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Australian Jewish community and culture

York Street Synagogue, Sydney

Sydney's burgeoning Hebrew congregation quickly outgrew the rented premises at Bridge Street. A circular was sent to members of the congregation in 1839, and the proposal to raise funds for a new synagogue quickly gained momentum. The Sydney Hebrew Congregation purchased a small block of land on York Street, not far from the present location of the Sydney Town Hall.

The foundation stone for the Sydney Synagogue was laid on 19 April 1842, and work commenced on an attractive building designed by James Hume in the Egyptian style. Two Tasmanian synagogues that remain standing today – one in Hobart and the other in Launceston – were designed in a similar style to that of the York Street building. The Sydney Synagogue continued to offer a full range of services to its congregation throughout the construction phase of its new premises.

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The Sydney Synagogue was consecrated on 2 April 1844. Music for the service was specially written by noted composers J. H. Anderson and Isaac Nathan. The Australian hoped the new synagogue would 'long be a distinguishing ornament of Sydney'. The York Street building served Sydney’s Jewish community for 35 years. A split in 1859 saw part of the congregation break away to form a new congregation based in Macquarie Street. The split lasted almost 20 years, until the two congregations reunited to establish Sydney’s iconic Great Synagogue in 1878. 

Circular to the Members of the Faith of Israel, 1839

This is a key document in the foundation of the York Street Synagogue, the first permanent house of worship for Sydney's Jewish community. It states the Sydney Hebrew congregation's intentions to build a synagogue, school and residence, and to pay the regular expenses of a 'Minister of the Mosaic Religion'. The names of all those who have subscribed to the building fund are listed, along with details of how much money had been collected thus far. Finally, the document contained an appeal for further funding from members of the Jewish community, so that the dream of establishing and sustaining a synagogue could be realised.

The State Library's copy of the circular is from the Percy J. Marks Collection of Judaica. Samuel Benjamin, a merchant of Sydney and Goulburn who was on the building committee, was the grandfather of Percy Marks. It is thought that Samuel Benjamin owned this copy of the circular, and that Benjamin may have been responsible for the drawings on the back of the document.

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Marriage contract

In 1842, Mrs Hannah Polack, her 17-year-old daughter Miss Sarah Polack, and two sons were returning from a trip to England when they made the acquaintance of George Baron Goodman, a fellow passenger on the Eden. The shipboard meeting between Sarah and George quickly blossomed into a romance. On landing in Sydney, however, the couple struck opposition from Sarah's father, well-known Sydney emancipist auctioneer Abraham Polack. 

Polack's first objection was the difference in age between Sarah and her much older suitor. A pillar of the local Jewish community, Polack was also a staunch observer of the sabbath, while Goodman often worked at his photography business on Saturdays.

Sarah and George soon sought the assistance of Joel Samuel Polack, Abraham's business partner and brother, who was able to secure a 'special licence' for them to marry without  Sarah's father's consent. 

It seems, however, that Abraham relented - probably on condition that the couple married under Jewish rights - as the wedding ceremony eventually took place at the Polack family home on 4 January 1843.

This traditional Jewish wedding contract, or 'ketubbah', was drawn up for the signature of the groom and witnessed by the bride's uncle. The ketubbah is written on parchment in Hebrew with fine calligraphy and decorative scroll-like borders. It notes that a dowry of 100 pieces of silver was to be paid to the groom for the hand of Miss Sarah Polack, which was matched by the groom to make a total bride price of 200 silver 'zuzim' (a biblical currency amount). George Goodman, identified in the contract as Mr Gershon, had anglisied his name sometime prior to his arrival in Sydney.

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Samuel Elyard and the Jews of Sydney

Samuel Elyard (1817-1910) is remembered as a fine landscape painter. He had studied under Conrad Martens and John Skinner Prout, and in the late nineteenth century produced many very attractive views of the Shoalhaven River district. In the 1850s, he almost caused the downfall of the Jewish community in Sydney.

Samuel Elyard, ca. 1880-1895 / Albert Lomer & Co.

A staunch Protestant, Elyard suffered from delusions that had him believe he was variously prince of Israel, king of Australia, president of the Australian republic and the incarnation of the prophet Elijah. He worked obsessively towards both bringing about the fall of Catholicism and converting the Jews of Australia to Christianity. Elyard imported Hebrew type from England, enabling him to add Hebrew phrases to the documents he printed. He produced several petitions, some of which appear below, asking permission to preach in various churches, and especially in the Sydney (York Street) Synagogue. For reasons that are yet to be uncovered, Sydney's rabbi, the Reverend Herman Hoezel, and his wife Minnie signed several copies of Elyard's petition. In signing, both stipulated that their approval was granted only in relation to the Old Testament, and not to the New Testament. Nevertheless, their signing of Elyard's petitions created a sensation in Sydney's Jewish community. Before long, the services of Reverend Hoelzel - whose recruitment as Sydney's first official rabbi had taken several years - were terminated under much controversy.

Settling in the Shoalhaven district of New South Wales, Elyard developed into a brilliant artist. Right to the last, he retained his obsessions with converting Jews to Christianity. Aged well into his 80s, Elyard published his pamphlet Letters to a Jewess in 1897. Paradoxically, in 1910 - the year of his death - Samuel Elyard wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald, suggesting that the University of Sydney employ a professor to specialise in Hebrew language and culture.

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Australian Jewish community and culture is made possible through a partnership with the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce.