The following profile by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News in December, 2008.
A noteworthy example is Rabbi Shalom Coleman, who changed the face of Judaism in Western Australia. Thanks to his refusal to give up or give in, a sleepy, distant community was set on the path to become one of the liveliest centres of Orthodoxy in the world, with Jewish learning and Jewish living flourishing to the envy of larger communities in many other places. This month he will reach the age of 90, with at least another three decades of work for Judaism still ahead until he reaches the proverbial 120.
Born into an Orthodox family in Liverpool, England on 5 December, 1918, Rabbi Coleman combined the roles of student and man of action from his youth. He gained university degrees as a Bachelor of Arts with honours, and Bachelor of Letters in Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages and Egyptology, at the University of Liverpool. His education was interrupted by World War II when he served with the Royal Air Force as a wireless operator/air gunner on missions in France and Western Europe. In 1944 he was recruiting officer in England for the Jewish Brigade Group. He returned to university life in 1945 as a tutor, review writer and librarian, and at the same time worked for the final certificate of Jews’ College, London, where he gained his rabbinic ordination in 1955, and he took postgraduate studies in Semitic languages at Pembroke College, Cambridge.
In 1947, at the invitation of the then Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Rabbi Dr Louis Rabinowitz, he accepted a call to the Potchefstroom Hebrew Congregation in the Transvaal and then served the Bloemfontein Hebrew Congregation in the Orange Free State from 1949-1960.
During his time in South Africa, postgraduate studies in Semitic Languages and Literature led to a Master of Arts degree in the University of Pretoria and a Doctorate of Philosophy in the University of the Orange Free State for a thesis entitled “Hosea Concepts in Midrash and Talmud” (1960).
Rabbi Coleman was chairman of the Adult Education Council (English Section) of the Orange Free State and vice-president of the Victoria League and introduced essay and oratorical contests for schools. As a military chaplain he was active in ex-service affairs and was awarded the Certificate of Comradeship, the highest award of the MOTHS (Memorable Order of Tin Hats). He edited a Jewish community journal called “HaShomer” and an anniversary volume for the 150th anniversary of the Orange Free State.
In January, 1961, Rabbi Coleman came to Sydney as rabbi of the South Head and District Synagogue. He was a member of the Sydney Beth Din, vice-president of the NSW Board of Jewish Education and founding director of the David J Benjamin Institute of Jewish Studies, for whom he edited three volumes of proceedings. He established a seminary for the training of Hebrew teachers, with successful candidates receiving a diploma from Jews’ College. He lectured in post-Biblical Hebrew at the University of Sydney and wrote a thesis entitled “Malachi in Midrashic Analysis” for a Doctorate of Literature.
In 1964 he received the Sir Robert Waley Cohen Scholarship of the Jewish Memorial Council, London, using it for research into adult education in South-East Asia, Israel and the USA. In 1965 he became rabbi of the Perth Hebrew Congregation in Western Australia and held office until his retirement in 1985.
He carried out a systematic program to turn Perth into a Makom Torah. He obtained land as a gift in trust from the State Government for a new synagogue, youth centre and minister’s residence in the more concentrated settlement of the Jewish community in Mount Lawley. The original shule had been in the downtown area and few of his members were shom’rei Shabbat. Further initiatives he took led to a kosher food centre in the Synagogue grounds; a mikvah at the Maccabi Sports grounds, later replaced with a larger mikvah in the synagogue grounds; a genizah at the local cemetery for the burial of outworn holy books and appurtenances; a Hebrew Academy which met daily for the training of high school students throughout the metropolitan area; and supplementary classes four days a week at a nearby state school.
Outside the Jewish community, Rabbi Coleman taught for the Department of Adult Education of the University of Western Australia and served on the Senate of Murdoch University. At the same time he was an honorary professor of post-Biblical Hebrew at Maimonides College in Canada, where he lectured during the Australian December recess.
Rabbi Coleman led several educational tours to Israel for non-Jewish clergy and teachers, lectured to religious groups, schools and service organisations and wrote booklets to help people of all faiths to understand Judaism and the Jewish people. Talks with the Minister of Education led to the establishment of a Committee of National Consciousness in Schools, of which he was chairman; his work was described by the Minister as “invaluable”.
Known as “the rabbi who never stops”, he was a member of the Karrakatta and Pinarroo Valley Cemetery Boards and wrote two volumes of history for them to commemorate the State’s 150th anniversary in 1979 and the Australian Bicentenary in 1988. Even this does not exhaust his record of public service. He was a member of the Perth Dental Hospital Board and became chairman of the Senior Appointments Committee and then chairman of the Board. The Minister of Health renamed the North Perth Dental Clinic “Shalom Coleman Dental Clinic”.
Rabbi Coleman has been a Rotarian since 1962, first in Sydney and from 1966 in Perth. He was Rotary President 1985/86 and Governor 1993/9 and personal representative of the World President in 1995, and represented Western Australian Rotary at the United Nations Presidential Conference in San Francisco in 1995. He served as co-ordinator of the District Ethics and Community Service Committees and was chairman of the Bangladesh Cyclone Warning Project, which saved the lives of some 40,000 inhabitants of the chief fishing port of Bangladesh. He was awarded a certificate of appreciation as District Secretary of Probus Centre – South Pacific. He has been a keynote speaker at dozens of conferences in Australia and throughout the world, and is a patron of the Family Association of Western Australia. He has been a vice-president of Save the Children Fund since 1967.
Rabbi Coleman was a foundation member of the Perth Round Table, established as a luncheon club, was the inaugural lecturer and set out their guidelines. He has been an honorary military chaplain for many years and was a member of the executive of the veterans’ organisation, the Returned Services League, and edited of their “Listening Post” from 1989-91.
He is currently honorary rabbi at the Maurice Zeffert Centre for the Jewish Aged and was made a Governor of the Perth Aged Home Society in 2004. After several years as president of the Australian and New Zealand rabbinate his colleagues appointed him honorary life president. Several times he went to New Zealand to serve as interim rabbi for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. He shines in the pulpit, and is a very effective chazan.
For his services to youth, education and the community he has received awards from the Queen and the Australian Government. The University of WA conferred an honorary Doctorate of Laws on him in April 2000. He is still, despite his age, a prolific speaker and writer; he continues to travel widely and his services are in constant demand.
In 1942 he married Bessie Anna Daviat, who died in 1982; he has a son in Melbourne, a daughter in the United States, three grandchildren and a great- granddaughter. He married Elena Doktorovich in 1987; she died in 1997.
He may be small in stature, but Rabbi Coleman is a giant in energy, enterprise and enthusiasm and is one of Australia’s best known Jewish and public figures. Today Perth has about ten thousand Jews (many from South Africa), five shules, a Chabad House, a Jewish school, and shi’urim of many kinds. Rabbi Coleman’s own Talmud shi’ur for lay people is legendary. No longer is it a struggle to maintain Jewish observance in Western Australia.
Jewish and non-Jewish colleagues, congregants, admirers and friends join in congratulating Rabbi Coleman on his 90th birthday and wishing him many more years of energy and good health.
See also, Spiritual Treasure: A Biography & Tribute Dedicated to Rabbi Dr Shalom Coleman.