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    Northern Territory – the Jewish community that never was

    Presentation by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD to the Australian Jewish Historical Society (NSW Branch), on 8 February, 2010
    (Subsequently published in the
    Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society in June 2010, Vol. 19, Part 4.)

    In today’s Jewish world, Australia is a force to be reckoned with. It is the tenth largest Jewish community. Its history includes solid contributions to Israel and Judaism. Its representatives play a leading role in regional and world Jewish forums. Its Aliyah rate outstrips much larger communities. Its organisational structure is widely respected. Even though it has its problems, it is one of the bright spots on the world Jewish map. Yet when Israel and World Jewry think of Australia, they generally mean Melbourne and Sydney and possibly Perth. Hardly anyone outside Australia has an idea that there are communities in other cities, much less in areas outside the State capitals. No-one, even in Australia itself, knows of Jewish communal life in the Northern Territory – this time, not out of ignorance but because there simply is no community there. Jewish individuals and families, yes; occasionally a gathering for a Seder or other Jewish ceremony; but there is neither a synagogue nor a kehillah (congregation) and there never has been.

    What do Jews do if they want matzah or a mohel in Darwin, a prayer book or a Jewish newspaper? We will come to that, but first a little known story about an attempt to create not just a Jewish community but a Jewish colony in the Northern Territory. The episode, just over a hundred years ago, has been researched by a number of historians including the late Dr George Bergman, who devoted some of his historical articles in the Australian Jewish Times in the 1970s to the subject, but it deserves more attention in the general Australian histories. It is good material for a documentary film.

    The background is the following. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a time of great devastation and fear for Eastern European Jewry. The pogroms caused untold suffering to countless Jewish communities and eventually led to mass emigration which vastly increased the Jewish population of the United States, Britain and some other countries, and even brought Jews to far-off Australia – not entirely to the pleasure of the existing Jewish communities. Yes, Jews and non-Jews were indignant at the pogroms, attended protest meetings that were often chaired by the leading citizens, and donated to appeals to assist the victims of the Eastern European outrages, but few wanted Russian Jewish immigrants on their doorstep, partly out of fear that it might affect the stability and social acceptability – Rabbi Francis Lyon Cohen called it the “happy standing” (Hebrew Standard, 15 August, 1924) – of the established Jewish communities.

    Israel Zangwill

    Israel Zangwill

    The problem was in the forefront of discussion in the nascent political Zionist movement. There had to be a haven for Jews who could no longer stay in Eastern Europe. A non-Herzlian initiative was taken by Israel Zangwill, the Anglo-Jewish writer, who in 1905 founded ITO, the Jewish Territorial Organisation, seeking “to procure a Territory upon an autonomous basis for those Jews who cannot or will not remain in the lands in which they at present live.” Zangwill had previously been a supporter of political Zionism but broke with the movement over the Uganda issue. Where others insisted that the only possible homeland which Jews could contemplate was Palestine, Zangwill was not prepared to be so doctrinaire and was ready to accept a Jewish autonomous enclave wherever one could be established.

    Jews needed a homeland. Zangwill’s movement thought they had found one in Australia’s vast Northern Territory.

    The idea had its detractors in Australia but also its warm proponents, especially in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. The plan actually emanated from a non-Jewish member of the NSW Legislative Assembly, Dr Richard Arthur, president of the Immigration League of Australia, who linked three issues: finding sources of immigrants, settling sparsely populated areas of Australia, and alleviating the situation of Jews from lands of persecution. He was moved by humanitarian impulses but even more by Australia’s own needs. He argued that it would be in the interests of Australia to settle persecuted Russian Jews in the Northern Territory.

    His suggestion was that ITO should negotiate with the Commonwealth Government and, after investigating the area and proving its viability for the purpose, obtain a million-acre grant on one of the Northern Rivers. He was certain that the Immigration League would co-operate, though he added that “it must be understood that the people we want in Australia are those who will settle on the soil and become primary producers”.

