A rare glimpse inside Australia’s oldest synagogue

Open House Hobart offered a rare opportunity to visit Hobart’s only synagogue, which also has the honour of being Australia’s oldest.

The entrance portico of Hobart's synagogue
The entrance portico of Hobart’s synagogue

I’d seen inside once before, many years ago, when it played host to a contemporary music festival concert by pianist Ian Munro. It was a virtuosic performance, but notably short on tunes that one could hum, and all I recalled of the interior was the very hard, high-backed bench seats.

The mezzanine level at the Hobart synagogue may have accommodated convicts

On this visit, I noted that the seats were rather better padded than I recalled; the gilt and red velvet opulence apparent last weekend had not lasted in my memory.

The trapezoid shape of the windows is characteristic of the Egyptian Revival style

The synagogue was consecrated in the winter of 1846. Apparently the governor of the day, Sir John Franklin, had declined a request to provide land within the colony to establish a synagogue (granting land for construction of churches being commonplace). A successful Jewish merchant and former convict by the name of Judah Solomon surrendered his garden for the purpose. Prior to this time, services were held in Solomon’s mansion, the adjacent Temple House.

Tony, a member of the small congregation, offered a brief history and introduction to the synagogue at the Open Hobart open day

The synagogue was designed and built in a style known as Egyptian Revival, popular in the mid nineteeth century, and is one of several buildings of that era in the style around Hobart. Inside a mezannine level may have provided seating for convicts, who as at other places of worship, needed to be kept separate from the free citizens. We were also told that, in the past, women were kept separate from males in more orthodox services, although more progressive times and dwindling numbers have relaxed this rule. It’s demise was apparently hastened at some point in the synagogue’s history when a fiesty visiting Jewess simply refused to be sent upstairs.

Inside Australia’s oldest synagogue

Once inside the small synagogue, visitors were welcomed by Tony, a member of the congregation, who spent most of the day offering groups a potted history of the synagogue and introduction to Tasmania’s small congregation, which he inferred does not require a lot of fingers and toes to tally up.

The menorah at the Hobart Synagogue

Services are held for both progressive and orthodox communities, with a rabbi travelling from Australia’s second oldest synagogue in Launceston for ‘high and holy days’, and local community members officiating at other times.

A torah is displayed under glass

I’m not sure how regularly the synagoge is open to visitors, other than at such open days and for special events, but it is certainly worth seeking out an opportunity to take a peek inside such an historic and jewel-box like building.

Further reading

Lotus detail on a pillar at the Hobart synagogue, an example of neo-classical Egyptian revival architectural style.

Inside Australia’s oldest synagogue