The Great Synagogue, Sydney
A debate in 1859 over the circumcision of a boy of a non-Jewish mother caused a split within Sydney’s Jewish community. Many of the founders of the Sydney Synagogue broke away, rented a former Baptist chapel on Macquarie Street, and established the Sydney New Synagogue. The Sydney Synagogue carried on in its York Street location, until the building could no longer house a growing Hebrew congregation. At that time, the Sydney New Synagogue was struggling financially. Both synagogues soon understood the futility of carrying on as separate congregations.
The Jewish Synagogue and Schools Act of 1872 gave the Sydney Synagogue permission to sell land it had previously been granted. This included land adjoining the York Street premises and a portion on Church Hill that had been designated for use as a school. The sales of these properties - and proceeds from the sale of properties bequeathed by congregation members Simon Lear and M. L. Jonas - most certainly aided the building of new premises on Elizabeth Street. One of the greatest contributions to the building fund came from a ‘fancy fair’ called the Hebrew Ladies’ Bazaar. The women of Sydney’s Jewish community hosted a very successful fair in December 1875, selling great quantities of handicrafts and gifts.
Thomas Rowe, a notable architect of Victorian-era Sydney, designed the iconic Great Synagogue building. It is situated opposite Hyde Park, on an impressive block that fronts both Elizabeth Street and Castlereagh Street.
Jews tend to live in close proximity to synagogues. Most Jews see driving as a form of work, and all forms of work are prohibited on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Therefore Jews tend to live within walking distance of the local synagogue. Changes to Sydney’s demography throughout the 20th century saw Jewish communities established in Sydney’s eastern and northern suburbs. Despite such changes, the Great Synagogue remains a vibrant and important congregation today, and is seen as a leader among the synagogues of New South Wales.