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    A history of the Great Synagogue, Sydney

    This article by Rabbi Raymond Apple was originally published in booklet form as The Great Synagogue – History & Heritage, by the Great Synagogue Women’s Auxiliary in 1993.

    The Great Synagogue (known in Hebrew as Beth Yisrael – “House of Israel”) is one of Sydney’s most beautiful, fascinating and historic heritage buildings. The Synagogue has stood on its present site for well over a hundred years, since 1878, but the congregation itself has a history going back at least fifty years before that date, to the decade of the 1820s.

    When New South Wales was founded as a penal colony in 1788, among the 751 First Fleet convicts were at least 16 Jews. One of them, Joseph Levy, who died on 15 April 1788, was the first Jew to be buried on Australian soil; but his burial was without any Jewish rites, and it took many years for Jewish practice to make itself evident on the Australian scene. Only after three decades did Joseph Marcus, a German-born convict with a good Hebrew education, succeed in gathering 30 or so Jews together for regular worship.

    By the end of the 1820s a few free settlers had arrived. They included Philip Joseph Cohen, aged 25, who came with recommendations from the Chief Rabbi in London. He commenced regular services in his home in George Street. Resenting his ambitions, another group started services; the rival congregations continued, but without government recognition, until 1830 when peace was made by Rabbi Aaron Levy of London, who had braved the long voyage to Australia to arrange a religious divorce between a Jewish man in New South Wales and his wife in London. Whilst here, Levy corrected a number of irregularities that had crept into the services.

    A petition to Governor Darling for a Jewish house of worship had previously been refused. Now, however, there were 25 free Jewish settlers, and they included influential people from distinguished families such as Joseph Barrow Montefiore: and it was felt the government would take more notice of them than of the emancipists. The formal establishment of the congregation came on 2 November, 1831, and by 26 September, 1832, the Sydney Monitor could report:

    The New Year’s Eve and Day of the Sons of Abraham

    “The Jews of the colony assembled at the Jews’ Synagogue held over Mr Rowell’s shop in George Street which is elegantly fitted out as such on Monday evening, being the last night of the year, according to the ancient chronology of the tribe of Judah, when prayers were said. On Tuesday morning and again in the evening, other meetings took place and worship was again performed.”

    The congregation formulated detailed rules of conduct. A committee member not attired in decent and respectable manner was to be fined a guinea for each such offence. No person could officiate at a service without permission from the president. No conversation must take place during services; and “those Gentlemen being the junior branches of their families will take special care they behave themselves in a manner becoming a place of Divine Worship”. The order of service and religious principles of the congregation were to be those laid down by the Chief Rabbi of London.

    The first minister was Rev Michael Rose, who arrived on 20 May, 1835. From 1832 to 1937 the congregation worshipped at George Street, but numbers had grown to over 300 adults and larger premises were leased at No 4 Bridge Street for 160 pounds a year.

    Describing Sydney in 1838, Maclehose wrote that the Synagogue was “…a well-arranged place of worship containing about one hundred seats, rented by the rate-payers, a reading desk, and pulpit for the officiating minister, and an Ark which contains the Decalogue and a manuscript copy written on vellum of the Books of Moses; also a ladies’ gallery containing about thirty seats, fitted up with neat candelabras, etc.”

    The interior alterations had been made by Barnett Aaron Phillips, a stage carpenter who had worked at Drury Lane and built Australia’s first stage scenery at Barnett Levey’s Theatre Royal. The “manuscript copy” of the Books of Moses referred to by Maclehose was the first sacred scroll in Australia, purchased from Rabbi Aaron Levy; presumably it is still here at the Great Synagogue, but as we have many such scrolls it is not certain which of our present collection it is. The handsome Ark from Bridge Street is probably the impressive small Ark which, recently restored, is on display outside the AM Rosenblum Jewish Museum. Dating from the 1830s, this Ark would be one of the earliest pieces of ecclesiastical furniture in Australia.

    The congregation soon decided that they needed a larger, specifically built synagogue in a central location. Governor Bourke, more tolerant than Governor Darling, had offered a grant of land but it was felt the location was wrong. Governor Gipps granted a site in Kent Street North, but the preliminary excavations would have been beyond the resources of the congregation.

