History of the Jews in New Zealand
|Regions with significant populations|
|English, Hebrew, Yiddish|
This deals with the history of the Jews in New Zealand.
- 1 Joel Samuel Polack and Abraham Hort
- 2 Economic factors in early Anglo-Jewish emigration
- 3 The Trip to New Zealand
- 4 The first Jewish ceremonies
- 5 "....Exactly as in Any Well-Regulated Congregation"
- 6 Isolation, intermarriage and the loosening of traditional bonds
- 7 Gold Rush: The exodus of the earliest Jews
- 8 Later Jewish emigration, Jewish refugees, and the problem of "white" New Zealand
- 9 Establishment of Synagogues
- 10 More recent events
- 11 Demographics
- 12 See also
- 13 References
- 14 External links
Joel Samuel Polack and Abraham Hort
Anglo-Jewish traders were among the whalers, missionaries and other Europeans who explored New Zealand in the earliest decades of the 1800s. Joel Samuel Polack, the best known and most influential of them, arrived in 1831. Polack, an English-born Jew whose father, a painter and engraver, had come from Amsterdam in the mid 1700s, was himself an artist. He opened a general store at Kororareka in the Bay of Islands where his respect for the Maori people's language and culture earned him unique access and insights as a trader.
On his return to England in 1837, he wrote two vividly documented books, with many of his own illustrations and woodcuts, about his 1831-37 travels in New Zealand. In addition to being entertaining travel guides to new tastes (hearts of palm, for example), sights and sounds (Maori tattoos, exotic birds), etc, his books were a rallying cry for commercial development, specifically for flax production which he believed was possible on a lucrative scale.
In 1838, in testimony to a House of Lords inquiry into the state of the islands of New Zealand, Polack warned that unorganised European settlement would destroy Māori culture, and advocated planned colonisation. The British government responded, along with the speculative New Zealand Company, among whose financial backers was the wealthy Anglo-Jewish Goldsmid family. Anticipating (wrongly, as it turned out, at least in the next few decades) that land would increase in value, they encouraged a flood of subsidised mostly English and Scottish emigrants.
Abraham Hort, Jr, related by family and business ties to the Mocatta & Goldsmid bank, arrived in Wellington on the barque Oriental on 31 January 1840 accompanied by two brothers he employed as cabinet makers, Solomon and Benjamin Levy. These were the first recognisably Jewish names in this early wave of New Zealand settlement.
Hort's business and civic leadership was quickly recognised in the new colony. Within months of his arrival he was elected one of the two constables for Wellington's fledgling police force. Hort was a promoter of early Wellington civic affairs, Jewish and non-Jewish.
Economic factors in early Anglo-Jewish emigration
Hort's father, Abraham Hort Senior saw New Zealand as a possible haven for impoverished English Jews and a potential refuge for oppressed Jews of eastern Europe and elsewhere. The Jews' Hospital (Neveh zedak), which was largely funded by the Goldsmid family, sponsored two Jewish women to emigrate in 1841 on the barque Birman: Elizabeth Levy, (sister of the Levy brothers), and Esther Solomon, who was being sent to marry one of the brothers. The three Levy siblings and Esther Solomon had all been under the care of the Jews' Hospital, the men having been trained as cabinet makers and the women as servants.
The Jews' Hospital, a Jewish response to Dickensian English Poor Law care, reserved its patronage for candidates whose families had been in England for at least three generations (in effect creating a caste system that favored Sephardic and early Dutch Jews over more recent and less assimilated Polish and German Jews) and whose families were connected to one of the major synagogues. "Inmates"—who were not necessarily fully orphaned—were voted in by the community and their care subsidised by contributions. Vocational training was limited to cabinet making or boot making. Since Christian masters would expect apprentices to work on the Jewish Sabbath, Jews had few other avenues open for more lucrative work, and this at a time when England was in a severe economic downturn in the 1830s and "Hungry Forties." Combined with the shoe-making or cabinetry training that was all the Jews' Hospital offered, this left even the "worthiest" poor of the Jewish community in need of subsidy just to go away. Bills allowing Jews more civil rights in England had been introduced and repeatedly voted down, and Jews in the 19th century continued to be portrayed with racist stereotypes. Among the promises of emigration for Jews was that the lack of manpower would level the ethnic playing field which turned out to be true, if one could survive the initial five month journey and succeeding hardships of those first years of the fledgling colony.