    The NSW Zionist League was divided over the idea and called a general meeting at the Great Synagogue Chambers on 1 July, 1906. Rabbi Cohen, who had taken up office at the Synagogue the previous year and was wary of political Zionism, declined to attend because he feared that the scheme would become part of the program of the Zionist League, though before long he lent his support. At the meeting Dr Arthur argued that the Northern Territory was “as fit for population as some parts of Palestine” and said he had already urged the Commonwealth Government to view the proposals favourably as a humanitarian gesture but mostly because they would be to the benefit of Australia.

    Percy J Marks, a lawyer and community leader who years later founded the Australian Jewish Historical Society, sounded a note of warning. He felt the Commonwealth Government “would not agree to the ideas of the ITO to found in Australia a Colony of Jews with self-government”. His views turned out to be almost prophetic, as the government rejected the plan on these very grounds and was not prepared to encourage what seemed like an ethnic ghetto with residents possibly living under their own laws. Interviewed by the Hebrew Standard, a number of prominent Jewish citizens welcomed the general idea but expressed reservations as to its practicability. John Jacob Cohen, MLA, for example – later Mr Justice Cohen – welcomed the idea but urged that the Board of Deputies of British Jews first be consulted and asked its views before any further steps were taken. It was axiomatic in Australian thinking in those days that the blessing of the Mother Country was required for any radical new departure, and as far as the Jewish community was concerned this ethos was reflected in the feeling that every policy had to be approved, if a religious matter, by the Chief Rabbi in London, and on general communal matters by the British Board of Deputies.

    AE Collins, a Legislative Council member for an agricultural area, asked how unskilled Russian Jews could be expected to become agriculturalists. He thought it was “impossible to put poor men, that is to say men with very small potential backing, upon land in a new territory”. Collins said the better course was for the nations to use their influence to avert further pogroms and thus to prevent the creation of refugees. There was much discussion in the Hebrew Standard where the point was made that the Territory was wild and uncultivated and no more than 1313 persons comprised the white population, which indicated that the climate would be unsuitable for European Jewish settlers. In the end Zangwill also had his doubts: he called the Territory “a derelict tropical desert” which was really not habitable by white people (Leftwich, page 230), though he felt Western Australia could be suitable. Deakin, brought the idea to a head and an end when he told Zangwill in London that while Australia welcomed Jewish immigrants, it “would never consent to an autonomous Jewish region inside its borders” (HS, 9 October, 1907; cf. George FJ Bergman, “A Jewish Colony in the Northern Territory?”, AJT, 6 February, 1975). Zangwill, however, felt that without autonomy, there would be “no compensation for all the sweat and travail” (Leftwich, pages 230-231). Dr Arthur recounted the story in a speech to the Australian Zionist Federation in 1930 (Crown, page 331).

    In the late 1930s and 1940s there was a new need for a refuge for European Jews. Dr Isaac N Steinberg spearheaded a movement for a Jewish settlement in the Kimberley district of Western Australia. Determined to do better than the Territorialists, Steinberg’s Freeland League proposed what they considered a manageable scheme but their efforts came to nothing, despite a fair degree of Australian support. The Northern Territory had been mentioned again as a refuge for 30,000 or more Jews; proponents of the plan included Rabbi David I Freedman in Perth and the Yiddish poet Melech Ravitch in Brisbane, but neither the Jewish community nor the Commonwealth Government took it seriously (JH, 8 December, 1933). Ravitch had visited the Territory accompanied by an Italian driver and an Aboriginal guide, and still wanted it to be considered though he wrote in his diary that it needed mehr vasser, veiniger bier – “more water and less beer” (AJN, 6 September, 1991).

