Early in the 19th century Tasmania began as a convict settlement, part of a plan to send Britain’s petty criminals as far away as possible. One of the Jews transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known, was Judah Solomon, a Londoner who, when he began to prosper, donated part of his garden in Argyle Street, Hobart to build a synagogue.Opened in 1845, the building is still in use. Over the entrance are inscribed in Hebrew the words, “Wherever I cause My name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you” (Exodus 20:24). The building is still as it was in mid-19th century, a gem of Victorian-age architecture, and is today popular with tourists.
Originally under the aegis of the British chief rabbi, the synagogue is now shared between Orthodox and Reform. The two groups live in relative harmony, but there was a time when tension was high and the Orthodox group were locked out; the media photographed them praying on the pavement. When I was there for the 150th anniversary in 1995 I upset the women by insisting that they sit separately from the men.
That visit to Hobart was not my first. Long before, when it was still officially Orthodox, the congregation brought me across (I was a university student in Melbourne) for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It was a double first for me – my first air flight, and my first sermon. Standing in the pulpit on Rosh HaShanah evening and doing my inexperienced best, I was disconcerted to see people standing up and sitting down, and I brought the sermon to a hasty end. Later the president explained that the seats were so uncomfortable that no-one could sit still for long.
At the back of the building are hard benches for the Jewish convicts who in the early days were marched in under armed guard. The congregation wrote to the chief rabbi in London asking whether convicts could receive aliyot. The answer which took months to arrive said they had to be recognised as Jews and could be counted to a minyan, but they were not respectable enough to be given honours.
The only qualified rabbi the community ever had was Dr Herman Hoelzel – previously at the Hambro’ Synagogue in London – who was there briefly in mid-19th century. He called himself Presiding Rabbi of the Australian Colonies. After he left Hobart he had an unpleasant incumbency in Sydney. At other times Hobart had ministers or lay officiants who caused controversy when they tried to make converts. Because the community was so small and far away there was constant out-marriage, and still is.
With the arrival of Reform, Orthodoxy in Hobart survived thanks to two factors – the Clarks plus Melbourne Chabad, who sponsor regular visits by rabbis and students. Pnina Clark, nee Schick, is the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi from Hungary; she and David are the Orthodox presence and their suburban home in Sandy Bay is the Jewish Centre. Regardless of who is in occupation of the Shule on any given day, the Clarks provide kosher meals, accommodation, Jewish books, teaching, a mikvah- and abundant enthusiasm. They and their northern Tasmanian colleague Gershon Goldsteen in Launceston (an even smaller community with a Chabad House) produce the photocopied Tasmanian Jewish Times which keeps in touch with everybody – locals, visitors, students and ex-Tasmanians.
Some people tell you there is no way of keeping kosher in Hobart, but the Clarks are the evidence to the contrary. They bring in whatever they can from Melbourne, and some local supermarkets stock items listed in the Kosher Australia directory. Some also tell you that no-one can keep Jewish law in Tasmania, but when you are with the Clarks you see the opposite. On my 1995 visit they assembled enough people on Sunday morning for me to give a shiur on a halachic subject.
Pnina and David’s Jewish Centre attracts Israeli backpackers and other visitors as well as the “hidden” locals (even the Reform adherents contact them in time of crisis). They and Goldsteen provide pastoral services, and they teach both children and adults and arrange the occasional funeral. There have been no Jewish weddings in Tasmania for years, though sometimes there is a Bar-Mitzvah. Every festival is celebrated. Purim and Chanukah are major occasions. Rosh HaShanah services – shofar and all – are generally in Hobart, and for Yom Kippur the Orthodox group join the services at Chabad House in Launceston.
The Clarks and Gershon Goldsteen do a great deal of public relations work for Judaism and Israel, and Goldsteen conducts university-level courses for the general public. These people have such love and dedication that the Jewish world ought to acclaim them for an amazing but little known feat in the name of Judaism.