The Trip to New Zealand
"Pork and peas served out for the day...." Surgeon's Log of Barque, Birman, October, 1841
English Jews were not especially noted for their rigid religious observance, but the impossibility of maintaining a Kosher diet, or any healthy diet at all, for the five month trip from England to New Zealand is evident. Rations on the barque Birman consisted of barrel after barrel of preserved meat (pork alternating with beef), suet (some of it rancid), rice, potatoes, peas and flour. The surgeon's journal notes that weeks into the journey, several women had fits of hysteria from constipation which they were apparently too shy or modest to tell him about. It also notes that the emigrants were "mustered" on deck each Sunday (so he could inspect them for cleanliness) and encouraged to attend his reading of the "Divine [Christian] Service."
Two small but telling details of the relationship between these earliest New Zealand bound Jewish women and their neighbours may be explained by the diagram of their berths on the Birman in October, 1841. Elizabeth Levi(sic) and Esther Solomons(sic) are in the single women's section (far end of ship from single men). Immediately across from their section is the "female hospital" section. There were three berths which were almost continuously in use by women, before, during and after giving birth. Stephen and Harriet Penfield's family berth was third from the right of Esther Solomon's berth. Harriet gave birth on 11 November 1841 to the second of five babies born on the Birman and named the baby "Esther." This traditionally Jewish name may be evidence that Esther Solomon, then 17, assisted in Mrs Penfield's care. By Nov 24th, 13-year-old Jane "Harvie" (Harvey), whose berth was adjacent to that of Elizabeth and Esther, was "rather unwell with symptoms of dysentery" which the surgeon hoped would not break out on the ship. Days later, Mrs. Penfield's 1 year old daughter died, one of 12 deaths during the journey, of which 11 were children under the age of three. Jane Harvey recovered, and at 14 married Elizabeth's brother Solomon Levy, becoming a sister-in-law to both Elizabeth and Esther, who would soon be married to Elizabeth's brother Benjamin. The need for survival brought religious strangers quite literally into the most intimate matters of life and death.
The first Jewish ceremonies
The first Jewish ceremony in New Zealand was the marriage of businessman David Nathan to Rosetta Aarons, the widow of Captain Michael Aarons, on 31 October 1841. The second, the marriage of Esther Solomon and Benjamin Levy was on 1 June 1842 in Wellington, according to the Ketubah (marriage certificate, pictured at right) and the chalitsa contract in Hebrew, witnessed by Alfred Hort (another of Abraham Hort Senior's sons) and another early Jewish emigrant Nathaniel William Levin. Levin, for whom the town of Levin was later named, soon married Hort Senior's daughter, Jessy, further connecting the small group of early Wellington Jews.
Interestingly enough the contract, pictured at left, fell into disuse worldwide shortly afterwards. The contract deals with the Biblical requirement that the brother of the deceased either marry his widow, a procedure known as "yibum", levirate marriage, or alternatively the mutual obligation can be dissolved by the procedure called chalitsa. Sometimes unscrupulous men would demand payment before agreeing to the procedure. In this document which was usually signed prenuptially the groom's brother is agreeing that if his brother dies childless he will agree to the chalitsa procedure forthwith and without demanding payment. He further agrees that if he delays he will support his former sister-in-law until the chalitsa is done.
The document on the right is the actual marriage certificate. The signatures of the bride, groom and witnesses are identical to the "contract" on the left, except that Esther, the bride, signed her first name with a lower case "e," contrasting with her husband's relatively polished signatures in both documents.
"....Exactly as in Any Well-Regulated Congregation"
In early 1843, Abraham Hort, Sr. arrived in Wellington with his wife Ann Joachim and their other children, and set about organising and promoting the Jewish community, with the approval of London's Chief Rabbi. Hort brought with him David Isaacs, also an alumnus of the Jews' Hospital (which, not in-coincidentally, was supported by Asher Goldschmid, his wife's brother). Isaacs served as Mohel (to perform circumcisions), shochet (kosher butcher) and chazan (Cantor/lay leader for services). The first religious service was performed soon after, on January 7, 1843. A few months later, the new community celebrated the birth of Benjamin and Esther's first child, Henry Emanuel Levy, which he documented in a series of letters sent to The Jewish Chronicle (the premier London Jewish newspaper of the time). The Brit Milah (circumcision ceremony) he wrote to the London Jewish community in the letter excerpt pictured right, was exactly as any in any "well regulated congregation," a choice of words that was oddly revealing, but doomed. Jews in New Zealand, as in many Anglo outposts, would forge their own practice of Judaism, if they chose to practice at all.
