In remote Tasmania, Jews welcome a rare visit from a former Israeli chief rabbi
MELBOURNE, Australia (JTA) — Tasmania, Australia’s smallest state in terms of population and size, has about half a million people. It is known for its rugged terrain, stunning natural beauty and unique animal species – including the Tasmanian devil and the now-extinct tylocin, or Tasmanian tiger.
But Tasmania has always had a Jewish population in its capital, Hobart, which was founded in 1804 as a penal colony for exiled British convicts. Eight Jews were among the original 270 convicts who settled there.
The state is also home to Australia’s two oldest continuously operating synagogues: the Hobart Hebrew Community, built in 1845, and the Launceston Synagogue, built a year later.
On July 12, Israel’s former Ashkenazi rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, paid a rare visit to the Launceston synagogue. The event attracted around 50 people, including government ministers, representatives from conservation group the National Trust of Australia and members of the Tasmanian Jewish community.
“It’s very nice that you can be on the edge and the antipodes and still be part of the Jewish people,” said Betz Allen, a Tasmanian Jew who has lived in Launceston for 25 years. “Rabbi Lau to be here in person and take the time and trouble to come [to Tasmania] significant.”
“Even in the context of Australia, it’s far from anything,” he said.
A visit from a chief rabbi from any country in Launceston is a rare occasion. The last one happened 72 years ago, in 1951, when Rabbi Israel Brodie, the chief rabbi of Great Britain at the time, came to visit during his trip to Australia. Lau, a child survivor of the Holocaust and former chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, is a guest of honor sought after by Jewish communities around the world. (His son David is the head of Israel’s Ashcenazi Rabbi.)
Lau was a guest of Joseph Gutnick, a well-known Australian mining executive originally from Melbourne. Worth close to half a billion dollars – and a power broker in the Hasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement – Gutnick now lives in Tasmania. Gutnick is funding renovations to the synagogue with permission from the National Trust of Australia, which administers the heritage-listed building.
“I thought it was appropriate to do something,” said Gutnick, who has a long-standing interest in Tasmania, which included building the island’s only mikvah, or ritual bath, in Hobart more than 30 years ago. “I wanted to fix the shul. Make it more usable. If we do it well, more people will come.”
Launceston Synagogue is built in the Egyptian Revival style, incorporating motifs from ancient Egypt – an unusual look for a synagogue.
“It’s an interesting place on the edge of the world. It’s far from everything but it’s still very much connected to the history of the world,” said Allen. “This synagogue is a relic of a time when history was not yet settled, but it is still in use today, and that gives a great sense of continuity and belonging.”
The history of the Jews in Tasmania is long and turbulent. In the 1940s, before the establishment of the state of Israel, an explorer looking for a possible Jewish homeland made a discovery off the coast of the island but died on his mission. Over time, the number of Jews living in Tasmania has also ebbed and flowed; immigration increased during the Second World War, as European Jews fled Nazism, and in the 1980s, when a wave of Jews emigrated from South Africa.
Today, Tasmania’s Jewish community is growing again. Australia’s 2021 census shows an almost 50% increase in Jews from 248 people in 2016 to 376 in 2021. No one has studied the reasons behind the increase, but housing in Tasmania is much cheaper than in other big cities, such as Melbourne and Sydney. Tasmania is also known throughout Australia as a hot spot for retirees, especially for those who love a quiet life and hiking.
Rabbi Yochanan Gordon and his wife Rebbetzin Rochel Gordon are Chabad emissaries on the island. He is confident that there are more Jews than were officially recorded in the census, claiming that he personally knows more than the 376 recorded. He estimates that there are 250 Jews in Launceston and 1,200-1,300 throughout Tasmania.
His family has a long-term interest in Tasmania, as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson sent his father, Melbourne-based Rabbi Yossi Gordon, to make occasional visits to the island state’s Jewish people in the 1980s.
For a tiny community like Tasmania, welcoming Lau and other dignitaries to the Launceston Synagogue was an exciting event and a rare opportunity to fill the seats.
“We don’t usually get a minyan [prayer quorum of 10 men]. Every Sunday in the synagogue we have a tefillin club with coffee, and some Jews come for a tefillin club,” said Yochanan Gordon, using the Hebrew word for philately.
Despite living in Ulverstone, a mining town about a 90-minute drive from Launceston, Gutnick is invested in the success of the Launceston synagogue. “I like to support far away places,” he said, referring to some of his work supporting Jewish life around the world, including in Antarctica.
And the importance of hosting a prestigious rabbit in one of Australia’s oldest synagogues is not understated.
“It’s such a historic place. The first offenders came and took the shul. People who were banished and thrown out to one of the farthest places in the world, they built a shul. It’s quite a thrill,” he said.
In addition to paying for new carpets and a new bimah, or raised platform at the front of the synagogue, Gutnick hopes to pay for concrete patches of Egyptian architecture on the front of the building, and a fresh paint job. Plans are also underway to increase the scarce kosher options for people living in Tasmania by creating a room at the back of the synagogue dedicated to food preparation.
Gutnick hopes the synagogue will eventually attract tourists as well.
Allan also felt that history was made this week with the rabbi’s visit.
“I think it’s great. This synagogue was built at a time when Judaism was not as close to it as the general public. It was difficult for the community to get permission to build it. It’s a tiny piece of land the size of a postage stamp,” he said. “We’re here, we’ve been here for a long time, and we’re here.”