Book of Life Stories

Reverend Abraham Tobias Boas

A pioneer Jewish Minister, 1842 – 1923, and Spiritual Leader of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation, 1870 – 1923.

Extract from a full biography written by Louise Rosenberg, Secretary of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, Sydney, for publication in the Great Synagogue Congregational Journal, 1970.

Abraham Tobias Boas was born in Amsterdam on November 25, 1842. This was approximately the same time that in Adelaide, Australia, the Congregation which Boas was to serve as Minister for 53 years was being established.

Boas came from a family with a tradition of ministers of religion and distinguished scholars. His father’s family went to Holland towards the end of the 17th century, fugitives from Streim in Poland. The names Abraham and Tobias run through all generations of the family recorded at the Bureau of Genealogy at The Hague. The name “Boas” is, in Hebrew, “In him is strength”. “Tobias” came into the family name when an early forebear married a Miss Tobias. The parents of Abraham Tobias Boas were Tobias Eliesar Boas and Eva Salomon Linse. Eva, the daughter of Salomon Levie Linse, was from a family, which had come to Holland from France, early in the 19th century.

Abraham Tobias Boas was trained for the Ministry in the Theological Seminary, Amsterdam, and he went to England at the age of 23 to continue his studies. In 1867 he became Minister at the South Hampton Synagogue where his conduct encouraged the Chief Rabbi, Dr Nathan Marcus Adler, to recommend him to the South Australian Hebrew Congregation. He set sail on the 712-ton sailing ship, “Tamesa”, on November 18, 1869. There was only one other passenger aboard the ship, which took three months to reach Australia. From a letter to the President of the congregation, Mr Gabriel Bennett, we learn of arrangements for Boas to have “a cabin to himself and to be allowed to kill a sheep when required – and at any time to kill a fowl or duck, and to be cooked for himself, as he takes out all things that are necessary to live Kosher – and the Captain will do all he can to make him comfortable, so as to carry out his religious observances, and as the “Tamesa” is quite a new ship, everything for cabin use is quite new”.

The ship arrived off Semaphore at Glenelg on February 13, 1870, and Boas was carried ashore on the shoulders of a sailor. He was met by a group of men from the congregation and they walked from there to Port Adelaide, as the railway line at that time did not extend to Semaphore. It was a blistering mid-summer day, and the walk was over hot sand and sun-scorched hills. The story was told of how the little party stopped at a fruit shop to buy some grapes. When Boas saw his friends asking for 12 pounds of grapes, his first thought was that he had landed among millionaires. But, when they handed the fruiterer the sum of one shilling and three pence (2 cents in today’s terms), he decided that he must indeed have come to a “land of plenty”.

On the Sabbath of February 19, 1870, Boas preached his first sermon to the Adelaide Congregation. A newspaper of the day later reported, “Mr Boas is a young man of promise. He has a clear firm voice, an impressive yet pleasing manner, and is likely to exercise a beneficial influence upon his charge”.

When he had been in Australia one year, the Reverend Boas consecrated the new Adelaide Synagogue, built to accommodate 350 Jews. It also had rooms for Sunday School, Committee Meetings, and other purposes. The old adjoining Synagogue complex, built just 10 years previously, was to be the headquarters of a number of Jewish charitable organizations, the Chevra Kadisha and the vestry.

On May 15, 1873, Abraham Tobias Boas married Elizabeth Solomon, daughter of Isaac Solomon, an early pioneer, and a member of the firm of Salom and Solomon Auctioneers. The ceremony was performed by Mr B Gollin, a leading member of the congregation.

There were nine children of the marriage of Abraham Tobias and Elizabeth Boas, five girls and four boys.

The following half-century of the Ministry of Abraham Tobias Boas was one of energetic spiritual, social and intellectual leadership: for 40 years he did not take a holiday. His pastoral visits extended as far as Fremantle, Perth, Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, where new synagogues and schools were opened. He actively created goodwill both within and outside the Jewish community by membership on boards of many inter-denominational philanthropic, social and cultural bodies. Boas looked upon Christianity as “the foster-child of Judaism”, and his standing in the wider religious community was attested at Easter 1899 by his successful intervention in a bitter controversy between Catholics and Protestants, which gained the thanks of both the Catholic Archbishop and the Anglican Bishop. In a letter to the Adelaide Register of March 30, 1899, he reminded his two friends of the “utter futility of mutual recriminations between Christians”. He begged them to find a common point of contact that they might, with peace make a more constructive effort to resolve their differences. He offered to mediate, adding, “If you are so undecided to what should be considered essential to the spiritual welfare of the Church, and if men who are representing the Church evince so little consideration for each others feelings, you will never persuade others”. As a result of his efforts, a newspaper made the comment, later, that “such a genuine Jew would make a splendid Christian”.

