Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple marking the 125th anniversary of
the Great Synagogue, Sydney, 2003
B’ruchim ha’ba’im, welcome to a moment of history.
The Great Synagogue does great occasions with a flourish, though probably nothing will ever rival our centenary celebration 25 years ago in 1978. It was such a day of high drama and colourful spectacle, held in the presence of the then Governor-General, that our special guest, Chief Rabbi Lord Jakobovits, called it the most resplendent synagogue anniversary ever.
The event marked the high point in postwar Australian Jewish history. Members of the Jewish community held the highest offices. Antisemitism was almost invisible. Australian Jewry had settled down after the wartime and postwar challenges. Israel had overcome the fear and fright of the Yom Kippur War. And in the Great Synagogue itself, there was a remarkable generation, and young and old alike were on a high.
As on any anniversary, one’s senses came sharply alive. Those with long memories saw in their mind’s eye, as so many do today, the faces and even the eccentricities of loved and respected forebears. The Biblical words came true, as they do at this moment too, “You are missed, for your seat is empty”.
The Great Synagogue was consecrated on 4 March, 1878. In a sense, it had many earlier beginnings – 1788 when the first Jewish convicts landed, 1818 when Joseph Marcus gathered fellow-Jews together for sporadic services, 1828 when Phillip Joseph Cohen started a congregation which others resented and immediately rivalled, 1844 when the York Street Synagogue opened amidst music by Isaac Nathan… so many events, so many’ colourful characters, so many historical questions still to be answered.
Then 1878 itself, the moment of triumph after the split – AB Davis as minister, the very model of Minhag Anglia; the communal gentry who automatically held the lay leadership; a prestigious congregation awestruck -at the splendour of their High Victorian sanctuary; women who had no part in public life but funded the project from their Martin Place fair; children left at home on the day of the consecration probably in the care of nannies…
All in an era when the world seemed quiet and far away from New South Wales. Queen Victoria was still on the throne; her friend Sir Moses Montefiore was the fabled knight who went to the rescue when Jews were in danger. America was not yet the melting pot; the Land of Israel, pre-Herzl, was home to the pious who lived on the chalukah from Jews in other lands; the “new” antisemitism was still somewhat hesitant; the Australian colonies were still developing, unaware of the economic collapse around the corner – and the new synagogue with its solidity and optimism symbolised the age and its ethos.
The Great Synagogue dreamed of looking out across Hyde Park unthreatened not only by high-rise neighbours but by dramatic challenges and traumatic change. But it was not to be. So many events impinged on the tranquillity. The boom and bust and the antisemitism of the end of the century; the scientific discoveries which AB Davis discussed in the ‘Australasian Hebrew”; the beginnings of East European immigration which challenged Davis’ own credentials and disturbed the community; the Federation movement which involved leading Jews but could not unify Australian Jewry; the coming of political Zionism about which Davis was rather uncertain and lukewarm…
By the turn of the century everything nailed down seemed to be coming loose. Queen Victoria died. Australia developed a sense of nation. Jews in other places suffered renewed agonies. In Sydney, the new rabbi was Francis Lyon Cohen, the passionate patriot with a stance on Australian defence diametrically opposed to Archbishop Mannix but whose Jewish views were sometimes too lax even for the less than orthodox congregational leaders, who refrained from publicly greeting the Balfour Declaration: a rabbi who was respected but at the same time suspected by the newcomers…
Zionism would not go away, and Rabbi Falk came on the scene as a so-called “red-hot Zionist”. Then, after Rabbi Cohen’s death, Rabbi EM Levy’s tenure ended according to some because he was too Zionistic, though the documents indicate constant quarrels with the lay leaders about the role of a rabbi. Other events kept crowding in – pre-war immigration, the horror of the Holocaust and the appeal for Christian support (with little sympathy from some, but unbelievable friendship from Bishop Pilcher), a new world, a new community, and Rabbi Israel Porush with the wisdom, sound judgment, clear intellect and energy to spearhead the move to the future.
Today non-involvement is not an option. Nothing Jewish, Australian or human fails to find a response and a voice from the Great Synagogue. The old debates about Zionism are now totally academic; we have a proud record of concern for Israel, constantly articulating the inspiration and achievement of the Jewish State to those who deliberately misunderstand. We constantly warn that the failure of conscience that allowed the Holocaust is not entirely gone, and the new era of antisemitism has a new bedfellow, extremist terrorism, which has brought tragic realities right into our midst.
Maybe there is nothing to celebrate now that we have passed another cusp of the centuries and we are surrounded by physical danger and moral deterioration. But this would be entirely the wrong moment to resile from our age-old commitment to decency and democracy, to honesty, justice, peace and truth, the teachings of the Torah which through Judaism brought the means of survival to centuries’ of civilisation. This would be entirely the wrong moment to let our nerves go and to abandon who we are and who we must be, what we have achieved and what remains to be done. This would also be entirely the wrong moment to forget the many good people everywhere, even in lands overrun by anti-democratic forces, as well as the often unsung deeds of sharing and caring, of love and compassion, inspired by the Jewish ideals for which the Great Synagogue has constantly stood despite the compromises some of its members have tended to make with Jewish observance.
In 1878 our forebears might have had a comfortable dream about a sanctuary which looked out on the world but felt no real need to become involved. Had cinema existed they might have seen the film “Grand Hotel” in which the comment is made, “People come, people go – nothing ever happens”. But things do happen. Uninvolvement is an abdication. People will always come to the Great Synagogue, but it will generally be because of events. They will come for the poetry of celebration, for hope in despair, for faith in doubt, for comfort in sadness, for direction in time of indecision. They will come for instruction in what it is to be a Jew and what God wants of us, for ways and teachings to transmit to our children and moral principle to strengthen the world. They will come for the feeling of the Divine Presence, and to bring the Presence with them on every path.
The Vilna Gaon used to say that a person is judged twice for every sin, once for the sin itself and once for the time that could have been used to do a mitzvah. Today, as we of the Great Synagogue look back over the many years we commemorate, let us judge our ancestors favourably, understanding their limitations, rejoicing in their achievements. Let us also determine to use the years ahead to keep the synagogue great and to do mitzvot with all our heart, soul and might.
May God bless us and keep us and make His face shine upon our Synagogue, upon ourselves, our families and our people!