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Temple Beth Israel

74-82 Alma Road, St Kilda

 This congregation is one of four progressive congregations that are members of the Victorian Union of Progressive Judaism.[1] In the 1920s, many Jewish congregations were seriously in decline in Victoria as older members died and were not replaced by younger members, who had perhaps married non-Jews or had drifted from their Jewish heritage. A letter to the Australian Jewish Herald in the early 1930s stated the synagogues were empty and the honorary offices ‘mere figureheads’. Australian synagogue services were ‘colourless, monotonous, tiring and unintelligible’.[2] There was also some who criticised the conservatism of the practices of segregating the sexes and denying women the right to be voting members.

In 1930 Ada Phillips, the widow of solicitor Abraham Phillips, established the first successful Liberal congregation in Australia, which is now known as Temple Beth. Two years previously, she had attended services at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, founded in 1910. Impressed by its liturgy and principles, and its rabbi, Israel Mattuck, she saw this as a means of keeping her own family within Judaism as well as making Judaism more relevant and helping its survival in Victoria. She was assisted by her daughters Isabella, a physician, and Millie, and five others.

The fledgling congregation was subsidised by the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which also selected an American Reform rabbi for the congregation. Granted six months’ leave from his temple, Jerome Mark remained at St Kilda for three years. Services were held on Saturday and Sunday mornings at Wickcliffe House on the St Kilda Esplanade. Services were shorter than Orthodox ones, an organ accompanied the choir, men and women sat together, women had equal rights, including joining the Board of Management, converts were accepted, head covering was optional for men except the rabbi and the rabbi sat on the Board and was fully involved in administration. At the end of the first year there were 110 members and sixty children. Although Mark asserted he had not come ‘to fight or make trouble’ and that he wanted to cooperate with other Jewish ministers, the Orthodox communities were antagonistic. Rabbi Danglow from the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation condemned the new movement as ‘a mutation of Judaism, specially compounded and flavoured to tickle the palates of religiously languid Jews’.[3]

Mark left in 1933 and was replaced by a Canadian, Perry Nussbaum, who stayed only eight months. Another Canadian rabbi, Martin Perelmutter, was appointed. By 1936 he had left and the seed funding had ceased the year before. With fewer than one hundred members, the congregation faced collapse but decided to appoint one last rabbi. Rabbi Doctor Herman Sanger arrived in Melbourne in August 1936. He had been inducted as rabbi of the Berlin community on 1 April 1933. Described as a gifted linguist and speaker, this seventh-generation rabbi and progressive Jew proved to be the ‘right man at the right place at the right time’.[4] When he arrived, the congregation was holding services in the Christ Church hall. Rabbi Sanger vowed: ‘As I stood at that rickety little pulpit ... I promised myself ... that I would build my future synagogue somehow in the image of the one I had left in Berlin’.[5]

Land was bought in Alma Road in August 1936 and on Sunday 11 July 1937 the foundation stone was laid by Sir Isaac Isaacs. He had recently completed his time as Australia’s first Jewish Governor-General from 1931 to 1936, and had previously been Attorney General, the federal member for Indi in the House of Representatives and a High Court Justice. A sombre element during the ceremony to begin the building was Rabbi Sanger’s announcement that the Jewish community of Berlin would send three of its precious Torah scrolls to the new congregation, tacitly acknowledging the potential danger if they remained in Berlin.

German and Austrian migrants were attracted to St Kilda East by the cheap rental accommodation. Those who had belonged to Reform congregations in Europe were attracted to Sanger’s congregation. In contrast to Danglow, Sanger passionately supported Zionism, seeking an independent state for Jews in Palestine. By 1941 there were 500 members. Herman Schildberger had come from Berlin to be the musical director, which also enhanced the appeal of Temple Beth. Lack of space forced a move to the St Kilda Town Hall for the High Holidays and at the end of the war there were 1600 people attending.

Sanger pioneered better interactions between Jewish and Christian inter-faith work in Victoria and this was developed by his successor. A great-grandson of Nathaniel Levi, who was a businessman, politician and the first Jewish member of the Victorian Parliament, Rabbi John Levi was the first Australian-born rabbi to serve a congregation in Australia. With Rabbi Lubofsky from the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation, they joined Christian leaders to foster Jewish-Christian relations.

By the mid 1980s Temple Beth was the largest Jewish congregation in Victoria. It has continued to grow and in 2003 is the largest Jewish congregation in Australia. In addition to the synagogue there is the Herman Sanger Centre, Slome Hall and the King David School on the site.


[1]     This account is largely based on the website for Temple Beth Israel: www.tbi.org.au

[2]     Ibid.

[3]     Jewish Herald, 16 October 1930, cited in Rubinstein, The Jews in Victoria. I am indebted to Rubinstein for this account of the formation of Temple Beth Israel. See: pp. 148-50 and 249-50.

[4]     http://www.tbi.org.au

[5]     Rubinstein, The Jews in Victoria, p. 179.