More than 60 Jews from around Australia gathered recently at Broken Hill, in western NSW, for a weekend of celebrations and bonding around the town’s historic Synagogue Museum.
Professor Leon Mann was born in Broken Hill and co-authored, with Professor Emerita Suzanne Rutland and Margaret Price, Jews of the Outback. He explained the Jewish community came from Ukraine, Russia and Lithuania in the 1890s. He said, “They were remarkably successful, highly identified, well-integrated with strong values of social justice.”
The community was deeply connected with key Jewish issues. Rutland recalls they urged fellow Australian Jews to join in a boycott of French goods following the antisemitic Dreyfus affair.
The community, 200 at its peak, declined in numbers during WWI as many moved to capital cities. By 1962 the iconic synagogue built in 1910 stood empty and neglected.
Ownership of the synagogue was transferred in 1990 to the Broken Hill Historical Society in return for the preservation of the building, which later became the Synagogue of the Outback Museum.
NSW State Member for Heffron Ron Hoenig said, “It is the most remarkable thing I have seen that a non-Jewish community preserves with care the history and heritage of the Jews of Broken Hill.”
Among the highlights over the weekend were a capacity Shabbat service, a guided walk along Argent Street with its memories of Jewish shops and merchants, and a ceremony attended by over 100 people at which two new wooden benches, in the forecourt of the synagogue, were dedicated. One for the five ministers who gave spiritual leadership to the Jewish community, and the other for Alwyn Edelman and Harold Griff and leaders of the Broken Hill Historical Society who preserved the synagogue.
Mann, originator and sponsor of the bench-naming project said, “I had long wanted to recognise the five religious leaders who were ministers in the old synagogue: Rev Zalel Mandelbaum, Rev Nathan Salas, Rev Mordechai Eisen, Mr Nathanael Slonim and Rev Abraham Berman.
“I knew three of the ministers from my childhood and as a young man.
“I also wanted to recognise Alwyn Edelman, Harold Griff, Ross Maw and other leaders of the Broken Hill Historical Society.”
Peter Allen and Charles Aronson, both from Sydney, honoured the 40 local Jewish Anzacs who served in two world wars and paid tribute to Trooper Mark Rosenberg, killed in Romani, Sinai in 1916.
Dr Danny Mann-Segal’s father Phillip was born in Broken Hill in 1932. Mann-Segal said, “It was an emotional experience visiting the house where my father grew up.”
Mann-Segal and Sam Reich, vice-president of the Newcastle Hebrew Congregation, led the Shabbat prayers and Torah reading in the synagogue. Leeba Aminoff, Mann-Segal’s wife, complemented his Shehecheyanu at the bench naming ceremony with four perfect shofar blasts.
Dr Anna Shnukal attended the consecration of the headstone of the grave of her grandfather 90 years after his death.
Maurie and Vera Hasen fulfilled a long-held dream of creating 11 engraved nameplates bearing the name, date of death and a Magen David for unnamed graves in Jewish Cemetery.
The challenge now is for the NSW and Victorian branches of the Australian Jewish Historical Society to augment partnership with the Broken Hill Historical Society, ensuring visitors to the most remote and fascinating Synagogue Museum in the world.