History of the Jews in New Zealand

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As early as the 1820s, Jewish traders were among the shifting group of whalers, mariners, escaped convicts from Australia, and missionaries who explored New Zealand. The number of Jews was minute but included the intrepid Joel Samuel Polack, an English-born Jew whose father, a painter, had come from Amsterdam in the mid 1700s. Polack, himself an artist, used his outsider religious status set him apart from the wave of Christian missionaries then in NZ. His respect for the Maori people's language and culture earned him unique access and insights as a trader. Called "Porake" (Polack) or "Waewaeroa" (Long-legs), Polack was aware that more development would potentially harm native Maori culture[1]

On his return to England, Pollack wrote two vividly detailed books, with many of his own illustrations and woodcuts, about his 1831-37 travels in New Zealand. His books were a rallying cry for commercial development, specifically for flax production, which he believed was possible on a lucrative scale.[2]

The British government responded, and along with the speculative New Zealand Company,[3] among whose financial backers was the wealthy Anglo-Jewish Goldsmid family.[4] Betting (unsuccessfully, 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 blood and business ties[5] to the Mocatta & Goldsmid bank), along with two brothers, Solomon and Benjamin Levy, cabinet makers he employed, arrived on the ship Oriental in 1839, the first recognisably Jewish names in this early wave of New Zealand settlement.

Hort's business[6] and civic[7] 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.[8] Hort was a promoter of early Wellington civic affairs, Jewish and non-Jewish.[9]

Three Prime Ministers have had Jewish ancestry. Julius Vogel, who served twice during the 1870s, was the only Premier to practise Judaism. The current Prime Minister, John Key, was born to a Jewish mother and is thus considered Jewish under Halakha, though he is not practising. The mother of Francis Bell (who was PM briefly during 1925) was Jewish, but converted to Christianity.

Economic factors in early Anglo-Jewish emigration[edit]

Hort's father, Abraham Hort Senior[10] saw New Zealand as a possible haven for impoverished English Jews and a potential refuge for oppressed Jews of eastern Europe and elsewhere.[11] The Jews' Hospital (Neveh zedak, which was largely funded by the Goldsmid family[12]) sponsored two Jewish women to emigrate in 1841 on the ship, "the 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.

Clockwise from top left Elizabeth Levy, her brother, Benjamin Levy, and Esther Solomon. Benjamin and Esther's wedding certificate is pictured below

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 in a severe economic downturn in the 1830s and "Hungry Forties."[13] 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.[14] Among the promises of emigration for Jews was that the lack of manpower would level the ethnic playing field[15] 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 first Jewish ceremonies: Auckland and Wellington[edit]

Marriage Contract of Esther Solomon and Benjamin Levy, Wellington, 1 June 1842

The first Jewish ceremony in New Zealand was the marriage of businessman David Nathan to Rosetta Aaron, the widow of a sea captain who had died on the journey to New Zealand. The marriage took place in the fall of 1841, in Auckland. Among the invited guests were 200 British military officers stationed at Auckland[16] The second, the marriage of Esther Solomon and Benjamin Levy was on 1 June 1842 in Wellington, New Zealand, according to the "chalitsa' contract in Hebrew, witnessed by Alfred Hort (another of Abraham Hort Senior's sons)[17] 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.[18]

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 alternately 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 grooms 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.

"...An established congregation"[edit]

In early 1843, Abraham Hort, Sr. arrived in Wellington with his wife, Ann Joachim,[19] 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 a 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 the Benjamin and Esther's first child, Henry Emanuel Levy,[20] 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 pictured excerpted below, was "as fine as any in any established 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.

1843 Abraham Hort letter, Jewish Chronicle, London

Acting on behalf of the community, he 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.[21]

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.[22]

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 conjure 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.

Isolation, intermarriage and the loosening of traditional bonds[edit]

A Maori massacre,[23] 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,[24] 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 (Sepahrdic) 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.[25] 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[edit]

Elizabeth's moves 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.[26] 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.[27]

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).

A Jewish cemetery in Auckland, founded in the mid-nineteenth century.

Later Jewish emigration, Jewish refugees, and the problem of "white" New Zealand[edit]

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.[28] Some have attributed this xenophobia to New Zealand's geographic isolation at the time, to fear of economic competition, to the dilution of a perceived "white" culture.[29][30][31]

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.[32] 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. In the immediate post war years, the armed Jewish struggle against the British in Palestine was another source of friction in allowing Jewish refugees to settle, although Anglo-Jewish families emigrating from England in the post war years were able to emigrate in larger numbers.[citation needed]

More recently, Jewish immigrants have come from South Africa, Israel, and the former Soviet Union.

