Beth El Synagogue and the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation

A decision had been made.

It was time for Hyam Edward Nathan to give up his seat.

The members of Christchurch’s Jewish community, who arrived at the New Year service on 13 September 1882, knew to expect trouble when they saw that Nathan was already sitting in his self-appointed seat, B29.

The issue of Nathan assigning himself this seat had been raised at a recent meeting of the officers of the synagogue. Nathan, who had been present at the meeting, challenged the others to force him to give up his seat.

The seating of the synagogue, which opened only a year earlier, had been allocated by subscription, with the prime seats in sections A and B costing 3 shillings and 2 shillings a week. Seating in the C section was not allotted, due to the low number of applicants, and despite the free seating available, Nathan had taken it upon himself to sit in the lowest ranking seat of section B. Yet his free occupation of B29 had not gone unnoticed. Since 13 September was a holiday, it was important for the proper seat allocation to be followed, as B29 had been assigned to another member of the congregation.

Charles Louisson, the synagogue treasuer, took it upon himself to deal with the stubborn Nathan. After the ordinary services had finished, he approached Nathan and quietly pointed out that the seat had been reserved. Nathan was then ordered to vacate the seat by Maurice Harris, the synagogue president. Realising the matter would not be so easily settled, Constable Costin was summoned but upon arriving the policeman refused to become involved. Nathan then boldly stated he would not leave unless he was carried out. In response, Harris grabbed Nathan by the collar and with the assistance of Louisson, removed him from the seat and from the synagogue altogether.

Nathan would later take the matter to court, alleging that Harris and Louisson had assaulted him. However, the judge ruled in favour of the latter, showing that as they were officers of the synagogue, and since Nathan had no legal right to the seat, he had been in the wrong.

Beth El Synagogue, Christchurch [1906]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 4, IMG0008

The Canterbury Hebrew Congregation

The founding a Jewish congregation in Christchurch, the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation, was first initiated in 1864, following a meeting held on 12 January at the High Street offices of auctioneer, Louis Edward Nathan (not to be confused with Hyam). Attending was Hyam Marks, Maurice Harris, E. Phillips, Marcus Sandstein, David Davis, Henry Moss, and S.M. Solomon. Gifted a plot of land on Gloucester Street by the government, the congregation built its first synagogue in 1864. To ensure the orthodoxy of their practice, traditional ritual items were sourced from various locations including a shofar (horn), ketubah (prenuptial agreement), and a mezuzah (prayers affixed to a door) from Melbourne, a Sefer Torah (scroll of Jewish law) from London, a lulav (enclosed date palm fronds) and matzah (unleavened bread) from Sydney, and an ethrog (citrus fruit) from the Holy Land.

While there were around thirty five prominent Jewish families in Christchurch at this time, many would soon depart for the West Coast to open businesses on the goldfields.

With the conclusion of the gold rush in 1870, many of these families returned to Christchurch. While majority of the early Jewish settlers in Christchurch were English Jews or Jews from Europe, they would soon appoint Isaac Zachariah, a Sephardic Jew from Baghdad, as their rabbi. Trained in Jerusalem, Zachariah had also served the Sassoon family in Bombay, India as a shohet (ritual butcher). After his time in India, he settled in Ballarat, Australia, before relocating to the Hokitika goldfields.

The wedding of Mr L P Hayman of Sydney to Mrs Lillie Marks, third daughter of Mr Maurice Harris of Christchurch at Beth El Synagogue, Gloucester Street, Christchurch [15 Oct. 1901]. File Reference CCL PhotoCD 15, IMG0087
Due to his eclectic background, Zachariah could speak not only Hebrew but Arabic, Hindi, and forms of Aramaic. He was often called upon to translate at court trials involving individuals who spoke the languages in which he was fluent. Despite adhering firmly to his own customs and traditional forms of dress, Zachariah was tolerant of other faiths, and often engaged with members of the Anglican community. He also oversaw the establishment of the Christchurch branch of the Anglo-Jewish Association, an organisation dedicated to promoting the rights of Jewish people in regions outside of the British Empire.

Although a traditionalist, Zachariah possessed a rebellious streak, and often clashed with the congregation’s presiding committee. He was known for disregarding their orders, and in one case, he pre-emptively foiled their plans to export frozen kosher meat by writing to the Chief Rabbi in England to receive confirmation that frozen meat could not be considered kosher.

