History of the Jewish congregation in Newcastle and the Hunter
From the earliest times Jewish people have been included in a cross-section of the Australian community. Jewish convicts were in the first fleet and a Jewish bushranger and merchants were prominent in the history of Maitland, which was once the leading provincial centre of NSW. Jewish settlers ventured to many districts. Some Jewish convicts served their time by toiling in government coal pits at Kings Town, as Newcastle was then known. Others were given tickets-of-leave and were assigned to squatters for the remainders of their sentences.
The story of the Newcastle community and its Synagogue began on the frontier of Australian settlement. The first Jewish services were conducted in the social hall in the Methodist Mission* in King Street for a rental of 10 shillings a time.
The founder of the Newcastle community was George Judah Cohen who is today commemorated in the Synagogue by a leadlight window and brass plaque. His son Samuel became the first president when the congregation was formally established. George Cohen lived long enough to acquire an enviable reputation as one of Sydney’s best-known and most generous business leaders. Typically, he continued to keep a patriarchal eye on his co-religionists in the lower Hunter. Whereas the Maitland community was declining, the Newcastle congregation was growing. Late in 1905 George approached young Isack Morris, the reader at the Newtown Synagogue in Sydney and asked him to establish a congregation in Newcastle.
The congregation took the title of “The Newcastle Hebrew Congregation Beth Yesroel (House of Israel)”. The first officials were Samuel Cohen, President; H. Morris Cohen, Treasurer and Gordon Solomon, Secretary.
The long-serving Rabbi Isack Morris was born in Latvia in 1881 and received his first position in Aberdare, Wales, in 1900. Four years later he came to Hobart in Tasmania.
In 1921 when he had settled in Newcastle, Isack Morris purchased a site in Tyrell Street from the Australian Agricultural Company and built a “Temple House”, where his youngest son Samuel was born. Samuel Morris later became community President.
A remarkably versatile man, Rabbi Morris acted as reader or conductor of services, teacher, schochat (ritual slaughterer) and mohel (circumciser). In the wider Newcastle community he was active in Freemasonry and the scouts. He had six sons, four [Mark, Oscar, Ralph and Alexander] born to his first wife Rosie and two [Victor and Samuel] to his second wife Rachel. His first wife Rosie [nee Falk] has her name engraved on one of the Synagogue windows.
*Sold and renovated as the Mission Theatre. It had a more recent link with the Jewish community by presenting the musical version of “The Diary of Anne Frank” for the first time in Australia.
In 1922 a Building Fund Committee was formed to consider the purchase of the vacant site adjoining Morris’ own for the building of a Synagogue. In 1924 it was decided in favour of the purchase because few sites where available in the central city for the asking price of £700. The committee set itself the task of serious fund-raising. In March 1926, an approach was made to Samuel Cohen who was at the time living in Sydney. His response was generous. The trustees would be granted the proceeds of £1100 from the sale of the Maitland Synagogue (requiring a special Act of Parliament) together with £50 towards the elimination of the bank overdraft covering the site debt and a matching gift towards the Building Fund. An enthusiastic AGM heard the fund had raised £835 during the year and eliminated their overdraft. Messrs Pepper & Seater, architects, drew the plans.
The promised money was soon in hand and in March 1927 the fund accepted a tender of £3,400 from the builders, Messrs Frewen and Cook.
The new Synagogue was an imposing red brick Art Deco building with contrasting white features and a dome to one side of the roof. A circular stained-glass window featuring a spectacular Star of David dominated the façade. The porch was flanked by two columns and the lintel surrounded with the words “The Holy Congregation of the House of Israel” were written in Hebrew. Leadlight windows which decorate both sides of the building are dedicated to the memory of prominent members of the congregation. An impressive set of steps leads from the main gate to the foyer. The hall measures 50 x 35 feet and can accommodate 250 people. The vaulted ceiling is of pale blue moulded fibrous plaster board panels.
The building was sufficiently advanced for two foundation stones to be laid on the 29th of May 1927. A large crowd assembled for the grand opening, with Rabbi Francis Cohen of the Great Synagogue leading a group of visitors from Sydney.
While the stones were laid, Reverend Morris read the documents to be placed in the cavity, and poured on some corn, wine and oil (which symbols in ancient times the rural Hebrews shared with Greeks and other peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean). Rabbi Cohen emphasised in his address the importance of good citizenship and religious observance.
On the 18th of September, the completed building was consecrated at a service also attended by Rabbi Cohen. The highlight was the placing of the Scrolls of Law in the Ark and lighting the perpetual lamp hanging in front of it.
Four years later, Samuel S. Cohen, the first President, his 89 year-old father, George Judah Cohen, and S.R. Levy, were elected the first Life Members of the congregation.
A Board of Officers was elected, also a committee of five, with possible co-options, and trustees to hold any land. Any person over 21 could pay for the rental and become a seat holder with voting and other rights. No distinction was made between male and female members in administrative matters, which was an unusual situation in an orthodox community.
The Newcastle community mostly lived within walking distance of Cooks Hill and the West End.
The first wedding in the Synagogue was celebrated between Etta (Nee Samuel) and Daniel Davies in January 1928. Photographs were taken at the rear of the building, and the social hall underneath the Synagogue was used for the reception.
The first AGM was held in the hall in July. In the early years the Board had difficulties managing the debt. To add to their problems, the roof leaked around the dome. The severe Depression increased their burden.
Reverend Morris voluntarily reduced his small salary. There are references in the Minutes to anti-semitic persecution in Nazi Germany. Morris organised and addressed a well-attended protest meeting in the Newcastle Town Hall in May1933, with the Mayor in the chair. Later that year the congregation mounted a collection for their co-religionists in Germany. The debt which stood at £913 was resolved by Kate Hartnoll, who knew Morris from Tasmania and donated the large sum of £500. Samuel Cohen and another Sydney donor each offered £100 if the congregation would match it. By the year’s end this was achieved and in 1934 the Building Fund declared the debt closed.
A presentation and illuminated address were made to Morris and his wife in 1946 on the 40th anniversary of the Congregation and the commencement of his service there. When ill-health compelled him to retire three years later he was elected a life member and received the title of Rabbi from the Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth. The board appointed Rabbi Emeritus pending the arrival of his successor, Rabbi Dr B. Gottshall from Prague, a scholarly and heroic Auschwitz survivor. In 1958 Rabbi Gottshall transferred to Wellington, New Zealand , to Brisbane (1963 – 67) and Kingsford Maroubra (1967 – 73).
During the 1950’s inflation affected many small organisations, and the Newcastle Jewish community was no exception. It was fair and necessary to pay a minister nearly three times the amount Morris received as salary from 1921 until his retirement. Four years later it had trebled again. The generous contributions from the firm David Cohen and Co and from the Estate of David Cohen, which had once covered nearly half of Morris’ salary was relatively fixed. Regular increases in subscriptions and donations had limited impact because of the relatively small membership of the community.
Subsequent ministers, although gifted seemed to lack Morris’ dedication, adaptability and presence. However, it probably would have been impossible for any leader, no matter how talented, to stop the metropolitan drift which is characteristic of ethnic minorities in Australia. The Jewish population of Newcastle reached its highest level in 1954 at 234 and fell to 133 by 1986.
It was decided to sell the minister’s residence, which had been purchased in Kitchener Parade in the 1950’s. Funds from the sale, and the time donated by several capable and willing members as honorary officiates, produced, produced a healthy credit balance for building renovations and an investment reserve.
Reverend Wugmann, a spry 88-year-old, came out of retirement to lead High Holy Day services in the 1990’s.