Acting on behalf of the community, Hort requested a plot of land for a synagogue and a plot of land for Jewish burials, offering himself as one of the trustees. The request was originally denied, the government responding that it didn't have the authority.
The death of the Levy's second son at the age of about 8 months in 1845 was, Hort wrote to the Chronicle, "our first Jewish corpse" and the "first Jewish burial" in the new Jewish cemetery, pictured right.
Throughout the early 1840s, Hort's letters to the London Jewish Chronicle and the Voice of Jacob reveal not only the difficulty of maintaining a Jewish community that could barely muster a minyan with the demands of making a living, complaining how few Jewish shopkeepers respected the sabbath by closing their doors, let alone by celebrating Jewish holidays properly. While the very first Jewish ceremonies highlighted the "correct" forms of Orthodox religious practice (e.g., the brother of the groom offering to marry the bride if the groom died), keeping the Sabbath, circumcision, proper burial of the Jewish dead, the Jews available to carry on the rituals could not survive the barebones realities of New Zealand: Solomon Levy, who helped found the synagogue in Wellington, and who taught children Hebrew, married a non Jew in NZ, as did his sister, Betsy. Esther Solomon Levy, whose family was poor but exemplified Jewish rectitude, was a widow with seven children after her husband died near Panama in 1853, throwing her back onto the London Jewish charities that had hoped New Zealand would be a bright start for her and her husband, as well as the Jews who would follow them. Settling down was antithetical to making a living, and the Anglo-Jewish emigrants of the mid nineteenth century were not necessarily staying, they were moving from one outpost to another, establishing congregations wherever they went, but not necessarily the same congregations they had left.
Isolation, intermarriage and the loosening of traditional bonds
A Maori massacre, the threat of forced militia service for all, and the extreme difficulty of making a living, took their toll on the small community. Isolation rapidly gave way to intermarriage. Solomon Levy,] quickly married Jane Harvey, the 14-year-old Christian shipmate of Esther Solomon and Elizabeth Levy (Esther named her first daughter "Jane" shortly after leaving NZ, possibly after her sister in law. If so, it was a departure from traditional Jewish naming patterns: Both Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews traditionally named children after relatives, living (Sephardic) or deceased (Ashkenazi). Although only one of his 8 surviving children chose Judaism as a religion, Solomon Levy helped found the first Wellington Synagogue and taught Hebrew to Jewish children for many years. Elizabeth Levy married a George William Watson in a civil ceremony in 1843. "Mrs. Watson" and the Levy family are recorded as leaving Wellington for Sydney in 1845 on the ship, "Sisters." When they returned to Wellington in 1848, she re-emerged as "Miss Levy," after which, she left New Zealand. Her second husband, David Hart, was a founding member of the Victoria, British Columbia Jewish community in 1862, serving as Vice-President of the congregation. Elizabeth Levy Watson Hart may or may not have been the first Jewish woman to marry a non Jewish man in New Zealand, but a civil marriage to an apparently non-Jewish man that ended with her reverting to her maiden name five years later hints at a culture less rigidly traditional than Anglo-Jewry would have allowed, circa 1848.
Gold Rush: The exodus of the earliest Jews
Elizabeth's moves were followed by many in the Jewish community: Jews who had first come and gone to the 1840s gold strikes in Australia were now drawn to the California Gold Rush. This 1849–1850 exodus of early New Zealand Jewish settlers included Benjamin Levy, Abraham Hort, Jr. and Joel Samuel Pollack, who would not necessarily be panning for gold, but would be continuing their work as "dealers" of supplies needed, an age-old Jewish occupation, and one which their fathers and grandfathers had followed to supply the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. For many Jewish emigrants, the stay in New Zealand, though brief, was an indelible adventure, and travel from the West Coast back to New Zealand was something of a rite of passage for those on the North West Coast who had grown up hearing about New Zealand, and the relatives still living there, as Maori objects as far flung as those in the Victoria, B.C. Municipal Archives attest.