    Did he see any Jewish life there? There wasn’t any. Indeed, had there been any Jews in the Northern Territory prior to the 1930s? A few enterprising individuals, yes (notably Vaiben Solomon, about whom we shall say something in a moment): but there were no Jewish religious facilities, nor did the handful of Jews who found themselves in the Territory show any interest in pioneering a community. For almost everybody it was somewhere you left as soon as possible. It was certainly no place for Jewish family life. One of the very few Jewish women to spend any time there was Betty Simons, a young British immigrant who moved to Darwin with her husband Phil and baby at the beginning of the Second World War because jobs in Sydney were so hard to find. Writing in Keeping in Touch, the senior citizens’ bulletin issued by the Australian Jewish Welfare Society (issue 5, March, 1986), she said “It was Hicksville… The heat and humidity were terrible…

    “After living in a tent for six weeks, my husband put up a shack of sorts… There were many strange experiences, such as sweeping snakes from under the bed, having showers from a kerosene tin, etc… I was the only Jewish woman in Darwin – probably in the whole of the Northern Territory – and apart from my husband, there was one other Jewish man. We tried to remember when Pesach might be, or Yom Kippur, but we were never sure.”

    The recent film “Australia” depicted life in the Territory at that period and it is unlikely that any Jewish person who watched the film wondered whether any of the characters on the screen might have been Jewish. Betty Simons provides the reasons why one does not even wonder about Jews or Judaism in the Territory in those days.

    Vaiben Solomon

    Vaiben Solomon

    Vaiben Louis Solomon, the most notable Jew to live and work in the Northern Territory, was a member of an Adelaide family and was born in 1853; his father Judah Moss Solomon had been a member of the SA Legislative Assembly. In 1873 Vaiben set off with a party that planned to search for gold in the Northern Territory. He soon became a storekeeper in Palmerston (22 kilometers from Darwin), employed by his brother Moss Judah Solomon, and before long was owner and editor of the weekly Northern Territory Times. Other business interests were as an auctioneer, builder, commission agent and speculator. He published the Northern Territory Gazette, a handbook about the Territory and its commercial potential. He was increasingly involved in local politics and was chairman of the district council. In 1880 South Australia decided to grant representation in its legislature to the Northern Territory and Vaiben topped the poll to represent the Territory in 1890; after returning to Adelaide he was in 1899 actually Premier of the Colony for seven days. He was known as “Sudden Solomon” because he was swept into office so unexpectedly. He was also known as “Black Solomon” because he once paraded through Darwin naked, with blacking over his body to make him look like an Aboriginal. He became a member of the federal House of Representatives and subsequently returned to the South Australian parliament.

    Solomon, who died in 1908, was the only Jew ever to be Premier of an Australian State. He did not live an orthodox Jewish life even though his daughter Mary converted to Judaism and his second wife was Jewish. When he was a member of the 1897 constitutional convention he objected to Saturday sittings on the grounds of religious conviction – strange when his own office was open on a Saturday. A relative was the wife of Rabbi Abraham Tobias Boas, minister of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. The story of Vaiben Solomon is told by Trevor Cohen in an article in the Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal (vol. 8, part 3, 1977).

    In the first part of the twentieth century including the interwar years there were no other Vaiben Solomons, and indeed hardly any Jews at all, in the Territory.

    Yet there were Jews posted there during the Second World War, and at the Adelaide River War Cemetery, about 150 kilometers south of Darwin, Stars of David mark the graves of Leading Aircraftman Frank Arnold Jaques of the RAAF and Sergeant Maurice Morris of the Royal Australian Artillery. Jaques was buried on 18 January, 1945, aged 22; he was killed in an aircraft accident outside Darwin. Morris was buried on 16 March, 1945, aged 34 (AJT, 2 August, 1979; cf. Gerald Pynt, ed., Australian Jewry’s Book of Honour: World War II, 1974). Rabbi Jacob Danglow as Senior Hebrew Chaplain toured military bases in the Northern Territory in 1943.

    Between, say, 1939 when Phil and Betty Simons arrived and 1969, thirty years later, Jews occasionally found themselves in the Northern Territory on business or professional duty, but like most other people did not stay for long. The devastation caused by Cyclone Tracy in 1974 changed Darwin radically and as the city rebuilt it became a more liveable place. The population increased, and so did the numbers of Jews. A second change came with the opening up of major sites in the Territory to tourism, which brought Jewish visitors, including rabbis, to the Red Centre, Alice Springs and elsewhere.