    In the meantime, Bridge Street was vacated in 1840 and services were held in rooms over shops or dwellings owned by members of the congregation. Finally land was purchased in York Street, close to where the Sydney Town Hall stands today, and a synagogue was designed by James Hume who had been associated with some of Sydney’s finest buildings. The foundation stone was laid in 1842 and funds were donated liberally by both Jews and Christians.

    Gentile interest in the project remained intense and the committee informed “all who may be desirous of visiting this place of worship that the attendance of members of all creeds is welcomed by the Jewish religionists”. The building was consecrated on 2 April, 1844, with the music for the ceremony in the hands of Isaac Nathan, father of Australian music, who was also associated with the music at St Mary’s Cathedral. For the occasion Nathan composed settings for Baruch Habba (“Blessed be he that cometh”) and Halleluyah.

    York Street Synagogue was commodious (it had seating for 500) and elaborately furnished. Its Ark, larger and even more impressive than that in Bridge Street, is also extant. It too has been restored, and it holds pride of place in our museum. The exterior of the synagogue was described as being in the Egyptian style; similar buildings were erected by the congregations in Hobart (1845) and Launceston (1846). The Hobart and Launceston Synagogues are still standing and in use, though Launceston suffered many decades in the doldrums.

    Amongst the innovations of this period was the establishment of community registers of births, marriages and burials. These continue to this day, and the early tomes are cherished treasures of the Synagogue and are often consulted by historians and individuals interested in tracing their genealogy.

    The late 1850s brought a controversy which split the congregation down the middle. The minister refused to conduct a particular religious ritual on the grounds that it was not permitted in the circumstances. In protest, some of the upper-crust establishment walked out and set up their own congregation in a former Baptist chapel in Macquarie Street, almost adjacent to the present-day site of St Steven’s Church. At York Street, the minister’s supporters not only backed him but put forward motions to increase his salary; this group did not have the means or prestige of the secessionists but were apparently more religiously minded, and York Street continued to be well-attended whilst Macquarie Street struggled and suffered internal disputes.

    The minister at York Street from 1862 was the Rev Alexander Barnard Davis, formerly of Kingston, Jamaica. In him the congregation found a man capable of fulfilling their need of “an Englishman of Education and character, capable of delivering lectures or sermons in language, manner and tone, calculated to impress his hearers with devotion to their Creator and respect for the Minister”. He is said to have had “a very beautiful voice, a very essential item in a Jewish Minister, as he usually has to chant nearly the whole of the service and to give the keynote for the responses of the choir”. Amongst the initiatives Davis took was the establishment of a permanent choir of six men and 13 women with Mr Chislett as choirmaster.

    Some decades later the preaching and cantorial roles of the ministers were separated and from 1909, when the Rev Marcus Einfeld took up office, there has been a professional cantor. The mixed male-female choir continued until the end of 1974 when it was replaced with a choir of men and boys with the consequent need for re-organisation of much of the music.

    Davis spearheaded moves for peace in the community, and as the 1870s developed, the amalgamation of the two Synagogues become possible. Macquarie Street was too small to house a united congregation; York Street could not be extended because the owner of the adjoining property would not sell, and finally a site in Elizabeth Street was purchased for 2000 pounds.

    It was decided to build a Great Synagogue – great in relation to the two smaller places of worship that had preceded it, and because it reflected in its ritual and principles the historic Great Synagogue in the City of London. An architectural competition for a design for the new Synagogue was won by Thomas Rowe, one of Sydney’s leading architects, who planned a building in what was described as “Transition French Gothic”. For financial reasons his plans had to be modified, and ornate as some aspects of the present building are, it appears that Rowe originally hoped to erect an even more elaborate building.

    "Hebrew Ladies' Bazaar", Illustrated Sydney News, 12 January, 1876

    One of the most enterprising fund-raising ventures of the Synagogue building committee was a bazaar or fancy fair held over six days and nights in what is now Martin Place by the ladies of the congregation with much outside support including that of the Governor, Sir Hercules Robinson. This raised 5000 pounds, nearly one fifth of the total cost of the building. The foundation stone was laid in 1875, and three years later, on 4 March, 1878, the Synagogue was consecrated in a ceremony to which a choir and orchestra under Sydney Moss contributed most impressively.