For the Jews who remained, gold rushes in New Zealand in the 1860s, the Central Otago Gold Rush from 1861 and the West Coast Gold Rush from 1864 shifted their businesses from centres like Auckland and Wellington to new towns and (like Sir Julius Vogel) to Dunedin in the South Island, where new congregations were started (and in some cases, waned when the economic boom ended).
Later Jewish emigration, Jewish refugees, and the problem of "white" New Zealand
In addition to this first wave of Anglo-Jewish immigration circa 1840–60, German Jews were drawn to Gold strikes in the 1860s and after. The first Jews, who were proudly "English" and the early German Jews were seen as "white." They were able to fully participate in civic life in New Zealand at all levels decades before Jews in England were finally free to.
However, restrictions were instituted in 1881 that effectively closed off immigration to immigrants who were not from England, Ireland, or Scotland, who were Asian, or any other culture deemed too foreign (a category which also included eastern European Jews). New Zealand, like Australia, had struggled with its white, Christian identity. Some have attributed this attitude to New Zealand's geographic isolation at the time, to fear of economic competition, to the dilution of a perceived "white" culture.
As a result, few Jews were granted refuge in New Zealand before, during and after the Holocaust. First called "enemy aliens" because of their German nationality, popular sentiment suggested that they leave as soon as the war was over, as they were competing with New Zealanders for work. A major veterans group in 1945 suggested that not only should the "enemy aliens" go back where they came from, but that any money they had made during their stay should be turned over to the wives and children of the soldiers, who had risked their lives while the Jews stayed safely in New Zealand.
Establishment of Synagogues
The Canterbury Hebrew Congregation obtained funds in 1863 to build a small wooden synagogue on a block of land between Worcester and Gloucester Streets in Christchurch. The next synagogue was built on the same site and opened in 1881.
The first synagogue in Wellington was Beth El, established in 1870 at 222 The Terrace. By the 1920s, this wooden building with a capacity of 200 was too small for the city's 1400 participants and a new brick building was built on the same site and opened in 1929. The site was required to be vacated for motorway construction in 1963, and a new Wellington Jewish Community Centre was opened at 74-80 Webb Street in 1977.
In Auckland, a synagogue building was designed in 1884-85 and opened on 9 November 1885. The building still stands at 19A Princes Street, has heritage protection, and is known as the Old Synagogue. The community moved to larger premises at Greys Avenue in 1967.
Three early synagogues at Nelson, Hokitika, and Timaru are no longer in existence. Hokitika's synagogue, which served the boom and bust Gold Rush Jewish population, was virtually abandoned for the last decades of the 19th century and was known as "the Ghost Synagogue." 
More recent events
In 2004, New Zealand was rocked by several bouts of anti-Jewish vandalism in which scores of Jewish graves, including Solomon Levy's and other historic early Jewish graves, were smashed and spray painted with swastikas and other anti-semitic messages. The New Zealand Parliament responded rapidly to condemn the actions.
Solomon Levy's grave was restored by the City of Wellington and re-consecrated in 2005.
In 2010 the practice of shechita, the ritual slaughter of mammals and birds, attracted controversy when the Minister of Agriculture reversed a decision that had banned it. The issue was about to be heard in the High Court but pressure from Jewish community members who wanted to slaughter poultry in the traditional manner promoted the move.
In recent years a small but growing Chabad movement has been established in several cities, including Otago and Auckland. The Chabad house in Christchurch was destroyed in the 2011 earthquake that hit New Zealand. International Jewish fundraising efforts helped the Chabad community to rebuild and continue their mission of strengthening Jewish religious observance.
In 1848, in New Zealand's total population of 16,000 there were known to be at least 61 Jews, 28 in Wellington and 33 in Auckland. The 2013 New Zealand Census data gives 6,867 people identifying as having a Jewish affiliation, out of the total New Zealand population of 4.5 million. Other estimations are around the number of 10,000 Jewish people. In 2012 a book titled "Jewish Lives in New Zealand" claimed that there are more than 20,000 Jewish people currently in New Zealand, including non-practising Jews. There are seven synagogues.
Three Prime Ministers have Jewish ancestry, although only Julius Vogel, who served twice during the 1870s, practised Judaism. Francis Bell was PM very briefly in 1925. The current Prime Minister, John Key, was born to an Austrian Jewish mother and is thus considered Jewish under Halakha, though he is not practising.
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