The Newcastle Civic Project and buildings are officially attributed to Alderman Morris Light, who obtained the Council’s support while Mayor in 1924 – 25. This was a costly and ambitious undertaking for an urban area yet to be amalgamated and still divided into eleven separate municipalities. Light is commemorated by a stand of lights (for the pun is unavoidable) outside the Town Hall. It is sight of the synagogue across Civic Park where he was a member though never holding office. Born in Russia, he arrived in Australia in 1886 in his late twenties and established a small furniture business in the port suburb of Carrington. A few years later he joined the merchants of Hunter Street, Newcastle and was soon successful. For thirty-five years he served on the Carrington and later the Newcastle Councils (1902 – 17, 1919 – 29) becoming Mayor of both. His funeral in 1929 was described as one of the largest in Newcastle for many years with 3000 at the graveside. When his son died the business was sold to Grace Bros. in the 1950’s. The heiress to a large fortune who long outlived her parents and siblings was his youngest daughter Reta. She lived a cosmopolitan life and during the war years was taken from her Paris apartment and imprisoned. Her last years were spent in a nursing home in Sydney where she died in 1989, aged 91. Scarcely anyone in Newcastle could remember her , yet her loyalty to her birthplace and family was so strong that she left strict instructions in her will to be buried in the family plot at Sandgate and leave her fortune $1.5m., to the University of Newcastle library.
In 1944, Geoffrey Solomon joined the committee. He served as Secretary from 1951 to 1956 and was President from 1956 to 1962 and 1966 to 1970, after which he and his family moved to Perth. He was widely known throughout the Newcastle district as a producer and performer in annual Gilbert & Sullivan productions and with Reg Mitchell who was for many years the Honorary Solicitor to the Congregation, appeared in a number of unique duo entertainments. The Newcastle Forest in Israel under the patronage of the Lord Mayor derived much of its financial support from these revues.
In 1961 a large and striking relief entitled “Behold” cast in marble and cement was set into the west wall of the Synagogue hall. It illustrates the path to Israel following the Holocaust and was dedicated to her brother-in-law, Daniel Davies who was for many years senior Maths Master at Newcastle Boys High School. He had been wounded in WW1 and while emigrating, he had met the Samuel sisters on the ship coming to Australia. Rae obtained her Teacher’s Certificate in 1918 and began her art studies. In Australia she was an Infants teacher. After retiring in 1969 she founded and was secretary of Hunter Region Sculpture Society. She served the National Council of Jewish Women as Secretary and President. Following Rae’s demise the east ante-room in the Synagogue was renovated and dedicated in December, 1986 in her honour.
In 1973 a warm obituary recorded the passing while in office of the President, Mark Lazer after thirty years of service to the Board. A quiet and unassuming man, he bore the Treasurer’s burden at a time of unusual difficulty.
The congregation today had declined, but extra members and guests are always present on High Holy Days. In the late 1950s, up to 200 might have been expected on these occasions. In those days approximately fifty young community members were in youth groups. Many young people have now moved to Sydney. In the past, the congregation was enlarged by newcomers from Russia in the early 20th Century, from Germany and Poland in the 1930s and 1940s and in later years from South Africa.
In outward appearance the Synagogue has changed little although there has been upgrading and renovation of the interior.
There are four Sefarim (scrolls of the law), one donated by Hannah Sussman in 1929 in memory of her husband Cecil, who dies in 1906. This was presented in an elaborate service devised by Reverend Morris, called by the press a “red letter day” for the congregation. Another was donated by Sol Hillman who had been an officiate for many years, in 1969. The stained-glass memorial windows have recently been repaired. there are ten pairs, plus two small ones over the northern doors, inscribed with names of persons deceased from 1893 to 1946. The main stained-glass window is a rondel, brilliant blue in the sun, above the Ten Commandments and the Ark. The hand-painted windows set into the partition in front of the main doors in 1948 commemorate Sir Samuel Cohen and Lady Cohen. Next to these a window in the transparent textured glass commemorate Jules Rubenstein, deceased in 1988. Damage following the earthquake in 1989 was fortunately not severe and insurance covered repairs, including that of ceiling panels.
In the past visiting American servicemen and many dignitaries including Dr Israel Brodie attended services and entertainment. The synagogue has served as a true communal centre, at various times being used as a school gymnasium, dormitory, theatre, dining room, dance hall and once a year as the venue for the AGM.
The Newcastle community has just achieved its 100th anniversary. Over the years members and guests have come and gone and weddings and bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs and traditional holidays have all been celebrated within the synagogue walls.