A little bit of South Africa in a Melbourne shul
“In the 1990s, this wave of immigration to Australia caused the Jewish community of Melbourne to swell to about 55 000. We do not have exact figures, as the many Holocaust survivors are reluctant to reveal their religion,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Riesenberg, spiritual leader of the Central Shul Chabad, Caulfield – colloquially known as the “South African Shul”.
The shul was the brainchild of Rabbi Riesenberg and former Johannesburger Ian Harris, who has lived in Australia for 28 years.
To test the market place, they placed an advertisement in the Australian Jewish News to meet at Harris’ home and explore the idea further.
The first service was held in a meeting room in the Caulfield Town Hall, which was soon filled to capacity. Within weeks, former South African Brett Kaye became honorary chazan and the first two High Holy Day services were held in the Beth Weizmann Community Centre.
The committee then arranged a lease with the ANZ Bank in the area, and, after running out of space, the next location was sharing a hall at Glen Eira College, nicknamed “Shul in a Box” as Harris and his family unpacked and packed the shul contents before and after every Shabbat.
Little time elapsed before it became apparent that the synagogue needed its own space. Harris approached congregants to become foundation members and the congregation acquired land at the Caulfield South Municipal Library.
Funds were raised for a permanent shul, which was opened officially on December 16, 2012. The building incorporates flowing South African planes similar to the outback in Australia and the interior, adorned with Jerusalem stone, is flooded with light – “symbolic of being a light unto the nations.
“We raised in excess of 5,25 million Australian dollars, mainly from young families, who accepted the obligation, in spite of the cost of sending their children to Jewish day schools and other commitments,” the rabbi said.
Former Capetonian Barry Barron, who immigrated to Melbourne 28 years ago with his wife and two daughters, serves on the building and finance committee.
“Most of us are former South Africans – our new chazan Rabbi Yedidya (Didi) Levin’s father is South African. The president is Phil Goodman. Building and finance committee chairman Earle Sacher was originally a member of the Tifereth Israel Synagogue, Schoonder Street, Vredehoek.
“There are 300 families who are members and the shul seats in excess of 750,” Barron said.
Rabbi Riesenberg, who was born in Vienna, came to Sydney as a child. He studied in New York and held a post in Yeshivah College in Melbourne before starting the Central Shul.
“Many of the South Africans who came to Melbourne settled originally in Doncaster but moved to Caulfield as it was easier to shlep the kids to and from the Jewish day schools.”
Melbourne has become an increasingly Jewish city with 10 Jewish day schools and 15 kosher restaurants. “Although they spend many of their summers in Cape Town, the expats don’t seem to display much nostalgia. They support Australia in rugby and cricket,” Rabbi Riesenberg said.
Yet the South African accents dominate and they seem to prefer to stick together in friendship and in worship.
Esther Bassin, from Rouxville, whose son, Leslie, his wife Arlene and their three children immigrated to Melbourne 15 years ago, often attends the shul on her visits to Caulfield.