    As the decades have passed the Synagogue has remained the Jewish cathedral of Sydney, though today the high-rise buildings on both sides tend to squash its exterior majesty. The growth of the Jewish community and its suburban dispersal has brought the establishment of many other synagogues – a move which the elders of the Great at first tended to resist – but the Great has retained its stateliness and solemnity, and its busy programme of services and activities is supported by its large loyal congregation and provides, together with the city churches of other denominations, a serene spiritual oasis in the midst of the bustling life of the city.

    The building was described by the Illustrated Sydney News in 1878 as “a place of worship which, for lavish adornment and superb finish, has no equal in the city of Sydney… It has a frontage of sixty-four feet and extends back one hundred and forty feet, embracing the whole of the intervening space between Castlereagh and Elizabeth Streets. The style is composite – the Byzantine prevailing, the Gothic being here and there introduced. The front of the edifice is built of freestone from the Pyrmont quarries. Two square towers flank the central compartment, terminating in domes, and the entire facade is elaborately carved. The magnificent wheel window is a feature in the front which strikes every eye. Passing through the principal entrance in Elizabeth Street, under a spacious porch supported by columns with richly carved caps, the visitor finds himself in the interior, which impresses him with a sense of ornate embellishment approaching the profuse … The seats face north and south, leaving a space in the centre unoccupied throughout. At the western end of the nave, under a splendidly embellished arch, is the Ark, the floor being richly inlaid with Mosaic work – the steps ascending towards the Ark having massive ballustrading on each side. The columns in the nave supporting the clerestory are twenty-seven feet three inches high, and are surmounted by cusped arches with pointed labels, the spandrills of which are decorated with scroll foliage springing from the centre. The ceilings are semi-groined and panelled, with carved bosses at the intersections. The windows throughout are glazed with coloured glass in chaste designs in keeping with contour of the entire building.”

    The impression the building made on a Christian minister from Melbourne during AB Davis’ ministry is indicated by this newspaper report from 1896: “The galleries are well filled, so is the amphitheatre like floor space. Facing the ark-alcove, but separated from it by a wide unoccupied space, is the Almemmar, or tribune, a highly ornamented wooden structure with seats for the Rabbis and presiding officials of the synagogue, and a spacious reading stand on which to repose the roll of the Torah, and up to which the successive readers of the lessons advance, supported on either hand by prominent members of the congregation … All the males in the body of synagogue wear the tallithim and have their hats on. As I took my seat the sweet musical voice of the second minister rose clear, plaintive, voicing the heart-cry of the children of the dispersion to their fathers’ God to remember Zion and the set time to favour her. The musical Hebrew had a sobbing plaintiveness indescribably charming, ever and anon the congregation took up the responses. The venerable Chief Rabbi – the Reverend A.B. Davis – now takes his place at the reading stand; the sacred roll in unwound; the aged man, his natural force scarcely abated, in clear, ringing tones, a kind of semi-chant, recites the law of the Lord; the great congregation are on their feet. This is the psychological moment … Rabbi Davis, raising the sacred scroll high in air, descended from the tribune, and with slow and stately step, marched up the broad steps to the Ark, in which he deposited the Law of the Lord … Then the Chief Rabbi, taking his stand at the top of the flight of steps, in front of the Ark, preached his sermon; a wonderful effort for an aged man, delivered ore rotundo, with wonderful fire and passion … As I passed into the life of the streets, and nineteenth century feeling again asserted its potency, I felt like one who had been in Dreamland, and had heard things which it is not lawful for a man to speak to the fool multitude.”

    Since those days there have been a number of changes to the building. Until almost the end of his long ministry AB Davis had no pulpit as such; he preached or perhaps declaimed from the top of the steps leading to the Ark. There was no centre block of seats; towards the back of the empty centre space stood the reading platform from which the service was conducted. Towards the end of the 1890’s a brass pulpit was erected on the steps leading to the Ark, and then, in 1906, the reading platform was moved forward, combined with the pulpit and placed in its present position on the Ark steps. This enabled extra seating to be installed in the centre of the building, but it was a move away from the traditional pattern whereby the service arises from the midst of the congregation.

