The second premises of the Wellington Jewish Social Club in Ghuznee Street, depicted in 1954. showing a distinctly Bauhaus design. Along with the Wellington Hebrew Congregation, the social club has been incorporated into today's Wellington Jewish Community Centre, close by on Webb Street. Further up Ghuznee Street today is Temple Sinai, home to Wellington's Progressive Jewish Congregation.
The history of colonial and modern-day New Zealand involves Jewish participation from early times. Jewish traders were recorded here as early as 1829, and these were probably sealers and whalers. There were a number of Jewish shareholders in the New Zealand Company, which was set up by Edward Gibbon Wakefield in London, England to colonise the country, the most prominent being director Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, Baronet (the first Jew to be awarded a knighthood).
The passenger lists of the New Zealand Company’s first four ships, which anchored in the harbour (near the city now known as Wellington) between 22nd of January and 28th of February 1840 reveals the names of some Jews on the barque “Oriental” named Abraham Hort, Solomon Levy and Benjamin Levy. From that time on, a small number of Jews trickled down from England, seeking a new life in what was then considered an unknown land of tantalising opportunity. The first Jewish marriage was consecrated in Wellington on 1st of June 1842, and the Bolton Street cemetery was opened in 1843. A number of Wellington Pioneer Pioneer Jews are buried there.
In 1843 the recognised founder and patriarch of the Wellington Jewish community, Abraham Hort senior arrived with his wife and four daughters. He had made the journey with the sanction of the Chief Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, London. Abraham Hort brought with him, in a religious capacity, one David Isaacs who acted as shochet, mohel and chazan. Isaacs also played a key role in the emergence of other Jewish communities in Nelson and Dunedin. On 7th of January 1843 the first Jewish religious service was held in Wellington, and a little later a brit milah was conducted with a full minyan.
In the meantine, the government of New South Wales Australia had appointed, as Lieutenant-Governor of New Zealand, a captain William Hobson. Hobson set sail to the colony, and within a few days of landing at Kororareka (in the North Island’s Bay of Islands) had arranged to meet with the Rangatira or chiefs of Māori Iwi (tribes). In a document known as the Treaty of Waitangi, signed on February 6th 1840, the Rangatira and Hobson affixed their signatures, in a document guaranteeing the Iwi protection of their lands and natural resources, and making all Māori British subjects. In Hobson’s view, the Iwi, with their signing, ceded overall sovereignty to the Crown; the view of the tribes was that they retained sovereignty, ceding to the Crown the right of governance only. This original dispute remains at the heart of the founding of the country.
It was soon to happen that Hobson would abandon the settlement of Kororareka, favouring on an isthmus further down the North Island adjacent to Waitemata Harbour, naming it Auckland. A number of Jews hastened to Auckland and started in business: among them David Nathan, who set up a store adjoining those belonging to Joel Pollock, John Montefiore, David Keesing and Israel Joseph Nathan. Nathan returned to Kororareka to settle some of his affairs, and while there, on Sunday 31st of October 1841, took part in the first Jewish marriage service held in New Zealand by getting married to Rosetta Aarons.
Most of the early Jewish settlers in Wellington and Auckland were traders of some kind, and a number achieved prominence as they worked to help the two young colonies of New Zealand and Australia develop. David Nathan soon inaugurated Jewish worship in Auckland, and also helped the acquire a cemetery. In 1848, out of the total settler population at that time of just over 16,000, were sixty-one Jews, of whom thirty-three resided in Auckland, and twenty-eight in Wellington.
Nathaniel Levin, who established the firm of Levin and Company on Wellington’s Lambton Quay, was one of the first to export wool from Wellington. His son, William Hort Levin was prominent in the commercial affairs of early Wellington, and the township of Levin, about an hour’s drive north from Wellington, is named after him. A number of early Jews in both Auckland and Wellington were well-known owners of hotels, and others were in the business of auctioneering.
Sir Julius Vogel (1835-1899), whose economic genius and daring public works policy of the 1870s sped up the development of New Zealand, was twice Premier. The third daughter of Abraham Hort, Margaret married Sir Francis Dillon Bell, and one of their sons Francis Henry Dillon Bell became one of New Zealand’s most famous statesman, becoming Mayor of Wellington and Prime Minister for a time. Asher Asher, Charles Davis Henry kissing and David Nathan served as commissioners on the new Auckland Harbour Board. In Wellington, Hort was instrumental in the formation of the Wellington Fire Brigade. Phillip Phillips became the first Mayor of Auckland.
Having met for worship in private homes for a number of years, the title deeds for the first Synagogue on the Terrace were received in 1868, and the Beth-El Synagogue of Wellington was consecrated in 1870. In Auckland, the Jewish congregation vacated the small building they had been using, and on 9th of November 1885 a ceremony of opening the Auckland Synagogue was held.
A new era began for the South Island when gold was discovered in payable quantities in 1861 and Jews followed this news. Prior to this the settlements of Otago and Canterbury were mainly pastoral. A few years later gold was discovered on the West Coast and in Nelson. Among the Scots at Dunedin only five families ventured to live there; Woolf Harris, George Casper, Hyam Nathan, Josef Vogel and Adolf Bing. In 1862 sufficient Jews warranted the establishment of a formal congregation and the Dunedin Congregation was born. Soon after that they procured a cemetery and sought to engage a minister. They engaged none other than David Isaacs whom Hort had brought over twenty years previously from England.