    Probably the first peacetime rabbinic visitor to the Territory, long before Cyclone Tracy, was Rabbi Dr Rudolph Brasch of Temple Emanuel in Sydney, an inveterate traveller in Australia and overseas.

    Rabbi Brasch wrote: “In 1951, I visited the Northern Territory. I would never have guessed the wealth of experiences I would encounter… There was only one hotel in Darwin. It was so crowded that people had to share rooms, as I did with three visiting judges.

    “Among the guests was a crocodile shooter. He had just returned from Arnhem Land, where he lost all his gear. When, in the evening, he was about to enter the dining room, he was stopped as he was not wearing a tie. A man of initiative, he went up to one of the windows and tore a strip from its somewhat tattered curtain and, once he had tied it around his neck, was ‘properly’ dressed” (Reminiscences of a Roving Rabbi, 1998).

    Rabbi Brasch met representatives of many faiths and spoke at Sunday church services in Darwin and Alice Springs. He visited mission stations and met “ignored and forgotten children… the result of white men’s lust”. He met the artist Rex Batterbee. People in Sydney began calling him “Brasch of the Outback”. His visit advanced Jewish public relations, but he encountered no Jewish life.

    In more recent years other rabbis have been to the Northern Territory and made their own arrangements for Shabbat observance and kosher food, but only Chabad of RARA (Rural and Regional Australia) has actively looked for Jews and offered them the opportunity for Jewish observance and experience.

    In the early 1990s the Australian Jewish Medical Federation had a conference in Alice Springs with Rabbi Phillip Heilbrunn of Melbourne as the resident rabbi. Kosher facilities were created at the hotels, the group had a Torah scroll, and services were held every day. On Shabbat at the Rock the rabbi named a baby girl whose family were from Tasmania. He heard that there was a person in Alice Springs who was able to provide or source lulavim (palm branches) which met the Jewish legal requirements for the festival of Sukkot.

    From time to time there have been enterprising Jewish residents who sought out fellow Jews and brought them together for events such as the Seder on Pesach. Gusti Daws, who had lived in Israel from 1934-1967, told the Australian Jewish News in 1995 that there was some communal activity in Darwin but it was an uphill battle. “Someone tried to hold regular services here,” she said, “but they didn’t work because nobody was prepared to keep it going” (AJN, 8 February, 1995). However, in the same press report Laurie Rosenblum, the then president of the Queensland Jewish Board of Deputies, stated that out of a total Territory population of less than 200,000 there were 230 Jews with 160 in Darwin, and there was interest in establishing a formal community. When a non-Jewish woman from Darwin asked him for advice about converting to Judaism and learning Hebrew he suggested she place an advertisement for a Hebrew teacher in a local paper, which she did and received several replies.

    To establish a community would have required enough people prepared to undertake responsibility for communal activities, but even when this was floated the small Jewish group could not agree on what it wanted. It would have been even harder to create a synagogue, though land might have been made available by the government, or even to find and fund any form of communal centre. One might have thought that there would have been enough interest to set up a local branch of one of the Jewish membership organisations such as WIZO, but this too did not eventuate. At one point B’nai B’rith thought of establishing a presence in the Territory but there was not enough support.

    There was not even any interest in establishing a small Jewish cemetery, though one wonders who would conduct the occasional Jewish burial. Presumably any Jews who require burial in the Territory are interred in general cemeteries. Those interested in having a Jewish religious funeral would presumably bring a rabbi from elsewhere to officiate, as happens in other parts of Australia where there is no resident rabbi or established congregation. The Jewish News was informed in 1995 that there were 20-odd Jewish graves in the old part of Darwin Cemetery but no Jewish organisation has the details (AJN, 8 February, 1995).