    At first there was a flat apse above the Ark, and the choir sang from one of the galleries at the opposite (Elizabeth Street) end of the building. When the present choir gallery was constructed, the opportunity was taken to build a ministers’ robing room beneath it.

    The lighting of the building was originally gas, and the old gas taps are still visible on the light fittings around the walls and the four upright seven-branched candelabra flanking the Ark steps and the choir gallery. An interesting original feature of the light fittings hanging in front of the ladies’ gallery is the six-pointed Star of David pattern that you see when looking up at them from beneath.

    The gold-leaf stars on the ceiling were not there originally, but were introduced seventy-odd years ago. Their purpose may have been to indicate that religion is a light and a lamp when the environment is dark and frightening. Similar star-studded ceilings are especially common in some masonic buildings.

    It is not known why there were never any windows along the walls that run from Elizabeth towards Castlereagh Street. But there may be a significance in the fact that there are twelve recessed arches on the ground floor and in the gallery, reminiscent of the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. The stained glass windows at the two ends of the buildings are chaste but nondescript; one window illustrating Jewish symbols was installed near the choir gallery, perhaps as the first of a series that was never completed. The wheel window remains an impressive sight, though concrete spokes were added in the 1940’s to give it strength and support.

    The internal columns used to be adorned with intricate floral motifs which have long since been painted over. They were rediscovered in 1981 when the education centre beside the Synagogue was in process of erection. Stencils based on these old motifs were then used to decorate the Synagogue itself and the various floors of the new centre, providing a link between generations a century apart.

    At the Elizabeth Street end of the Synagogue, the only major change over the years has been the installation of the massive wrought-iron gates. Beneath the building, excavations in the 1950’s made it possible to construct a war memorial centre, auditorium and library. Then in the 1980’s the education centre, erected between the Synagogue and Castlereagh Street and preserving the old Castlereagh Street facade, provided five floors for cultural, social and educational activity as well as modern offices, a Judaica shop, and a top-floor Succah or harvest tabernacle with a sliding roof.

    On one side of the building is the Rabbi LA Falk Library, and the AM Rosenblum Jewish Museum is on the other – a pair of Jewish cultural partners.

    The features of the Synagogue itself express the threefold character of Jewish worship – community, study and prayer. In terms of community, the service involves the congregation jointly and severally at every stage; the cantor does not pray for them but, as it were, takes their prayer and co-ordinates it as an orchestrated offering to God. Stressing the community nature of Jewish prayer, public worship requires a quorum of at least ten males aged thirteen and over. And linking congregations everywhere, prayer is offered whilst facing Jerusalem the holy city.

    The study aspect of the service looms large. The sacred scroll is used at all major services for the reading of scriptural lessons. A second reading from the prophetic or historical books of the Bible comes from a printed text, though some congregations use a second scroll for this purpose. And the sermon in a Synagogue is traditionally educational, because every Jew is deemed duty-bound to know and understand his faith.

    Jewish prayer is largely standardised, in order to help worshippers to tune in to tradition and to find the words to say, no matter how inarticulate they may themselves be. Worship is interspersed with psalms and hymns. There is much congregational singing, led, as in our case, by a choir that brings musical quality to the service. Almost all of the service is in Hebrew; not everyone understands it all, but it preserves the flavour of Judaism and unites Jewish congregations everywhere.

    The atmosphere of a spacious cathedral-like edifice, especially on great occasions, has been understood in Judaism from the time of the magnificent Temple in ancient Jerusalem onwards. Because of the insecurities of Jewish experience, grand synagogues generally stood only in major cities where Jewish life had or hoped for some permanence; other places had small, sometimes makeshift Shtiebels (conventicles). To this day there is tension between the two concepts. Some find the Shtiebel claustrophobic and unaesthetic; others criticise the cathedral-type building as cold and impersonal.

    Members of the Great Synagogue tend to like the relative formality and stateliness of their Synagogue and its services, and to enjoy the more organised musical dimension of its worship. But new ages bring new challenges, and congregational activities today deliberately endeavour to foster the feeling of fellowship and friendship that makes a congregation into a community, and enables it to become, in the words of the liturgy, “one united band doing God’s will with a perfect heart”.

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