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Beth El Synagogue

Beth El Synagogue, built in 1881, was situated at 78 Gloucester Street and served the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation until it was demolished in 1987.

Gloucester Street Synagogue
Gloucester Street Synagogue. © Christchurch Star

The founding of a Jewish congregation in Christchurch, the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation, was first initiated in 1863, following a meeting held on 12 January at the High Street offices of auctioneer, Louis Edward Nathan.

Attending were Hyam Marks, Maurice Harris, E. Phillips, Marcus Sandstein, David Davis, Henry Moss, and S.M. Solomon. Having purchased a plot of land on Gloucester Street, the congregation built its first synagogue in 1864.

To ensure the orthodoxy of their practice, traditional ritual items were sourced from various locations including a shofar (horn), ketubah (prenuptial agreement), and a mezuzah (prayers affixed to a door) from Melbourne, a Sefer Torah (scroll of Jewish law) from London, a lulav (enclosed date palm fronds) and matzah (unleavened bread) from Sydney, and an ethrog (citrus fruit) from the Holy Land.

While there were around thirty five prominent Jewish families in Christchurch at this time, many would soon depart for the West Coast to open businesses on the goldfields.

With the conclusion of the gold rush in 1870, many of these families returned to Christchurch. While the majority of the early Jewish settlers in Christchurch were English Jews or Jews from Europe, they would soon appoint Isaac Zachariah, a Sephardic Jew from Baghdad, as their rabbi. Trained in Jerusalem, Zachariah had also served the Sassoon family in Bombay, India as a shohet (ritual butcher). After his time in India, he settled in Ballarat, Australia, before relocating to the Hokitika goldfields.

It was during Zachariah’s tenure that the new synagogue, Beth El, was built to replace the original wooden synagogue. Designed by Thomas Stoddart Lambert, the foundation stone was laid on 8 February 1881, whereupon it was sprinkled with corn, wine, oil and herbs. The synagogue was officially consecrated on 15 November 1881. Presided over by Zachariah, the ceremony was also attended by Anglican officials, some of whom had learned Hebrew from Zachariah.

The Beth El Synagogue would remain an iconic feature of Gloucester Street until it was demolished in 1987. In the following year a new synagogue was consecrated at 406 Durham Street.

 

Beth El Synagogue on Gloucester Street