“A BEACON of worship, dedication and intellectual faith in NSW’s Jewish community,” is how NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian poignantly described The Great Synagogue – often considered “the mother congregation of Australian Jewry” – at the shule’s momentous 140th anniversary service.
Though last Saturday’s occasion officially marks the mighty milestone, it also celebrated Jewish presence in Australia stretching back to 1788, when around 16 Jews arrived on the First Fleet.
Governor of NSW David Hurley commented, “The 140th anniversary of The Great Synagogue takes me back to 1878 – of course it was the centenary of the founding of the new colony of NSW … The Jewish community had grown to a point where creating a synagogue of this scale was warranted.”
Magnificently placed in the heart of Sydney’s CBD, The Great Synagogue is a historic symbol of Jewish pride. “This wonderful shule overlooks the war memorial in Hyde Park, prompting us to recall the sacrifice that Jewish people have made,” said Berejiklian.
Also paying homage to Australian Jewry and the synagogue’s history was shule president Stephen Rothman, who remarked, “We should use this occasion to pay tribute to those that survived [the Holocaust] and those that did not survive.”
The long-lasting ties that many in the Sydney Jewish community have to The Great were reflected in the acknowledgement of country delivered by federal MP Julian Leeser, whose parents, grandparents, and some of his great-grandparents were married at the shule.
While founded on Orthodox principles, chief minister of The Great Synagogue Rabbi Dr Benjamin Elton insisted it serves as a welcoming sanctuary for all Jews.
“We are committed to classic Jewish belief and law,” he said. “But we do not approach them simplistically or with narrow minds … Our faith is combined with acceptance, inclusivity, a rejection of judgmentalism, to make everyone feel at home and valued.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was unable to attend the service, but communicated a message to those at the celebration. “Like so many Sydneysiders, I have often marvelled at the synagogue’s unique and richly crafted architecture, reflecting in precious metalwork, glass and stone a place as beautiful as the inner life you seek,” Turnbull said.
Similarly, Commonwealth Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis sent a message honouring the shule’s proud past and rich present.
“It is rare to find a synagogue, founded in the 1800s and on its original site, still thriving, indeed growing and becoming yet more vibrant and full of enthusiasm for Jewish life,” he said.