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Architectural History


Congregation and Building

by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD, Emeritus Rabbi

The Great Synagogue has stood on its present site since 1878, but the congregation itself has a history going back at least 50 years before that date, in the 1820s.

When New South Wales was founded as a penal colony in 1788, among the 751 First Fleet convicts were at least 16 Jews. With no proper Jewish burial rites, the first Jew to be buried on Australian soil (Joseph Levy) died in 1788. Only towards the end of the 1820s was there a successful gathering of 30 or so Jews for regular worship, done so by Philip Joseph Cohen, who came with recommendations from the Chief Rabbi in London. These settlers had regular services, but were faced with a rival congregation, who conducted their own services. A petition was created for a Jewish house of worship, but it had been refused in the past. However, by the 1820s, there were enough Jews, including influential people from distinguished families such as Joseph Barrow Montefiore, to warrant a place of worship. 

The formal establishment of the congregation came on 2 November, 1831, and by 26 September, 1832, the Sydney Monitor could report: “The New Year's Eve and Day of the Sons of Abraham
The Jews of the colony assembled at the Jews' Synagogue held over Mr Rowell's shop in George Street which is elegantly fitted out as such on Monday evening, being the last night of the year, according to the ancient chronology of the tribe of Judah, when prayers were said. On Tuesday morning and again in the evening, other meetings took place and worship was again performed.

The first minister was Rev Michael Rose, who arrived on 20 May, 1835. From 1832 to 1837 the congregation worshipped at George Street, but numbers had grown to over 300 adults and larger premises were leased at No 4 Bridge Street for 160 pounds a year. 

The interior alterations had been made by Barnett Aaron Phillips, a stage carpenter who had worked at Drury Lane and built Australia's first stage scenery at Barnett Levey's Theatre Royal. The "manuscript copy" of the Books of Moses referred to by a current writer of the time was the first sacred scroll in Australia, purchased from Rabbi Aaron Levy.

The congregation soon decided that they needed a larger, specifically built synagogue in a central location. Governor Bourke, more tolerant than Governor Darling, had offered a grant of land but it was felt the location was wrong. Governor Gipps granted a site in Kent Street North, but the preliminary excavations would have been beyond the resources of the congregation.

In the meantime, Bridge Street was vacated in 1840 and services were held in rooms over shops or dwellings owned by members of the congregation. Finally land was purchased in York Street, close to where the Sydney Town Hall stands today, and a synagogue was designed by James Hume who had been associated with some of Sydney's finest buildings. The foundation stone was laid in 1842 and funds were donated liberally by both Jews and Christians.

The building was consecrated on 2 April, 1844, with the music for the ceremony in the hands of Isaac Nathan, father of Australian music, who was also associated with the music at St Mary's Cathedral. For the occasion, Nathan composed settings for Baruch Habba ("Blessed be he that cometh") and Halleluyah.

York Street Synagogue was commodious (it had seating for 500) and elaborately furnished. Its Ark, larger and even more impressive than that in Bridge Street, is also extant. It too has been restored, and it holds pride of place in our museum. The exterior of the synagogue was described as being in the Egyptian style; similar buildings were erected by the congregations in Hobart (1845) and Launceston (1846). The Hobart and Launceston Synagogues are still standing and in use.

The goldrushes of the 1850s increased the Jewish population considerably, but there was conflict between the newcomers and the older settlers, and in Sydney a group of members of the York Street synagogue opened a rival synagogue in Macquarie Street. The two congregations reunited with the opening of the magnificent Great Synagogue in Elizabeth Street, opposite Hyde Park, in 1878, as a result of the efforts of Rev Alexander Barnard Davis, of the York Street Synagogue. It was designed by Thomas Rowe, one of the leading architects of the day. It follows a Byzantine basilica floor plan, and adopted the eclectic style of European synagogues, including its models, in London (Central) and Liverpool (Princes Road). There are elements of Romanesque, Gothic and Moorish design. Work began in 1875 and the Synagogue opened in 1878. the pews are made form Northern Cedar, the brasswork came from Philadelphia,  the tiles from Stoke on Trent and the ironwork and stained glass from Sydney, using some of the best manufacturers of the period.

