congregation is one of four progressive congregations that are members of
the Victorian Union of Progressive Judaism.
In the 1920s, many Jewish congregations were seriously in decline in
Victoria as older members died and were not replaced by younger members,
who had perhaps married non-Jews or had drifted from their Jewish
heritage. A letter to the Australian Jewish Herald in the early
1930s stated the synagogues were empty and the honorary offices ‘mere
figureheads’. Australian synagogue services were ‘colourless, monotonous,
tiring and unintelligible’.
There was also some who criticised the conservatism of the practices of
segregating the sexes and denying women the right to be voting members.
Ada Phillips, the widow of solicitor Abraham Phillips, established the
first successful Liberal congregation in Australia, which is now known as
Temple Beth. Two years previously, she had attended services at the
Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, founded in 1910. Impressed by its
liturgy and principles, and its rabbi, Israel Mattuck, she saw this as a
means of keeping her own family within Judaism as well as making Judaism
more relevant and helping its survival in Victoria. She was assisted by
her daughters Isabella, a physician, and Millie, and five others.
fledgling congregation was subsidised by the World Union for Progressive
Judaism, which also selected an American Reform rabbi for the
congregation. Granted six months’ leave from his temple, Jerome Mark
remained at St Kilda for three years. Services were held on Saturday and
Sunday mornings at Wickcliffe House on the St Kilda Esplanade. Services
were shorter than Orthodox ones, an organ accompanied the choir, men and
women sat together, women had equal rights, including joining the Board of
Management, converts were accepted, head covering was optional for men
except the rabbi and the rabbi sat on the Board and was fully involved in
administration. At the end of the first year there were 110 members and
sixty children. Although Mark asserted he had not come ‘to fight or make
trouble’ and that he wanted to cooperate with other Jewish ministers, the
Orthodox communities were antagonistic. Rabbi Danglow from the St Kilda
Hebrew Congregation condemned the new movement as ‘a mutation of Judaism,
specially compounded and flavoured to tickle the palates of religiously
in 1933 and was replaced by a Canadian, Perry Nussbaum, who stayed only
eight months. Another Canadian rabbi, Martin Perelmutter, was appointed.
By 1936 he had left and the seed funding had ceased the year before. With
fewer than one hundred members, the congregation faced collapse but
decided to appoint one last rabbi. Rabbi Doctor Herman Sanger arrived in
Melbourne in August 1936. He had been inducted as rabbi of the Berlin
community on 1 April 1933. Described as a gifted linguist and speaker,
this seventh-generation rabbi and progressive Jew proved to be the ‘right
man at the right place at the right time’.
When he arrived, the congregation was holding services in the Christ
Church hall. Rabbi Sanger vowed: ‘As I stood at that rickety little pulpit
... I promised myself ... that I would build my future synagogue somehow
in the image of the one I had left in Berlin’.
bought in Alma Road in August 1936 and on Sunday 11 July 1937 the
foundation stone was laid by Sir Isaac Isaacs. He had recently completed
his time as Australia’s first Jewish Governor-General from 1931 to 1936,
and had previously been Attorney General, the federal member for Indi in
the House of Representatives and a High Court Justice. A sombre element
during the ceremony to begin the building was Rabbi Sanger’s announcement
that the Jewish community of Berlin would send three of its precious Torah
scrolls to the new congregation, tacitly acknowledging the potential
danger if they remained in Berlin.
Austrian migrants were attracted to St Kilda East by the cheap rental
accommodation. Those who had belonged to Reform congregations in Europe
were attracted to Sanger’s congregation. In contrast to Danglow, Sanger
passionately supported Zionism, seeking an independent state for Jews in
Palestine. By 1941 there were 500 members. Herman Schildberger had come
from Berlin to be the musical director, which also enhanced the appeal of
Temple Beth. Lack of space forced a move to the St Kilda Town Hall for the
High Holidays and at the end of the war there were 1600 people attending.
pioneered better interactions between Jewish and Christian inter-faith
work in Victoria and this was developed by his successor. A great-grandson
of Nathaniel Levi, who was a businessman, politician and the first Jewish
member of the Victorian Parliament, Rabbi John Levi was the first
Australian-born rabbi to serve a congregation in Australia. With Rabbi
Lubofsky from the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation, they joined Christian
leaders to foster Jewish-Christian relations.
By the mid
1980s Temple Beth was the largest Jewish congregation in Victoria. It has
continued to grow and in 2003 is the largest Jewish congregation in
Australia. In addition to the synagogue there is the Herman Sanger Centre,
Slome Hall and the King David School on the site.
account is largely based on the website for Temple Beth Israel: