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Elwood Talmud Torah Congregation

39 Dickens Street, Elwood

Contributed by Yossi Aron

The Elwood Talmud Torah Hebrew Congregation has its origins in the expansion of Melbourne’s Jewish community prior to World War II and the post-Holocaust European immigration of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The congregation began with a private Minyan (prayer service) held in the home of Joseph Fisher from about 1932. In 1938 premises were found at 40 Mitford Street, where services were held and a part-time Talmud Torah school provided after school and Sunday morning instruction in the Jewish religion. As Jews fled their homelands in Central and Eastern Europe in the lead up to World War II and the impending catastrophe, many settled in Melbourne. Increased numbers put pressure on the facilities as well as making it clear that the congregation faced a solid future. At peak times, services took place in halls in Acland Street, St Kilda, and Hennessy Avenue, Elwood.

Permanent premises were acquired at 26 Avoca Avenue in 1942. The existing house was renovated to serve as a home for the congregation through the turbulent post-war years until the further increase in numbers led to another move. The house was used for prayer services as well as for a Talmud Torah (part-time religious school) that grew to become one of Melbourne’s largest. The building was later sold and became a Scout Hall and remains as such to this day.

In the early 1950s President Abe Sicree realised that the congregation had outgrown the Avoca Avenue premises. Independently he decided to buy the current site of the congregation at 39 Dickens Street with the intention of ensuring the congregation has sufficient room for synagogue, school and communal hall. The foundation stone was laid on 26 February 1956 by past president Aaron Cohen JP in the presence of the then president S. Gandel. Mr Popper was the architect. The building was completed and opened in September 1957, in time for the High Holidays. The following year Rabbi Chaim Gutnick arrived and is still serving as Chief Minister in 2002. Cantor Avraham Adler was also appointed in 1958. He was succeeded by Cantors Natan Mittelman and Yitzchak Levi.

In the early 1950s there was increasing interest in the Jewish community in day schools rather than part-time Jewish education. For many years the congregation had hosted a Jewish kindergarten. Now, administration of Moriah College, founded in 1954, would become an intrinsic part of the congregational activities reflecting the concern for education of future generations. The foundation stone for the college adjoining the synagogue was laid on 4 December 1960 by S. Hamery. Though the college has ceased to exist as a separate entity, congregational support for Jewish education continues. The school building, complementing the Leo and Frances Lawrence kindergarten complex at the rear of the premises, was subsequently taken over by Mt Scopus College and more recently used by the Yesodeo Hatorah school.

The synagogue was originally designed to hold 427 men and 213 women. The imbalance, which reflected social attitudes at the time of construction, was typical of many congregations but soon proved inappropriate in light of changing attitudes. In addition, membership had again grown. Accordingly, during the presidency of Mottel Roth in 1973 a major expansion of the building was undertaken. Works carried out by L. U. Simons to enlarge the complex included raising the roof, the addition of further women’s gallery space and reorientation of the direction of the synagogue. The reconstructed building, now able to seat 538 men and 530 women, was dedicated on 16 September 1973. The foundation stone for a new communal hall, named Daniel and Tola Karafka Hall, was laid by B. Rosenwacg on 28 March 1980.

 The design of the synagogue is typical of post-war Orthodox synagogues, including (three) separate upstairs ladies’ galleries. Features of the building include the Aron Kodesh (holy Ark housing Torah scrolls) and its accompanying stage, including seating for the rabbi and officials. The stained-glass windows depict festival motifs and were designed by Adele Shaw. The minor chapel at the rear includes the reference library of religious tomes and has been dedicated to the memory of a long-serving communal official and teacher, the Reverend Haim Yoffe.