    Nonetheless there have been times when Jewish people have made immense efforts to carry out Jewish observances. In the 1970s a couple (I think they were Israeli) drove thousands of kilometers to Sydney in order to have their baby son circumcised and when they arrived they contacted the Great Synagogue for help and we put them in touch with a mohel and offered other help.

    Occasionally a Northern Territory family have arranged for a child to have a Bar- or Bat-Mitzvah at a Sydney or Melbourne synagogue. An example is the family of a Jewish geologist named Hallenstein who came to Melbourne for a Bar-Mitzvah at Temple Beth Israel during Rabbi John Levi’s incumbency there.

    An instance of great determination is the 250 kilometer drive from Jabiru, a mining town in the Top End, undertaken in 2006 by an American Jewish family, Jeffrey and Gale Davidson and their son Eitan, to attend a Seder in Darwin organised by Chabad. Jeffrey Davidson had come to Jabiru for him to take up a position as a community relations manager for Energy Resources of Australia. They told the Jewish News that they ordered matzah and kosher meat from Melbourne (AJN, 21 April, 2006). The Chabad Seder is an ongoing project run from Melbourne, which sends rabbinical students to Darwin with many boxes of kosher provisions. The Chabad students somehow find Jews in the most unlikely places in the Northern Territory, though the people they meet are often taken aback to see them.

    Since there are so few Jews who stay in the Territory for long periods, most people are in touch with “home” – either in larger communities like Melbourne and Sydney or overseas like Israel, the USA and South Africa – and some are nostalgic for the festival observances they were used to, though others do not mind severing their Jewish links. Some parents who have the knowledge give their children a basis of Hebrew education. On request the NSW Board of Jewish Education (Academy BJE) sends teaching material to Darwin. The equivalent organisation in Melbourne, the United Jewish Education Board, possibly does likewise. Both educational bodies do certainly help with distance lessons when necessary for Jewish children in many parts of Australia. (I am proud to record that I was the pioneer of this work in the 1950s when I set up a correspondence school in Melbourne, later administered by the United Jewish Education Board.)

    One of the reasons some Jews find themselves in Darwin is postings by the Defence Department. During my term of office as senior rabbi to the Australian Defence Force I received in 1999, through a Christian chaplain, a request for the circumcision of the son of a Jewish lady member of the ADF who was married to an army officer. Not being a mohel I was unable to help personally but I arranged for Dr Robert Lewin of Sydney to fly to Darwin at army expense to carry out the b’rit milah. A friend of his who was in Darwin on business assisted as the sandek who held the baby during the ceremony.

    On another occasion three Jewish members of the navy wanted to be invited to a Seder in Darwin; the best I could do was to put them in touch with a Jewish doctor I knew who was working at a hospital there. In 2003 a Christian chaplain emailed me for information about “a place in Darwin where the Jewish community gather for worship”. He was compiling “a list of places of worship for the ships that visit here”. I gave him names of people who might be prepared to host Jewish visitors.

    A request in 2002 (I am not certain whether the inquirer was connected with Defence) was for “assistance in getting grocery items to Darwin”. The inquirer wrote, “I will be there for a short period of time prior to Pesach and need matzah, matzah meal and various other products in order to survive the holiday. I am American and totally unfamiliar with Australia.” We took it for granted that supermarkets in Darwin stocked a few kosher products but doubted whether they had Pesach foods, so we advised making contact with the kosher shops and caterers and having kosher necessities sent up north.

    After Vaiben Solomon it took a century for another Jew to play a leading role in the public life of the Territory. A resident for several decades, Dawn Lawrie was one of the first elected members of the NT Legislative Council in 1971, later serving as Administrator of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and as the Territory’s first anti-discrimination commissioner. When she organised a Seder in Darwin she obtained haggadot from Rabbi John Levi and she sent back one of the books signed by the 20 or so people present.

