Ballarat Synagogue – 160 years young

Mazal tov to Ballarat Synagogue - the oldest functioning shule on the Australian mainland - which is celebrating its 160th anniversary this month.

Ballarat Synagogue. Photo: Zeddy Lawrence
Ballarat Synagogue. Photo: Zeddy Lawrence

ON Monday, March 18, 1861, The Star newspaper in Ballarat reported, “The opening or consecration service of the new Hebrew Synagogue lately erected in Barkly Street East took place on Sunday (Nissan 6th, 5621) and the rarity of such an occurrence made it one of more than usual interest.

“The service, which was advertised to commence at half-past three o’clock did not commence till after four, by which time the synagogue was filled, and many ladies especially could not find room.”

One hundred and sixty years on, two things remain constant: One, Jewish events – wherever you are in the world – still never start on time; and two, Ballarat Synagogue is still holding services today. In fact, it is the oldest functioning shule in mainland Australia – Hobart and Launceston pip it to the post, their synagogues opening in 1845 and 1846 respectively.

Last Shabbat, the shule hosted a thanksgiving service to celebrate its anniversary, with visitors flocking from across Victoria.

While the Jewish community of Ballarat numbered at least 1000 in the mid-19th century, just a handful of Jews now live in the city – maybe 15 or 20, according to the congregation’s president John Abraham – but at the Shabbat services held once a month and on festivals, the congregation can number between 25 and 50, attracting worshippers from Geelong, Daylesford, Camperdown, Maryborough, Horsham and Melbourne.

Abraham himself is one of two Jews whose families have lived in Ballarat since the 1850s, when the local population boomed during the gold rush. The other is shule board member Bernard Stone, who served as honorary secretary for a number of years.

Looking back to the city’s ‘golden’ age, Abraham told The AJN, “The Jews that came to Ballarat … were store keepers – retail, commercial – of all kinds.

“If you walk up the main street of Sovereign Hill today, you’ll get an idea of the Jewish names that are there, very much in commerce of one kind or another and very involved in the wider community.”

Typical of that broader communal involvement was Charles Dyte, president of the congregation when the shule was built. According to The Star, he was “proprietor of the old established Ballarat china, glass and crockery store”, but beyond that, among various roles, he served as an MLA and as mayor of Ballarat East. He was also a key witness to the Eureka Rebellion, and helped draft the subsequent Eureka Resolution, a foundation stone of Australian democracy.

That sense of civic duty has continued through the generations. In the 1860s, Emmanuel Steinfeld likewise served as mayor of Ballarat East. And Abraham – who has himself held a number of positions, including twice as president of the Ballarat Rotary Club – notes that in 1925, shule president Abraham Levy, also served as president of the Rotary Club and mayor of Ballarat, all in the same year.

Stone’s family has similarly been prominent. His father was an army captain during World War II and a key figure in Ballarat’s RSL and Chamber of Commerce.

Today, while few Jews remain in the city, many of those who travel to attend services “want to come back because their mother or father or grandparents or great-grandparents were married here”, said Abraham.

Indeed at Saturday’s 160th anniversary service, one gentleman had travelled from Hastings. His great-grandparents had been married at the shule in 1864 and he brought along their ketubah.

For many years , the shule only operated on High Holy Days, but its recent renaissance has in part been spurred by Melbourne’s Max Lasky, whose parents used to visit Ballarat when they holidayed in Hepburn. He got involved around 13 years ago, helping to launch the regular monthly services and taking on the role of ba’al tefillah.

Promoting services through The AJN and on social media, he’s attracted visitors from far and wide. “For me it’s a great mitzvah,” he enthused. “I really enjoy it.”

Looking to the shule’s next 160 years, Lasky mused, “We need a bit of young blood up there. It may happen, but if it doesn’t, there’ll always be a core group to keep the flag of Yiddishkeit flying there I’m sure.”

Ballarat Synagogue will soon be launching a fundraising appeal for key restoration work. If you’re interested in making a donation, John Abraham’s details can be found at ballaratsynagogue.org.

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