The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared in the “Federation: A Century of Stories” supplement in the Australian Jewish News, 26 January, 2001.The last hundred years have seen a sea change in the Australian rabbinate. In 1900 the handful of Australian Jewish ministers were generally all in the Anglo-Jewish mould. Even those not born or brought up in Britain had accepted Minhag Anglia as their ideal and ideology. Few had any deep rabbinic learning (a noteworthy exception was Rabbi Dr Joseph Abrahams of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation). The few rabbinic decisions that were necessary were almost always referred to the Chief Rabbi in London. The lack of local rabbinic authority was not really a problem although it was for many years a blow to local prestige.
Almost all the ministers were suspicious of the emergent Zionist movement and largely unsympathetic to the “uncultured, uncultivated” Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The mainstream ministers were almost always men of dignity who dressed, spoke and acted like Christian clergy. Some, especially Rev (later Rabbi) Abraham Tobias Boas of Adelaide, prided themselves on their expertise in English literature; Boas was probably the leading Australian Shakespearean scholar of his day.
The first Eastern European minister to attract a considerable following in his own right was Rev Jacob Lenzer of East Melbourne, a world class chazan of the passionate, florid style popular in Russia and Poland. However, even Lenzer became somewhat anglicised and though East Melbourne was reputed to be the most Orthodox synagogue in Australia, its members were increasingly accepting of Sabbath desecration.
The long-serving veteran ministers were joined in the early years of the 20th century by two outstanding representatives of the Anglo-Jewish mould – Rabbi Francis Lyon Cohen of the Great Synagogue in Sydney, an impressive man and leader, but a rabbi of somewhat elastic Orthodoxy, and Rev (later Rabbi) Jacob Danglow of St Kilda who was described by a visitor from London many years later as “the very model of an Anglo-Jewish minister”. Both Cohen and, some decades later, Danglow opposed political Zionism and were eventually regarded by the Jewish immigrants as men to be respected but suspected.
Counterweights to Cohen and Danglow arrived in the 1920s. In Sydney, the Great Synagogue appointed Rev (later Rabbi) LA Falk, an Eastern European who had been chaplain to the Jewish Battalion in the First World War, as its second minister. He had been sought out, according to his son Gerald, by Morris Symonds who was determined to find “a red hot Zionist” for the Great Synagogue ministry.
In Melbourne, Dr Abrahams was succeeded by the young, mellifluous Rabbi Israel Brodie who was also a war time chaplain. Rabbi Brodie liked to refer to himself as a Balliol man, but nonetheless spoke Yiddish well, kept up his Talmud studies by regularly learning with the old-timers at the Montefiore Home and was an unapologetic Zionist in conflict with Rabbi Cohen.
Cohen and Danglow, like most of their predecessors, were in office for many years. Cohen remained with the Great Synagogue for 29 years. Danglow, whose first and only congregation was St Kilda, held office for 52 years, and when he retired was probably the most highly regarded clergyman in Australia. Cohen’s anti-Zionism never abated. Danglow, after backing Sir Isaac Isaacs in his 1940s attacks on Zionism, later became much warmer towards Israel, especially after his marriage to his second wife, Diana, in 1949.
A noteworthy exception to the Australian tradition of long rabbinic incumbencies was and is the Central Synagogue in Sydney, which throughout its history has had a considerable rotation of ministers, though Rabbi Ernest Wolff has been second minister for well over 60 years – a unique Australian record.
By the early 1930s the Australian Jewish ministers and their congregations had brought Australian Jewry to an unsurpassed peak of acceptance and respect in the eyes of the Australian people. The ministers were almost always fine ambassadors among the general public, and Jews such as Sir John Monash and Sir Isaac Isaacs had reached the highest offices in the land. But there was a price to pay. Intermarriage was increasing; Orthodoxy, whilst accorded respectful lip service, was only nominal; and levels of Jewish education were desperately low. Had Jewish history been different, Australian Jewry might well have declined into somnolence.
The 1930s, however, brought the beginnings of immense change. In that decade Liberal congregations began in Melbourne and later Sydney. The original motivation behind their formation was the feeling that even the relatively threadbare orthodoxy of the establishment was not flexible enough. However, the coming of Rabbi Herman Sanger to Melbourne, and subsequently Rabbi Max Schenk to Sydney, together with the arrival of large numbers of Jews from Germany and Austria, meant that the Australian Liberal movement developed an ideology of its own, reminiscent of pre-war German liberalism. The fact that both Sanger and Schenk were men of great stature, with a rapport with Jews of many backgrounds, as well as being card-carrying Zionists, strengthened their movement.
Orthodoxy in the 1930s gained immeasurably from the arrival in Carlton, Melbourne, of Rabbi JL Gurewicz, a great rabbinic scholar from Eastern Europe who became the rallying point for the more traditional elements amongst the increasing number of newcomers. Gurewicz was suspicious of Danglow, who in the late 1930s chaired the Melbourne Beth Din after the departure of Rabbi Brodie and before the arrival of Rabbi Dr Harry Freedman. Gurewicz wrote in no uncertain terms to the chief rabbis of the Holy Land protesting that Danglow could not be relied upon in matters of kashrut.
The post-war transformation of the community has had considerable influence on the rabbinate. Because the community has become more diverse, the Anglo-Jewish style that once was almost universal is now limited to a handful of congregations. Gradually, Western-educated rabbis, at home in both Jewish and general culture, have become fewer: on the other hand the Chabad- Lubavitch movement has grown from a small group of stalwarts in Shepparton, Victoria, largely due to Rabbi Isaac David Groner and the Gutnick family. Chabad has populated many pulpits with youngish Lubavitchers who often have no more than a smattering of secular knowledge although of course they have Talmudic learning and are generally adept at outreach work.
For some years there was a tug-of-war between Lubavitch and non-Lubavitch rabbis, which was seen on a number of occasions when it came to the election of office bearers in the federal rabbinic association. However, today the Orthodox rabbinate with all its various strands is more at ease with itself than ever before, and rabbis of all styles work together harmoniously.
Separatist Orthodoxy is a story of its own, especially in Melbourne, where the Adass Israel community is large, strong and effective under Rabbi Avrohom Zvi Beck. A number of Orthodox rabbis hold teaching posts in Jewish day schools; on occasion they also serve part-time in suburban congregations.
There are hardly any “reverends” left in the Australian Jewish ministry. It is taken for granted that, the term “reverend” is only a staging post in one’s career, and indeed in recent years four Sydney reverends have been granted the rabbinic title.
Throughout Australia, the Liberal movement has become a visible presence. In both Orthodoxy and non-Orthodoxy there is an increasing trend towards the appointment of Australian-born rabbis. I am the first to be appointed to a leading Orthodox community. The first Australian-born rabbi in the Liberal movement was Rabbi John Levi.
A hundred years ago, Australia, as an outpost of the British Empire, could hardly have imagined that it would become increasingly self-sufficient, in terms of spiritual leadership, but this of course is the story of Australian Jewry itself – a community that has abandoned the colonial cringe and stands on its own feet as a leading, proud and forward-looking part of the world Jewish people.