    The only comprehensive report on Jewish life in the Northern Territory was a three-page feature article by Walt Secord in the Rosh HaShanah issue of the Jewish News in 1991. Since that is almost twenty years ago it cannot be taken as automatically applying to conditions today, and many of the people who were interviewed may have left the Territory in the meantime, but it may well still represent the trends. The article is headed, “The Menorah Meets the Dreamtime”. It has the following lead-in: “There are Jews in the Northern Territory? Yes, and Australian Jewish News staff writer Walt Secord found them doing everything from breaking in camels to dispensing spectacles”. Where the Jews lived in 1991 and what they were doing is reported. Most people came to the Territory for professional or business reasons; a few followed their children and grandchildren. Walt Secord writes, “Long-term Jewish residents are downright brutal when newcomers ask about the possibility of pursuing an Orthodox lifestyle in the Northern Territory. ‘If you want to be Orthodox, you have no place in the Territory. If that is what you want, you should ask yourself what you are doing here’.”

    In 1991 there were Jewish meetings in Darwin with up to 70 people in attendance, but there were two factions – one that was only interested in social functions and another that wanted some form of religious activity. There was a crisis when an Israeli who had helped to bring Jews together was found to have another agenda, to convert Jews to Christianity. The numbers of Jews were and are certainly higher than the national census suggests. If this is the case in the larger centres it is more likely in the Territory where a number of Jews simply do not want to identify or be found. How did the Jewish News trace NT Jews? By placing advertisements in the local papers and being interviewed on the ABC Northern Territory morning show. They got a number of responses almost immediately but discovered that five or six years seemed to be the most that the majority of Jews stay in the Territory and whenever there seems to be a chance of forming a community the leading lights leave and it takes time for a new group to be accepted and to stabilise (AJN, 6 September, 1991).

    Will there ever be an official community, in Darwin at least, with some degree of permanence, structure and religious facilities? If present trends continue, the most we can say is that the answer is blowing in the wind. So what impelled me to embark upon this story if I have to leave it open-ended? Perhaps nothing more than the coincidence that I was once on a flight to Australia that touched down at Darwin Airport and I wondered what life would be like for a Jew there. To that question my researches lead to a one-word answer: “Difficult”.

    My only experience of being a Jew in the Territory was a holiday which my wife and I had at Uluru, where we brought our own food and said our morning prayers at dawn at the foot of the Rock. In touch with the Dreamtime we looked forward to a time when the whole world will be at one with its Creator. Our thoughts about Judaism in the Northern Territory are less optimistic.


    Apple, Raymond: The Great Synagogue: A History of Sydney’s Big Shule, 2008
    Archive of Australian Judaica: Monograph 9, “Early Australian Zionism”, 1993
    Blakeney, Michael: Australia and the Jewish Refugees, 1933-1948, 1985
    Cohen, Trevor: “The Honorable Vaiben Louis Solomon”, AJHS Journal, vol. 8, part 3, 1977
    Crown, Alan D: “The Initiatives and Influences in the Development of Australian Zionism, 1850-1948”, AJHS Journal, vol. 8, part 6, 1979
    Gettler, Leon: An Unpromised Land, 1993
    Leftwich, Joseph: Israel Zangwill: A Biography, 1957
    Rubinstein, Hilary: Chosen: The Jews in Australia, 1987
    Rubinstein, William D, ed., Jews in the Sixth Continent, 1987
    Rutland, Suzanne D: Edge of the Diaspora: Two Centuries of Jewish Settlement in Australia, 2nd ed., 1997
    Steinberg, Isaac N: Australia, The Unpromised Land, 1948
    Wohlgelernter, Maurice: Israel Zangwill: A Study, 1964

    Australian Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) Journal
    Australian Jewish News (AJN)
    Australian Jewish Times (AJT)
    Hebrew Standard (HS)
    Jewish Herald (JH)


    Helen Bersten and Liz James of the Australian Jewish Historical Society and Dr Marianne Dacy of the Archive of Australian Judaica have helped me to locate resource material. I also thank Rabbi Phillip Heilbrunn, Rabbi John Levi and Dr Robert Lewin for their communications.

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