The history of New Zealand involves a Jewish participation from early times. Jewish traders were recorded here as early as 1829, and these were probably sealers and whalers. There were a number of Jewish shareholders in the New Zealand Company which was set up by Edward Gibbon Wakefield in London, England to settle the colony of Wellington, the most prominent one being the Director Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, Baronet (the first Jew to be given a knighthood).
The passenger lists of the N.Z. Company’s first four ships which anchored in the harbour ( near the city now known as Wellington) between 22nd January and 28th February 1840 revealed the names of three Jews on the barque “Oriental” named Abraham Hort (Jnr), Soloman Levy and Benjamin Levy, both carpenters. From then on a small number of Jews arrived in Wellington by their own choice. The first marriage was between Benjamin Levy and Esther Solomon and this was celebrated on the 1st June 1842. The Bolton Street Cemetery was opened in 1843 and a number of Wellington pioneer Jews are buried there, unfortunately also including the infant son of the Levys’.
In 1843 the grand patriach and recognised founder of the Wellington Jewish Community, Abraham Hort Senior arrived with his wife and four daughters. He had come with the sanction of the Chief Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, London. Abraham Hort brought with him in a religious capacity one David Isaacs who acted as a Shochet, Mohel and Chazan. This man also played an important part in the other Jewish Communities of Nelson and Dunedin. On 7th January 1843 the first Jewish service was held in Wellington and a little later a Brit Milah was held with a full Minyan.
Most of the early settlers in Wellington were traders of some kind or other and a number achieved prominence as they worked to help the young colony develop. In 1848 out of a total population at that time of just over 16,000 people in New Zealand there were 61 Jews of which 33 resided in Auckland and 28 in Wellington.
Nathaniel Levin who had established the firm of Levin and Company on Wellington’s Lambton Quay was one of the first to send wool from New Zealand. His son William Hort Levin was prominent in the commercial affairs of early Wellington, was the first Chairman of the Wellington Harbour Board, and the city of Levin, (about an hour’s drive on the main road north from Wellington) is named after him. Abraham Hort (Snr) was instrumental in the formation of the Wellington Fire Brigade among many other things. Most of the early Jews were involved in trading with warehouses and stores. Others were well known owners of hotels and some were in the business of auctioneering.
Sir Julius Vogel (1835-1899) whose economic genius and his daring Public Works Policy of the 1870’s speeded up the development of New Zealand was twice Premier, and lived for a time in Wellington in Tinakori Road. The third daughter of Abraham Hort, Margaret, married Sir Francis Dillon Bell. One of their sons Francis Henry Dillon Bell, became one of New Zealand’s most famous statesmen, becoming Mayor of Wellington and later Prime Minister for a time. Parliament was situated in Wellington and both these men were very active in the Capital City.
Prayers were held in private homes for a number of years. The Wellington community appointed Benjamin Aaron Selig in 1862 as Reader and Shochet , but his connection with the community was severed in 1866 and Jacob Frankel came up from Dunedin .It was his enthusiasm and zeal that was instrumental in the building of the first Synagogue Beth El in 1870 at 222 The Terrace. The Officiating Minister at the opening was D.M.Isaacs. At a meeting presided over by Mr J.Nathan, (later the founder of the famous world wide Glaxo Company, - now Glaxo-Klein), held on the 28th September 1873, the officers were elected, the first president being Mr B.Levy. The first three incumbent Ministers (the Rev. A.S.Levy, the Rev A. Myers of Hobart and Benjamin Levy) however did not remain long.
It was not until Joseph E. Nathan went to London in 1876 did the community appoint another. The Rev. Herman Van Staveren (1849-1930) was selected and what a choice that was as this distinguished gentleman served the congregation with distinction for over fifty years. His wife gave birth to four sons and nine daughters. The Government selected him as the first chairman of the Wellington Hospital Board and he topped the polls annually. He helped found Wellington Jewish Philanthropic Society and Chevra Kadisha and started the Wellington Hebrew School.
In 1875 a respected Jew named Judah Myers ,who had established a career as a crockery merchant in Motueka (just out of Nelson), shifted to Wellington. His son Michael (1873-1950) later attained the highest judicial post in the country becoming Chief Justice of New Zealand. In 1877 Jewish represenations were made in the House of Representatives by Samuel Edward Shrimski in regard to the Education Bill of that year. He and his wife are recorded seat holders at Beth El.