In 1868 a synagogue was built on the corner of Moray Place and View Street. This most southern congregation in the world sold this first building and built an imposing edifice in Moray Place opposite. One of their most famous sons was David Theomin whose stately home was left to the nation by his daughter Dorothy when she died in 1966.
A soon as the first settler in Christchurch Louis Edward Nathan could muster a sufficient number of Jews he founded the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation. It did not seem right the name Christchurch in the name of a synagogue. Mark Marks acted as first officiating minister and received a government grant for both a cemetery as well as a synagogue. The congregation built a wooden edifice on a block of land between Worcester and Gloucester Streets where the next synagogue was also built in 1881.
In 1865 the heads of about thirty-five families attended the annual general meeting of the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation. By 1870 the gold rush on the West Coast had ended and the Jews of Hokitika came to Christchurch bringing with them their minister the Reverend Isaac Zachariah.
In 1875 a respected Jew Judah Myers who had established a career as a crockery merchant in Motueka (out of Nelson) shifted to Wellington. His son Michael ( 1873 to 1950) latter attained the highest judicial post in the country becoming Chief Justice of New Zealand. The Wellington community then appointed Benjamin Aaron Selig as Reader and Shochet (trained ritual animal slaughterer) but his but his connection with the community was severed in 1866 and Jacob Frankel came up from Dunedin and it was his enthusiasm and zeal that was instrumental in the building of the first Synagogue Beth El (House of G-d).
The first three incumbent ministers (the Rev. A.S. Levy, the Rev A. Myers of Hobart, and Benjamin Levy) did not remain long. It was not until Joseph E. Nathan went to London in 1878 that the community appointed yet another. The Rev. Herman Van Staveren (1849-1930) was selected and what a choice that was as the larger than life Van Staveren served the congregation with distinction for over fifty years. His wife gave birth to four sons and nine daughters. The government selected him as the first chairman of the Wellington Hospital Board and he topped the polls annually. He helped found the Wellington Jewish Philanthropic Society and Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) and started the Hebrew School. In 1930 the Wellington Hebrew Congregation also engaged the Reverend Chananiah Pitkowski as assistant and Chochet. Alas, both men died within a fortnight of each other early in 1930 and soon after Rabbi Soloman Katz, who had previously served the Auckland community was engaged.
In the late 192’s the old wooden building on The Terrace was becoming too small for the growing congregation of the Capital City of Wellington and it was decided to rebuild in brick on the same site. The building was consecrated in 1929. Between 1959 and 1966 a building fund was set up to provide better facilities, but in 1963 the Ministry of Works indicated they would require the site on The Terrace for motorway development. Then property was acquired a little at a time and then planning proceeded at the present spot at 74 to 80 Webb Street and in 1974 the foundation stone of the Wellington Jewish Community Centre was laid by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld. Shortly after The Deckston Trust built a Kosher Home for the aged and infirm in the Hutt Valley. Later was integrated with Te Hopai which is situated at the back of the Wellington Hospital. Unfortunately due to a severe decrease in the number of people desiring Kosher facilities at this facility the Jewish Care of the Aged decided later to close the care there for Jewish folk.
The Wellington Jewish Community Centre at 80 Webb Street contains the synagogue Beth El, secretaries Office, Kosher Kitchen and Dining Room, Myers community Hall, Moriah Kindergarten , New Zealand Holocaust Centre, NZ Jewish Archives, Rabbi’s Office, mikvah, kosher co-op shop, Van Staveren library room, Hebrew School rooms, and basement car park. It also provides the facilities for the meeting of the various Jewish groups such as The Board of Management, Bnei Akiva Care of the Aged and Bnei Brith Lodge.
In 1864 the Auckland congregation under the leadership of David Nathan and the members of the Keesing family appointed their first minister the Rev. Moses Elkin who gave ten years service. The next choice of spiritual leader was the Rev. Samuel Aaron Goldstein who with dignity and scholarship served the Auckland Hebrew Congregation for over fifty years. He was assisted until 1931 by Rabbi Solomon Katz and then by Rabbi Alexander Astor. The second synagogue was situated in Princes Street and the third and existing Beth Yisroel in Grey Street. This same centrally located building incorporates a smaller shul, The Synagogue shop, Alexander Astor Hall, Hebrew school rooms, a library, and Deli. Nowadays Kadima Kindergarten and School give excellent service to the education needs of Auckland Jewry and Shalom Court provides care for the elderly and infirm.
New Zealand Jews have a strong commitment to Israel and is considered to have given the most immigrants to that country pro-rata to its population than any other country in the world.
In 1959 Rabbi John Levi came over to Wellington from Melbourne to investigate the starting of a new Liberal congregation. A number of existing Jews in the Capital were interested and soon after the Temple Sinai was formed. In 1997 the members decided to now become known as the Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation. They meet at 147 Ghuznee Street. In Auckland Beth Shalom is situated at 180 Manakau Road, Epsom.
Despite its small numbers NZ Jewry (approximately 5000 with the majority in Auckland and Wellington) has always given a strong commitment to non-Jewish causes, which continues to this day. There has been prominent activity in industry and commerce, in the arts and journalism, local and central politics, and in law and accountancy.
Initially the first flush of immigrants came mainly from the United Kingdom, and then prior and after the two World Wars from Europe. In the 1970’s and 80’s when the Soviet Union relaxed the restrictions several hundred families were brought out to Wellington by H.I.A.S. Recently some Israeli’s and a number of South Africans have settled in New Zealand.
Michael Clements 2015.