Keeping up Judaism in Tasmania

By Rabbi Raymond Apple, September 20, 2012

Judaism flourishes in the most unexpected places. Take Hobart, capital of Tasmania. There are less than 100 Jews in the city and in the whole state there are no more than 200. But largely thanks to one couple, Pnina and David Clark, Orthodox life is alive and well in the city.

Tasmania began early in the 19th century as a British convict settlement. One of the Jews transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known, was Judah Solomon, a Londoner who, with his brother Isaac, founded the Hobart synagogue.

Opened in 1845, the building is still in use. Over the entrance are inscribed in Hebrew the words: “Wherever I cause My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you” (Exodus 20:24). The building is as it was in the mid-19th century, a gem of Victorian architecture.

Originally under the aegis of the British chief rabbi, the synagogue is now shared between Orthodox and Reform. The two groups live in relative harmony, but there was a time when tension was high and the Orthodox group was locked out; the media photographed them praying on the pavement. When I was there for the 150th anniversary in 1995, I upset the women by insisting that they sit separately from the men.

At the back of the building are hard benches for the Jewish convicts who, in the early days, were marched in under armed guard. The congregation wrote to the chief rabbi in London asking whether convicts could receive aliyot. The answer, which took months to arrive, was that they had to be recognised as Jews and could be counted to a minyan, but they were not respectable enough to be given honours.

The only qualified rabbi the community ever had was Dr Herman Hoelzel — previously at the Hambro’ Synagogue in London — who was there briefly in the mid-19th century. He called himself Presiding Rabbi of the Australian Colonies and, after he left, Hobart had an unpleasant incumbency in Sydney.

At other times Hobart had ministers or lay officers who caused controversy when they tried to make converts. Because the community was so small and far away that there was constant outmarriage, and still is.

With the arrival of Reform, Orthodoxy in Hobart survived thanks to two factors — the Clarks, plus Melbourne Chabad, which sponsors regular visits by rabbis and students.

Pnina Clark, nee Schick, is the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi from Hungary; she and David are the Orthodox presence and their suburban home in Sandy Bay is the Jewish Centre. The Clarks provide kosher meals, accommodation, Jewish books, teaching, a mikveh and abundant enthusiasm. They and their northern Tasmanian colleague, Gershon Goldsteen, in Launceston, produce the photocopied Tasmanian Jewish Times. The Jewish world ought to acclaim these people for these amazing but little-known feats in the name of Judaism.

Raymond Apple is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney

Last updated: 11:55am, September 20 2012