In 1892 the new Jewish Cemetery at Karori was concecrated with Wellington Hebrew Congregation Board of Management expressing “the hope that with the Almighty’s blessing that day may be far distant when the cemetery would be brought into use.” By 1894 a peak of sixty children were enrolled in Hebrew School. However Rabbi Van Staveren expressed disappointment that attendance there was lax.
In 1903 the Wellington Zionist Social Club was formed ,the aims being for the promotion of (among other things) “all Jewish social activities, including sports of all kinds, debating, smoke concerts, and the annual picnic. “ In 1929 The Jewish Social Club opened permanent premises at 86 Ghuznee Street Wellington.
This gentleman was engaged as Assistant Minister and Shochet in 1907. He was a fine Hebrew scholar with an extensive knowledge of Hebrew Law and spoke and wrote fluently some four or five languages.
In the late 1920’s the old wooden building which housed 200 congregants was becoming too small for the growing congregation in the Capital City (of about 1400 by 1925), and so it was decided to rebuild another Synagogue in brick on the same site. This new building was consecrated in September 1929 by officiating Ministers Rabbi H. Van Staveren and Rev. Ch. Pitkowsky.
Both Van Staveren and Pitkowsky unfortunately died within a fortnight of each other early in 1930 and soon after that Rabbi Soloman Katz , who had previously served the Auckland community, was engaged. Also the Rev S. Kantor voluntarily filled the gaps between appointments in an excellent manner.
With the severe deteriorating European conditions the community received a number of immigrants, among them many professional people. And then after the war, some, who thankfully escaped the Shoah, settled in Wellington. The middle to late 1940’s through to the 1960’s probably saw the greatest number of Jews living in Wellington numbering about 2,500.
Obtaining and maintaining spiritual leaders had now become more difficult, but the Community was thankful to appoint a number of high quality Ministers. Over the years saw among them the Rev.J.Wolman, Rev. B. Skolnick, Rev. Kustanovitz, Rabbi A.Rosenfeld, Rabbi I. Broder, Rev. M.Tavel, Rev. Y. Tomer, Rev. C.Dovrat, Rabbi L.Brown and Rabbi S. Zajac. At the time of (2004) the Wellington Hebrew Congregation has welcomed Rabbi Antony Lipman as sole minister.
Between 1959 and 1966 a building fund was inaugurated to provide better current facilities. In 1963 the Ministry of Works indicated that they would require the Beth El synagogue site on The Terrace for motorway development. Therefore property was acquired a little at a time and planning proceeded on the present spot at 74 - 80 Webb Street . 1974 saw the foundation stone of the Jewish Community Centre (which also then incorporated the Jewish Social Club) was laid by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld. Shortly after in 1977 the Wellington Jewish Community Centre was officially opened. This complex now houses the Beth El Synagogue, mikvah, Moriah Kindergarten, Moriah College (ages 5 to 13), the Wellington Jewish Social Club, Kosher Co-op, library and snooker tables, the Centre Office, the Myers Hall , Israel Information room and Zionist Society, Van Staveren Room and A.Rosenfeld library, Rabbi’s office and Care of the Aged Office. The monthly newspaper The Centre News is issued from the Centre. The Deckston Trust which built and ran their Kosher home for the aged in the Hutt Valley has now shifted their premises to Te Hopi which is situated at the back of the grounds of Wellington Hospital.
There are a considerable number committees committed to Jewish causes in Wellington. Some are: B’nei Akiva, Habonim, B’nei Brith, the Zionist Society, the Philanthropic Society, Wellington Care of the Aged, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hadassah, WIZO, Youth Aliya, Council of Jewish Women, Deckston Trust, Wellington Regional Jewish Council and the J.N.F.
Wellington Jewry has given sterling service to the arts ,local politics and service groups. Ian Lawrence was Mayor of Wellington City in the late 1980s and at the time of writing there are three Jewish Wellington City Councillors.
Despite its small numbers New Zealand Jewry ( 5,000 approximately with the majority in Wellington and Auckland at the time of writing ) has always given a strong commitment to non - Jewish causes which continues to this day. There has been prominent activity in industry and commerce, in the arts and journalism, local and central politics and in law and accountancy. Initially the first flush of immigrants came to Wellington from the United Kingdom, and then prior and after the two World Wars others came from Europe. In the 1970’s and 80’s when the Russian Government relaxed restrictions several hundred families were brought to Wellington by HIAS. Recently some Israeli families and a considerable number of arrivals from South Africa have settled in Wellington.