Boas has been described as being “short, stockily built, with a dark beard, hair turning grey, and with piercing eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses”. He was a popular lecturer, whose voice was “sonorous, with a slight, unfamiliar accent”. He was especially esteemed as a student of English literature and drama, particularly of Shakespeare. He was Senior Vice-President of the University Shakespearean Society from 1888. (The Society was formed in 1884). Many of his addresses before the Society were published in its Journal ? now available at the South Australian Public Library. When he gave the Shakespeare 337th Anniversary Lecture, in June 1901, he made the suggestion that a statue of the Bard be erected on the reserve facing the University. This project was not ever realized.

Boas was a foundation member of the District Trained Nursing Society; Chairman of the board of the James Brown Memorial Trust for housing indigent tuberculosis patients; President of the Jewish Literary Society; and the first Chairman of the Jewish Choristers’ Club. He was headmaster of the Synagogue’s Sabbath and Sunday Schools – in 1895 the enrolment of the schools was over 80 children – and he was Chairman of the Chevra Kadisha, which he had helped found in 1907.

He tried unsuccessfully to gain Rabbi Francis Lyon Cohen’s support for the introduction of the Triennial Reading of the Law throughout Australian congregations. It was a system he had established in his own congregation. He wanted, also, to persuade Rabbi Cohen to agree to a regular visiting exchange of ministers amongst the various congregations throughout Australia. Also, when he was in Sydney in July 1910, he tried to organize a regular Australian Rabbincial Conference. This plan failed for want of unity, and he wrote, afterwards, “Unity must exist in its truest sense, else Australian Jewry, in the longer view, must become weak and diluted, and in the more immediate prospect, will defeat its own ends”. He points out that even if the benefits of a properly conducted conference of spiritual leaders were not going to be felt at once, it would be a forward movement, and it was an ideal consistent with Jewish teachings which must inspire future generations to seek strength and solidarity in unity.

When the Reverend Boas had been in Adelaide for 45 years, it was noted that this was unique in the British Empire, and a reception to honour the occasion was held. The congregation presented their Rabbi with a Cutler Desk, and in his address in reply Boas said, “I have tried to be of some use to my fellow-men, Jew and Gentile, in the spheres of charity and benevolence, and in that of literature. My humble endeavours have been to render the name of Jew respected and I believe in this, my efforts resulted in some measure of success”.

In 1914, Boas was the oldest officiating Jewish clergyman in Australasia, and the longest serving Jewish minister in the British Empire. In 1912, during his visit, the Chief Rabbi Dr J H Hertz, honoured him by a formal investiture of “Hahtaras Haroah”, in recognition of his pastoral status and learning.

Abraham Tobias Boas died at his home in Gover Street, North Adelaide, on February 20, 1923, and he was buried at West Terrace Cemetery, the ceremony being performed by the Reverend J A Bernstein.

His wife, Elizabeth, had died in September 1916. Their children distinguished themselves in many fields. The eldest son, Lionel Tobias Boas, was for 36 years on the Subiaco Council in Western Australia, serving as mayor in 1917 – 1920. In 1905, with J J Simons, he founded the Young Australia League, of which he was President for over 40 years until his death in 1949. The second son, Isaac Herbert, was a prominent scientist, making significant contributions to the Paper Industry in Australia, and being recognized in Natanya, Israel, by the establishment of the Boas Institute of Fibre Research.

The third son, Harold, is now, at the age of 95 years, in Perth. He was awarded the O.B.E. in 1968 for his services as an outstanding Architect and Town Planner. In 1975, the Perth City Council upgraded and renamed the former Delhi Square, as the Harold Boas Gardens. Of the five daughters, Laura Boas was the most well known in Sydney for having taught at the Great Synagogue Hebrew School for over 50 years, and for having been a member of the Synagogue’s Choir for over 30 years. She died in Sydney in September 1975, aged 86 years.

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