Beth El Synagogue

It was during Zachariah’s tenure that the new synagogue, Beth El, was built to replace the original wooden synagogue. Designed by Thomas Stoddart Lambert, the foundation stone was laid on 8 February 1881, whereupon it was sprinkled with corn, wine, oil and herbs. The synagogue was officially consecrated on 15 November 1881. Presided over by Zachariah, the ceremony was also attended by Anglican officials, some of whom had learned Hebrew from Zachariah.

Landau carriages arrive with the wedding party at Beth El Synagogue, Christchurch [1901] File Reference CCL PhotoCD 6, IMG0079
The committee’s relationship with Zachariah deteriorated until he was eventually forced to resign. In 1889 he was replaced by Adolf Treitel Chodowski. Originally from Posen in Prussia, Chodowski had studied in Berlin before being admitted to the Jews’ College in London. Despite his popularity, the congregation could not afford to maintain his salary and he was forced to take up another position in Brisbane in 1894. The committee’s inability to provide a professional rabbi in the years that followed the departure of Chodowski eventually led them to allow Zachariah to return to the position. He would continue to serve the Jewish community in Christchurch until his death in 1906. He was buried in the Jewish section of Linwood Cemetery.

The Beth El synagogue would remain an iconic feature of Gloucester Street until it was demolished in 1987. In the following year a new synagogue was consecrated at 406 Durham Street. Although it suffered damage in the Canterbury earthquakes, it was repaired and reopened in 2013, where it continues to offer services every Shabbat.

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Haere ra Central Library on Gloucester Street

The future plans for the central city mean the Central Library is going to be demolished; we are saying goodbye.

Christchurch City Libraries began in 1859 as a Mechanics Institute collection in temporary premises in the then Town Hall in High Street. In 1863 the library moved to a wooden building on the corner of Hereford Street and Cambridge Terrace. The wooden building was replaced with a handsome brick building in 1901 and this was the Central Library until 1982.

The 4th incarnation of the Central Library – located on the corner of Gloucester Street and Oxford Terrace – opened on 11 January 1982. Warren and Mahoney were the architects and C. S. Luney the principal contractor. Governor-General the Hon. Sir David Beattie officially opened the building on 2 February 1982.

Here are some of the keen first people to arrive.
Customers entering library

I started going to the Central Library in Gloucester Street when I moved to Christchurch in the 1990s. I would toddle in once a week for my supply of CDs and books. Later on I was stoked to get a job at Central. I’ve got many good memories of all sorts of things:  talking with customers on the Popular desk on the ground floor, the neat views over Gloucester Street to Cathedral Square, great friends, staffroom chats, oohing and ahhing over new books and CDs and DVDS, breastfeeding my daughter in the sick room, listening to NZ Music Month concerts and author talks. In Central you really did feel part of town’s action and bustle. Central Library staff and customers were (and are) an awesome bunch.

Cover of Canterbury Public LibraryThe riverside land the library stands on is required for the planned Convention Centre. A new Central Library is to be built on a site bordered by Gloucester Street, Colombo Street and Cathedral Square.

We’d love you to share your memories and comments at the bottom of this post

Until we are back again in a new Central Library, enjoy our temporary Centrals – Central Library Peterborough, Central Library Tuam (until it closes on 1 November) and the upcoming Central Library Manchester.

More about the Central Library

Photos

There are lots more photos of the Central Library on Flickr.
Demolition in progress on the site for the new Central LibraryThe new Central Library nearing completionCentral Library
Literature Arts and Music DepartmentBody Festival 2008.Zinefest 09
Gay Maher and Mary Flatman cut the cakeCentral LibraryCraig Smith at the Central LibraryCentral Library

Come and test out the new Gloucester Street Reading Room

Saturday 20 April is the opening date for New Regent Street. Our mobile van will be nearby from 10am to 4pm, giving you a primo opportunity to test out the new Reading Room.

This neat Transitional Reading Room parklet on Gloucester Street is adjacent to the proposed new Central Library site.

It is a Christchurch City Council initiative and the oversized furniture has been designed by F3.

Reading RoomReading RoomReading Room

Reading Room

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Need a drink with that aftershock? – Image of the week

Serving a customer at Maling & Co. Ltd, 86 Gloucester Street. Circa 1960.

Serving a customer at Maling & Co. Ltd, 86 Gloucester Street

Do you have photos of Christchurch? We love donations.

Also contact us if you have any further information on any of the images. Want to see more? You can browse our collection.