How did a former chief rabbi end up in one of the world's most remote Jewish communities?

Tasmania has been home to a long line of Jews, and was considered as a Jewish refuge in the 1940s


In Tasmania, Kosher food is impossible to come by, and not a single bakery sells challah. But last Wednesday, you could have counted the former Chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau, among the 400 or so Jews on the remote island.

His visit to the island was attended by 50 people, including government ministers and members of the local Jewish community. They joined him at Launceston synagogue in Launceton, 200 km from Hobart, Tasmania’s capital city.

“Even in the context of Australia, [Tasmania] is a long way from anything,” Betz Allen, a local Jewish resident told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. But Tasmania, the smallest Australian state in both population and size, boasts both the fastest-growing Jewish population in the country and a long and diverse Jewish history.

The shul which Lau visited is the oldest purpose-built synagogue in Australia, and has regular Orthodox services.

Rabbi Joseph Gutnick, Melbourne Chabad philanthropist and multimillionaire, invited Lau to the island. Gutnick has always prided himself on remembering “all the people that are forgotten about in faraway places,” and Tasmania isn’t the farthest-flung place he’s worked in. He helped ship matzah and wine to Antarctica in 2021 for Passover seder.

Gutnick has celebrated the tenacity of the Jewish community in Tasmania. “People who were expelled and thrown out to one of the furthest places in the world, they built a shul,” he said, referring to the convicts who built Hobart's synagogue. “It’s quite a thrill”.

Tasmania could have played an even larger role in Jewish history. In the 1940s, the wilderness of the island was considered as a potential Jewish homeland. The plan fell apart when Critchley Parker, who had travelled there in 1942 to explore the island on behalf of a Jewish journalist he had fallen in love with, died on his expedition. 

What Betz Allen calls a “tiny postage-sized piece of land,” which the first Jews in Tasmania fought so fiercely for, has now gained a postage-sized place in Jewish history. That’s something all Jews on the island are celebrating. “It’s amazing,” said Allen. “Having Rabbi Lau here in person and taking the time and trouble to come [to Tasmania] was significant”. 

Lau, a Holocaust survivor, is the former chairman of the Yad Vashem Council. He is the 38th in an unbroken family chain of rabbis, and his son is now Israel's Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, following in his father’s footsteps. 

The last visit to the Island from a chief rabbi was 72 years ago, when the British Chief Rabbi at the time Israel Brodie visited in 1951.

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