The Great Synagogue is Great!

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

It’s an old Jewish joke that when there are two Jews, three synagogues are needed. They each have their own ideas about how the prayers should be conducted. Prior to visiting the Great Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, I left a message identifying myself as an ordained rabbi from Los Angeles who was interested in the synagogue’s history. I don’t know which of the two or more Jews got my message, but no one seemed to be aware of it when I arrived. However, at least there was a synagogue to receive me, a grand one. Often referred to as “The Jewish Cathedral,” it was established in 1878.*

But a hundred years earlier in 1788, when the first few Jewish convicts were transported to New South Wales on the First Fleet to serve out their harsh sentences, there were no synagogues yet, not even one. As a matter of fact, when the first Jewish convict died that same year, there were no Jewish burial rites or sites.

Although only ten Jews are required to make a minyan (while each person can pray individually, developing communal values is considered essential in Jewish life, and the Torah cannot be read aloud without a minyan). The idea is to gather enough participants to make a kehilla, a little community. Eventually — some three decades later – there were enough Jewish convicts –about 30 of them — to gather together for regular worship. Towards the end of the 1820s, a few free settlers joined the congregation as well, led by a young man recommended by the Chief Rabbi in London.

So now there was one synagogue for 30 plus Jews. Oy veh! That wouldn’t do. They argued and argued about different ways of conducting services in the synagogue. And other things. It goes without saying that a rival congregation was immediately started, led by a young man who didn’t have a recommendation from London. Who cared? Now they had two synagogues. The number of free Jewish settlers grew to 25. After a lot of negotiation, and helped by a rabbi who who had traveled to Australia, the congregation united. They were one.

It turned out that some of the free Jewish settlers had influential ties (to the Montefiore family, for example), and the Australian government finally recognized the Jewish congregation in 1831. The little congregation celebrated their first High Holy Days together a few months later on George Street in a room above the store of one of the congregants. There was a bona fide Jewish congregation in New South Wales, Australia.

From this small beginning, under the leadership of their first actual rabbi, Rev. Michael Rose, the congregation grew to 300 people and soon had to take larger facilities on Bridge Street and then, only a decade later, on York Street, in a 500-seat building designed by James Hume. By this time, non-Jews were also taking interest in the synagogue and contributing to the project. Amazing.

What had boosted the Jewish population and made this phenomenal growth possible? Follow the money, they say. The Gold Rush of the 1850s attracted Jewish settlers!  Unfortunately, their different circumstances led to conflict between the old and new settlers so that – you guessed it! — a rival synagogue was again established.

Finally, almost a century after the first Jewish convict died in Australia without Jewish burial rites, the rival synagogues united, and the Great Synagogue was born on Elizabeth Street, where it still stands. The religious services, complemented by fine liturgical talent, were – and still are – traditional in nature. It was 1878.

In the formal and elegant fashion of the time, the Great Synagogue was built to generate awe at its stately magnificence, both outside and inside. There are stained glass windows and gold stars on the ceiling (added in later years) to intensify the light. It’s gorgeous.. An education center, auditorium, memorial center, and library were added over the years. The Great Synagogue still boasts many activities, but the elderly volunteers told us that the whole congregation is aging and, by attrition, dwindling.

As my visit drew to a close, I noticed that there were mincha (afternoon) services scheduled for 1:30 PM. “I’d love to join in prayer at the mincha service,” I said to the knowledgeable woman who gave us an informational talk. “Would that be possible?” I asked.

“Well, it’s usually just the men,” she answered hesitantly, and then added, “I suppose we could put up a screen for you.”

“Thank you,” I replied, “but since my time in Sydney is short, I think it would be better spent at the Jewish Museum than behind a screen.”

“Oh, that’s great,” she said in relief. “There’s a bus that will take you to the Museum that stops right in front of our door.”

So with an exchange of smiles and good wishes, my daughter and I left for the Jewish Museum of Sydney, where I promptly bought a purple kippah with an aboriginal design.

With the dispersion of young families to the more affordable suburbs around Sydney, there are a number of thriving, suburban synagogues today – Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox — and most have egalitarian seating.  Female rabbis who visit Sydney are not obliged to sit behind a mehitza (screen or wall) in order to pray there, if they do not choose to do so.

So you see, it’s true. When you have two Jews, you need three synagogues.

*For those who are interested in more historical detail about the Great Synagogue’s history, a book by the Rabbi Emeritus, Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple, is available: The Great Synagogue: A History of Sydney’s Big Shule, UNSW PRESS, 2008.