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175 years of contribution: a Jewish community’s place in civil society

Rabbi Alon Meltzer

An address from our scholar in residence Rabbi Alon Meltzer during celebrations marking the 175th anniversary of our congregation’s first services in 1843.

Imagine that summer’s day, January 7th 1843. Imagine the thoughts and emotions running through Abraham Hort Senior’s mind, or the tunes of David Isaacs the first shochet, mohel and chazzan. Can you imagine their thoughts of the 175 years that would follow that first service?

My dear friends, today we celebrate together, as you commemorate this incredible milestone – 175 years. Years of joy, years of hardship, years of celebration, years of mourning, years of growth, years of contraction, years of commitment and years of contribution. You should all be so proud to be joined together at this incredible milestone – celebrating and remembering the incredible sacrifices that were put in to make it here today.

Last week we read of the Ten Commandments and the giving of the Torah at Sinai – an incredible and miraculous sight, and then opens this morning’s Parasha, Mishpatim, with seemingly mundane things.

וְאֵ֙לֶּה֙ הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּשִׂ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃ And these are the rules that you shall set before them:

The Torah then goes on to list a long selection of civil laws, advising the Jewish people of how to live side by side with one another, how to engage in business with one another, how to care for one’s property etc.

Rashi asks us why the Torah says “and these”, and he answers by saying that these too were given at Sinai.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains the sedra of Mishpatim, with its detailed rules and regulations, can sometimes seem a let-down after the breathtaking grandeur of the revelation at Sinai. It should not be. Yitro contains the vision, but God is in the details. Without the vision, law is blind. But without the details, the vision floats in heaven. With them the divine presence is brought down to earth, where we need it most.

These details are the very mechanisms whereby we live in the real world. How we live amongst our neighbours, Jewish and not Jewish, and contribute to the greater good of society as your incredible community has done.

Our prophet Jeremiah, lamented the destruction of the houses of the people:

וְאֶת בֵּית הַמֶּלֶךְ וְאֶת בֵּית הָעָם שָׂרְפוּ הַכַּשְׂדִּים בָּאֵשׁ וְאֶת חֹמֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם נָתָצוּ And the king’s palace and the houses of the people, the Casdim burnt with fire, and they demolished the walls of Jerusalem.

Rashi, our 11th century sage who commented on our Torah and Talmud, describes the houses of the peoples as the synagogues; the places of worship, and communal gatherings.

The Jerusalem Talmudic tractate of Megillah, describes the synagogue as the community centre of each and every place, and tells us that the great synagogue in Tiberias was the centre for political meetings.

Your community, your shuls, have been the representation of Judaism and Jewish life to Wellington since its inception in 1843, and more importantly for the capital of this country, since her inception in 1865.

Having worked as the Rabbi of the Canberra Jewish community until last December, I know how important this role is. I know how great an impact you have; I have attended your Channukah events, and your Bnei Akiva Camps and programs, I have attended your Rosh Hashanah parliamentary functions, and your pro-Israel rallies. Each of them you have engaged in both the public and the private sphere – because you understand the virtue and nature of community and you understand the very real need for an authentic and deep engagement of commitment to the wider community – readily acknowledging your role as an ohr l’goyim.

I think of my incredible mentors who have hailed from this city; my madrichim Nathan Rosenthal, Sharon Paris, Michael and Sarah Lawrence, Hannah Sedley, Nathan and Lara Phillips. I think of members of your community who have given so much to the Jewish and Non Jewish Community; the Woolf family, the Paris family, the Lawrence family, the Isaacs family, the Stone family just to name a few. I think of the many friends from Bnei Akiva and Habonim that I have who have come from this community; some still local, but many influencing the wider world. I think of your Rabbis, past and present, and your past shlichim who made and make such incredible contributions to Jewish life in New Zealand, engaging the community, but also representing our faith, culture and history to the wider world. You are a small community, but you punch so far above your weight.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsh notes on his commentary to Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers, 4:7, that it is not through the individual but through the community – and through the congregation which represents the community on a smaller scale – that Judaism lives on forever. Furthermore, it was not the individual but the kehillat Yaakov, the congregation of Jacob, the Jewish community, that God appointed as the bearer of his sacred cause.

The Jewish Community entity as at the forefront of engaging in this process of reaching out to the nations, learning from them, and teaching to them – it is not something that starts and stops, but one that continues on a continuous basis – continuing to impact and be impacted.

The Talmudic Tractate of Megillah, 29a, asks the following question:

בבבל היכא אמר אביי בבי כנישתא דהוצל ובבי כנישתא דשף ויתיב בנהרדעא Where [is the Shekhinah] in Babylonia? Abaye said: In the synagogue of Huzal and in the synagogue of Shaf Veyativ (lit. was destroyed and then rebuilt) in Nehardea

My friends, when we ask this question of Wellington – where is the presence of God in Wellington, where has it dwelled in New Zealand since the inception of Jewry in this amazing country? – we must respond that it has dwelled here, mamash b’Beit El, the house of God.

I wish you all an incredible mazal tov on this wonderous milestone – you have carried the torch of Judaism and of the Torah for 175 years, you have shared the light of our teachings, history, culture, faith, heritage not only inwards, but also outwards, and you all, past and present, should be immensely proud of this incredible effort.

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