The Jewish past of Tasmania

How has this little community survived for over 175 years despite the challenges a tiny community faces?

THE SANCTUARY as seen from the upstairs women’s gallery in the Hobart Synagogue, Tasmania (photo credit: JULIE L. KESSLER)
THE SANCTUARY as seen from the upstairs women’s gallery in the Hobart Synagogue, Tasmania
(photo credit: JULIE L. KESSLER)
The island of Tasmania sits like a ring on the bottom of the planet. Just 1,500 miles from Antarctica, it’s about 26,000 square miles, roughly three times the size of Israel. Traveling there in late January, one of the most interesting aspects of this beautiful island is a Jewish past perhaps unlike any other place on earth.
Van Dieman’s Land and the transportation period
In 1642, Dutch explorer Abel Tasman discovered the island, naming it Van Dieman’s Land after his sponsor, then governor of the Dutch East Indies. Following Australia’s colonization in 1788, the island was annexed by the British in 1803. Between then and 1853, about 76,000 British convicts were sent here to populate and build.
During the first 15 years of this transportation period, 17 Jewish convicts arrived, most of whom were young, petty criminals. More followed in the ensuing years, including the Solomon brothers, Judah and Joseph, who arrived in 1820 and would have a lasting impact on Jewish life on the island.
Renamed Tasmania in 1856 – called Tassie by locals – today there are about 500,000 residents, most of whom live on the island’s eastern seaboard. Of those, about 250 are Jewish.
In Tassie’s capital of Hobart, at 59 Argyle Street, is Australia’s oldest, still-in-use synagogue. Consecrated in 1845, half of the original members of the Hobart Synagogue were former prisoners.
The Solomon brothers
No story about Tasmanian Jewry can be told without delving into the fairly complicated lives of Judah and Joseph.
For their participation in promoting criminal activity in England during its 1819 crime surge, Judah and Joseph were sentenced to death. Those sentences were commuted and they were transported to Hobart, arriving on March 1, 1820. Each was separately assigned to private duty in a master’s house.
That they were enterprising would be the understatement of the century. While in this indentured servitude, they managed to open a small general store on Argyle Street offering hard-to-get imported items, tailoring and watch repairs, forming J&J Partnership.
Three years later they received “tickets-of-leave,” allowing them freer movement. Joseph moved to the island’s north and established himself in Launceston.
During this time the brothers built a grand Georgian-style building on the corner of Argyle and Liverpool streets to serve as both residence and for business purposes. Known as the Argyle House, it was originally called Temple House, as services were sometimes held there before the Hobart Synagogue was built.
Ultimately, the brothers participated financially with 74 others in what resulted in the establishment of the Bank of Van Dieman’s Land. Further financial investments included significant real estate holdings. By 1832, the brothers had both received “conditional pardons.”
When local authorities refused to permit a land grant to build a synagogue – an un-Christian organization ­– Judah donated part of the garden belonging to Temple House to build it. He also made a large monetary donation. The first stone was laid August 9, 1843, and the synagogue officially opened on July 4, 1845.
While financially the brothers thrived under extremely unusual circumstances, their personal lives were perhaps more challenging. Both brothers were married when they were convicted in England. Judah had eight children with another on the way, and Joseph had four.
Both asked for divorces, but only Joseph was successful. Judah’s pregnant wife, Esther, refused and ultimately followed him to Hobart with three of their children. By the time she arrived in 1832, Judah was living with his housekeeper and their son. And for a spell, both Judah’s British family and his illegitimate local one lived together at Temple House.
The years that followed made Danny DeVito’s War of the Roses seem utterly quaint by comparison. Esther would make it her life’s mission – and was ultimately successful – in seeing to it that Judah was denied the full pardon from the authorities he so desperately sought.
Joseph, on the other hand, had abandoned Judaism, remarried in 1833 in Launceston, according to the Church of England rites, and in 1836 received the coveted free pardon. In 1838, when one of his daughters married the son of a Jewish convict, Joseph almost disinherited her. The brothers became increasingly disconnected, and in 1839 Joseph withdrew from the partnership that formally dissolved in 1841.
Further to their divergent paths, Joseph died in 1851 at his northern country home amid accolades, while Judah died in Hobart in 1856 with barely a passing mention.
THE EGYPTIAN Revival exterior of the Hobart Synagogue, Tasmania (Credit: Julie L. Kessler)
THE EGYPTIAN Revival exterior of the Hobart Synagogue, Tasmania (Credit: Julie L. Kessler)
The Hobart Synagogue
The Hobart Synagogue is an excellent example of Egyptian Revival architecture. It is classified by the National Trust and is entered in the Heritage Register.
Today the congregation has 50 members. Originally an Orthodox synagogue, since the 1970s it has been Progressive/Reform, although Orthodox Shabbat services are still held, all Jews are always welcome at all services.
While the exterior of the synagogue is somewhat dwarfed in comparison to the imposing Temple House next door – which remained in the Solomon family until 1926 – the synagogue has been magnificently maintained, inside and out.
Among the artifacts in a Plexiglas showcase inside, is one of the 1,564 Torah scrolls seized by the Nazis from desecrated temples in the former Czechoslovakia that had been in trust in England. The president of the Hobart Hebrew Congregation, Czech-born Tom Schlesinger, was in London in early 1993 and ultimately arranged for the scroll to be on permanent loan to the congregation. On August 14, 1993, it was dedicated at the Hobart Synagogue.
The congregation’s main scrolls kept in the ark are the original ones from the synagogue’s opening in 1845. The original numbered “convict pews” still remain in the sanctuary. Near the vestibule, a door leads upstairs to the women’s gallery.
On the north wall is a marble tablet with the following engraved in gold:
“The ground on which is erected this edifice dedicated to the worship of the Supreme was presented to the Hebrew congregation of Hobart Town by Judah Solomon, Esq. who also handsomely contributed towards the building. To commemorate this event and to inform posterity of his zeal and liberality this tablet is inscribed.”
So while Judah’s passing in 1856 may have gone without fanfare, his legacy certainly lives on.
The current president of the congregation is Jeff Schneider, an American Web developer for the Australian Antarctic Division. Schneider, who is married to an Australian law lecturer with whom he has two young children, marvels at how the little community has survived for over 175 years despite the challenges a tiny community face.
Schneider is as enthusiastic as he is hopeful the community will not only survive but also thrive. That both he and vice president David Clark are so deeply committed to having the Jewish community of Tasmania prosper in the years to come, I have little doubt they will succeed in this marvelous part of the world so rich in history.
The writer is a journalist, attorney, legal columnist and the author of the award-winning memoir, Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight. She can be reached at