More recent events[edit]

Moriah School, the city's only Jewish day school was opened in Wellington in 1985. In 2012, it was announced that it would be closing by the end of the year due to lack of funds and declining enrolment.[33]

In 2004, New Zealand was rocked by several bouts of anti-Jewish vandalism, in which scores of Jewish graves, including historic graves of the earliest Jewish settlers, were smashed, spray painted with swastikas and other anti-semitic messages.[34] The New Zealand Parliament responded rapidly to condemn the actions.[35]

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 it banned. 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.[36]

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.[37]


The 2006 census data gives 6,858 people identifing as having a Jewish affiliation, out of the total New Zealand population of 4 million.[38] Other estimations are around the number of 10,000 Jewish people.[39] In 2012 a book titled "Jewish Lives in New Zealand" contained a claim that there are more than 20,000 Jewish people currently in New Zealand, including non-practising Jews.[40] There are seven synagogues.[41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jocelyn Chisholm. 'Polack, Joel Samuel', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 30-Oct-2012 URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/1p18/polack-joel-samuel
  2. ^ Polack, Joel Samuel – Biography Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
  3. ^ Whitmore, Robbie. "The colonisation of New Zealand – First European arrivals". Retrieved 22 December 2012. 
  4. ^ "Goldsmid". Jewish Encyclopedia. The Kopelman Foundation. Retrieved 22 December 2012. 
  5. ^ Barend Ber Elieser Salomons Cohen-Kampen
  6. ^ Papers Past — New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator — 31 October 1840 — Page 2 Advertisements Column 1
  7. ^ "Papers Past – New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator – 13 February 1841 – TO HIS EXCELLENCY SIR GEO". Paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. Retrieved 2011-07-15. 
  8. ^ New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator, Volume 18, Issue 2, 18 April 1840, Page 3
  9. ^ "Papers Past – New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator – 5 December 1840 – COMMEMORATION of ST. ANDREW". Paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. Retrieved 2011-07-15. 
  10. ^ HORT, Abraham – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
  11. ^ Ill Treatment of the Jews in Prague
  12. ^ GOLDSMID – JewishEncyclopedia.com
  13. ^ http://www.victorianweb.org/science/health/hunger.html
  14. ^ Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture ... – Frank Felsenstein – Google Boeken
  15. ^ 1. 19th-century immigration – Jews – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
  16. ^ Nathan, David – BiographyTe Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
  17. ^ Person Details | Synagogue Scribes Jewish genealogy
  18. ^ Nathaniel William Levin
  19. ^ Person Details | Synagogue Scribes Jewish genealogy
  20. ^ http://www.bcarchives.gov.bc.ca/cgi-bin/www2i/.visual/img_med/dir_180/i_79115.gif
  21. ^ Papers Past — New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator — 10 June 1843 — To the Editor of the "New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator."
  22. ^ "WELLINGTON | north-island – International Jewish Cemetery Project". Iajgsjewishcemeteryproject.org. 24 July 2009. Retrieved 2011-07-15. 
  23. ^ THE CAMPAIGNS – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
  24. ^ Keith Johnson Wellington NZ: At every bazaar or sale-of-work she was a large contributor
  25. ^ "Papers Past – Marlborough Express – 31 October 1883 – DEATH-OF MR. SOL. LEVY". Paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. Retrieved 2011-07-15. 
  26. ^ Starr, Kevin and Orsi, Richard J. (eds.) (2000), pp. 53–56.
  27. ^ BC Archives Search Results
  28. ^ 2. 1881–1914: restrictions on Chinese and others – Immigration regulation – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
  29. ^ CHAPTER 18 — Aliens | NZETC
  30. ^ 3. 1914–1945: restrictions on non-British immigration – Immigration regulation – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
  31. ^ Further information – British and Irish immigration | NZHistory, New Zealand history online
  32. ^ Jewish refugees interned during the War
  33. ^ http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4275080,00.html
  34. ^ Cemetery vandalism shocks Wellington Jews – Israel News | Haaretz Daily Newspaper
  35. ^ New Zealand Parliament – Motions — Jewish Graves and Chapel, Wellington—Vandalism
  36. ^ Harper, Paul (29 November 2010). "Animal welfare groups slam shechita reversal". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 30 November 2010. 
  37. ^ AUCKLAND – NEW! Chabad House – Chabad House New Zealand
  38. ^ "Religious Affiliation (total response)". 2006 Census Data – QuickStats About Culture and Identity – Tables. 2006. Table 28. 
  39. ^ for example: http://www.jpost.com/Jewish-World/Jewish-News/Jewish-professor-receives-New-Zealand-Order-of-Merit
  40. ^ Leonard Bell, Diana Morrow. Jewish Jewish Lives in New Zealand A History
  41. ^ David Fickling, Attack on Jewish cemetery in NZ linked to passport plot, Guardian (July 16, 2004).

External links[edit]