This column by Wellington Jewish Community Centre’s Rabbi Yitzchak Mizrahi was originally written for the special edition of Centre News marking the 175th anniversary of our congregation’s first services in 1843.
This month we celebrate 175 years of the Beth El congregation which is an integral part of the Wellington Jewish Community Centre.
It is inspiring to think that so early in the settlement of Wellington, a decade before the New Zealand Parliament held its first session, Jewish settlers established the infrastructure necessary for meaningful Jewish life to flourish in this land. Although a formal synagogue would not be built for another quarter century, services were first held in January of 1843, and the first reading of the Torah was Parshat Bo, which this congregation will read together for the 175th time on Shabbat, 20 January 2018.
From those early days of horse drawn carts and kerosene lamp posts, until our modern age of windfarms and public WiFi, the Jewish community in Wellington has been a permanent establishment, a sentry watching the city develop and progress. Members of the Jewish community participated in every aspect of Wellington’s growth. The first generations oversaw the reclamation from the sea of the downtown area and the quays. Jewish settlers were involved in commerce, trades, building, sport, travel, administration – they contributed to all areas of life in this city. The community outgrew its first building and built a larger synagogue early in the 20th century. The synagogue made way for the motorway in the second half of the 20th century, moving to its current location on Webb Street to enable greater flow of traffic through what has become the main arteries connecting Wellington to the north along the coast to the Manawatu and over the hill into the Wairarapa.
The Jewish community has survived numerous challenges, including the exodus of the 80s and 90s. That we are still here, well into the 21st century, is no small matter. We are very much alive, small but strong. We are an old community, but only in the sense that we have been around for a very long time. Our constituency is healthy, with a broad range of ages and diverse thought and practice. Perhaps our most vital sign of health is that children run and squeal through the halls of the Centre, a delightful disruption to services and activities. Our Hebrew school is fully engaged with these children, introducing them to the joys of Jewish life, assisting their parents to impart their special heritage to another generation.
Another sign of our community’s vitality is the numerous organizations serving the wider Jewish community alongside the Wellington Jewish Community Centre. The Wellington Jewish Care of the Aged is a wonderful organization that has become even more professional and active in recent years. The Hebrew Philanthropic Society continues to identify and support Jews in need, while the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary in Government House, is doing incredible work in Holocaust education, promoting human rights and respect for diversity throughout the country. Moriah Kindergarten is a fixture in the Centre, providing not only immersion in Jewish culture for our children, but also offering outstanding education and care for our youngest. Temple Sinai is a vibrant congregation, serving the needs of the Progressive Jews in Wellington and beyond. The Council of Jewish Women, WIZO, Hadassah, B’nai B’rith and JNF continue to be active in their support for the community and Israel, connecting us to wider, international organizations promoting Jewish identity and fraternity. The New Zealand Jewish Regional Council has been a valuable advocate, the Chevra Trust an indispensable supporter, and the Chevra Kaddisha ensures our ancient traditions are followed in the care of the deceased with dignity and respect. The Jewish youth groups, Habonim Dror and B’nei Akiva, fill a critical need for our youth, fostering pride of identity and a sense of belonging at a pivotal time in their lives. This extraordinary and interconnected web of Jewish life was spawned by a simple and modest service 175 years ago, organized by people who didn’t see themselves as heroic or as doing anything out of the ordinary. They did what Jews do upon arriving in a new place: they built a shul.
The future is also looking bright. The Wellington Jewish Community Centre is actively looking to spruce up our building over the coming years, making it more inviting and fit for purpose. Over the last few years a great deal of work has been done to secure the future of our community, and the forecast is increasingly positive. The Wellington Jewish Community Centre board, under the wonderful chairmanship of Professor Claire Massey, is forward looking, energetic and visionary. 175 is a big number, but the real celebration is this recognition of the strong roots we have established, and the continued commitment to remaining a centre of Jewish life for future generations to come.