torah.

Or whether it is the coin held in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem dated the year 135 depicting the fa?ade of the Temple in Jerusalem, attesting to the continuous, unbroken presence of the Jewish people in that place for 1000\’s of years; or whether it is the mighty work of the stonemason who has made and placed the gigantic stones of the western or wailing wall of the Temple Mount; all these earthly objects required the indispensable participation of the artisan who along with the prophets was able to see in his or her mind\’s eye the final form of the work of art.

Today we celebrate the making of another work by another Jewish artisan, Simon Kessell, a prominent Melbourne artist and sculptor who was commissioned to create a work to launch the Tree of Life Project, an initiative of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation and now linked to the Adelaide Jewish Museum. The tree was chosen as a literal and spiritual metaphor, not only for Torah study but also as a universal representation of life and renewal. Renewal and rebirth are ever-present themes in Judaism. Our Jewish New Year which takes place next week celebrates in a fundamental way the birth of the world and highlights our continuous need to seek a reaffirmation of our faith. The tree is a fitting symbol for this process and in Talmudic dissertation is likened to humanity in its need to grow, to blossom and to bear fruit.
Kessel has incorporated the 7 roots and 12 branches in the tree as obvious symbols of those important numeric milestones in our tradition. The tree will reside in our foyer and be an ever-present reminder to all our congregants of its importance.

For the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation, the tree at this time in our history is very significant. Adelaide has always gone through periods of waxing and waning, with the coming and going of many groups of people mainly through immigration. At this time and following a down-cycle in the last few years, we are in need of regeneration, both spiritually and materially. Our coming to the premises at Glenside has seen the depletion of our funds, on which we rely to maintain our services. The tree of Life project is the vehicle by which we will rebuild the congregation and put it once again on a sound footing. The project, conceived by Allen Bolaffi and David Bermeister about a year ago, and comprising the Book of life project that will document the individual stories of Jewish migrants to Adelaide, has set a target of $300,000 to be collected over the next 3 years; a sum that will make a most significant contribution to our invested capital funds.
Your Excellency, Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to announce that as of today, we have had pledges of $95,000 to this project. After only a few months, we are one third of the way towards our target and I am sure that we will reach our designated target. The major contributor and founding sponsor to this project is Barry Solomon.

Your Excellency, ladies and gentlemen, in conclusion let me return to opening theme of my speech and express the thought that I do believe we have reached a historic moment in Adelaide, when a new foundation stone has been laid in the rebuilding of the AHC.

I urge you all to participate in this most important venture.

Georges Rich
President, Adelaide Hebrew Congregation

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