As the decades have passed, the Synagogue has remained the Jewish cathedral of Sydney. The growth of the Jewish community and its suburban dispersal has brought the establishment of many other synagogues but The Great and its busy program of services and activities is supported by its large loyal congregation and provides, together with the city churches of other denominations, a serene spiritual oasis in the midst of the bustling life of the city.

Since those days there have been a number of changes to the building. Until almost the end of his long ministry, AB Davis had no pulpit as such; he preached or perhaps declaimed from the top of the steps leading to the Ark. There was no centre block of seats; towards the back of the empty centre space stood the reading platform from which the service was conducted. In 1900 a brass pulpit was erected on the steps leading to the Ark, and then, in 1906, the reading platform was moved forward, combined with the pulpit and placed in its present position on the Ark steps. This enabled extra seating to be installed in the centre of the building, but it was a move away from the traditional pattern whereby the service arises from the midst of the congregation.

At first there was a flat apse above the Ark, and the choir sang from one of the galleries at the opposite (Elizabeth Street) end of the building. When the present choir gallery was constructed, the opportunity was taken to build a ministers' robing room beneath it.
The lighting of the building was originally gas, and the old gas taps are still visible on the light fittings around the walls and the four upright seven-branched candelabra flanking the Ark steps and the choir gallery. An interesting original feature of the light fittings hanging in front of the ladies' gallery is the six-pointed Star of David pattern that you see when looking up at them from beneath.

The gold-leaf stars on the ceiling were not there originally, but were introduced more than 70 years ago. Their purpose may have been to indicate that religion is a light and a lamp when the environment is dark and frightening.

It is not known why there were never any windows along the walls that run from Elizabeth towards Castlereagh Street. But there may be a significance in the fact that there are 12 recessed arches on the ground floor and in their gallery, reminiscent of the 12 tribes of ancient Israel. The stained glass windows at the two ends of the buildings are abstract; one window illustrating Jewish symbols was installed near the choir gallery, perhaps as the first of a series that was never completed. The wheel window remains an impressive sight, andconcrete spokes were added in the 1940s to give it strength and support.

The internal columns used to be adorned with intricate floral motifs which have long since been painted over. They were rediscovered in 1981 when the education centre beside the Synagogue was in process of construction. Stencils based on these old motifs were then used to decorate the Synagogue itself and the various floors of the new centre, providing a link between generations a century apart.

Beneath the building, excavations in the 1950s made it possible to construct a war memorial centre, auditorium and library. Then in the 1980s the education centre, erected between the Synagogue and Castlereagh Street and preserving the old Castlereagh Street façade, provided five floors for cultural, social and educational activity as well as modern offices, a Judaica shop, and a top-floor Sukkah or harvest tabernacle with a sliding roof.

On one side of the building is the Rabbi LA Falk Library, and the AM Rosenblum Jewish Museum is on the other - a pair of Jewish cultural partners. The features of the Synagogue itself express the threefold character of Jewish worship - community, study and prayer. In terms of community, the service involves the congregation jointly and severally at every stage; the cantor does not pray for them but, as it were, takes their prayer and co-ordinates it as an orchestrated offering to God. Stressing the community nature of Jewish prayer, public worship requires a quorum of at least ten males aged thirteen and over. And linking congregations everywhere, prayer is offered whilst facing Jerusalem the holy city.

The study aspect of the service looms large. The sacred scroll is used at all major services for the reading of scriptural lessons. A second reading from the prophetic or historical books of the Bible comes from a printed text, though some congregations use a second scroll for this purpose. And the sermon in a Synagogue is traditionally educational, because every Jew is deemed duty-bound to know and understand his faith.

The atmosphere of a spacious cathedral-like edifice, especially on great occasions, has been understood in Judaism from the time of the magnificent Temple in ancient Jerusalem onwards. But new ages bring new challenges, and congregational activities today deliberately endeavour to foster the feeling of fellowship and friendship that makes a congregation into a community, and enables it to become, in the words of the liturgy, "one united band doing God's will with a perfect heart".

Mon, 22 July 2024 16 Tammuz 5784