Hobart Synagogue, the oldest Jewish place of worship still in use in Australia, is about to turn 175 – and a certain medical crisis hasn’t stopped the anniversary from being turned to good use. Hobart Hebrew Congregation has run services in the heritage-listed synagogue in central Hobart since its consecration on July 4, 1845, and was set to mark the milestone with an array of projects and a program of public celebrations. The coronavirus forced the celebration to be cancelled, but the projects have been successfully completed.
The highlight of the anniversary year has been making the congregation’s meeting minutes from 1841 to 1958 easily accessible online. The State Library of Tasmania (which holds the synagogue’s archives), finished digitising the minutes early this year, but it was still challenging to make sense of the mostly handwritten documents.
The synagogue therefore put out a call for volunteers to undertake the laborious exercise of transcribing the records, amounting to more than 475 separate documents, into standard text.
The timing of the request, at the start of the virus lockdown, turned out to be perfect. A team of members and friends seized on the opportunity to keep busy while helping out, and got the work done in under three months. Among them was Beverley Hooper of Perth, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Judah Solomon, who was one of the key figures in the early life of the congregation.
It was Solomon, in fact, who donated land from the garden of his nearby mansion Temple House for the building of the synagogue.
Ms Hooper had the honour of transcribing the earliest congregational minutes from 1841 that record the contributions of her ancestor and other synagogue founders.
Once the transcriptions were complete, the congregation’s current President, Jeff Schneider, a web developer by profession, converted them into an online archive that can accessed from the synagogue’s website at https://www.hobartsynagogue.org/archives/.
The congregation also took advantage of the enforced interruption to services during the lockdown to accelerate a number of planned maintenance and restoration projects at the synagogue, as well as at the historic Jewish cemetery a few kilometres away in Cornelian Bay.
When services resumed in early June, congregants returned to a revitalised building. An anonymous donor funded the work, which included repointing the sandstone walls enclosing the oldest graves at the cemetery, fixing cracks in the synagogue’s lime render, and repurposing Australian cedar panels retrieved from the decaying remnants of some original pews into a desk.
As Mr Schneider commented: “It was a great disappointment that we couldn’t hold services or celebrate the anniversary, but at the same time the closure gave us the chance to better equip ourselves for the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.”
“We were delighted that so many members of our community were able to come together for the important work of transcribing the minutes,” he added. “We’re very proud of what they achieved, as well as of the improvements we were able to make to the synagogue and cemetery.”
“It’s a further illustration of how, throughout our history as a small and isolated community, we’ve been able to overcome every difficulty we’ve faced. Now that things are starting to return to normal, the congregation’s future looks brighter than ever.”
Mr Schneider’s optimism has been sparked by a recent influx of families with young children choosing to move to Tasmania, often to escape urban congestion and the effects of climate change. In contrast to almost every other Jewish congregation in Australia, membership numbers have risen as a result.
Only a few years ago, most members were middle-aged or elderly and children were never seen at services. Mr Schneider said the congregation expected the trend to resume once interstate travel becomes possible again, and is looking to establish a cheder(religious school for children) as its next major project.
This growth in numbers isn’t the only way the Hobart congregation is unusual. It’s proud to be one of only two in Australia to welcome members of all Jewish denominational backgrounds, and has offered regular services in both the Orthodox and Progressive traditions since the 1990s.
“Our founders 175 years ago might be surprised to learn we’ve embraced religious pluralism,” Mr Schneider commented. “But I’m inclined to think that they’d be supportive. After all, they were prepared to do what was needed to build a future for Jewish life in Tasmania. Today, that’s a goal we take equally seriously.”
A Zoom information session covering some of the stories recorded in the congregational minutes that have been made available online, and detailing how the archive was created, will be held on Sunday, 26 July, at 3:00pm. Jeff Schneider, the developer of the online archive and president of the Hobart Hebrew Congregation, will host the session. To register,