Tasmanian Synagogue Marks 150th Anniversary with a ‘twist’

Australia’s oldest continually functioning synagogue has marked its 150th anniversary.

One of the Hobart Synagogue’s attendants, Ikey Solomon, who was deported to Australia for his criminal activity, reportedly was the model for the villainous Jewish character “Fagin” in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.

In the novel, written from 1837 to 1838, Fagin is a corrupter of youth and receiver of stolen goods.

A series of lectures, concerts and debates were scheduled in connection with the anniversary of the Tasmanian synagogue. Religious leaders from Melbourne and Sydney conducted services for one of the world’s most isolated Jewish communities, perhaps the only Jewish community in the world that can blame its shrinking population on reforms to Great Britain’s penal code, which stopped Jewish convicts from coming to Tasmania.

The Tasmanian Jewish community has been consistently small, reaching close to 500 people late last century. The number then dropped to a handful, but rose to 250 as a result of post-World War II immigration.

Today, the Hobart Synagogue conducts both Orthodox and Reform services.

The synagogue, which opened in June 1845, still contain the “penal” pews for convicts, who were sent to Australia as punishment. The pews are separate from seating for free settlers.

Soon after the synagogue opened, the government ordered that “all prisoners of the Jewish persuasion” had to attend synagogue on Shabbat.

At the time, religious leaders wrote to the chief rabbi of London, asking whether a convict could be included as a member of a minyan and be called to read from the Torah.

Both the donor of the land for the synagogue and the building’s architect were convicts who remained in Australia after completing their sentences.

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