1861: A Synagogue Is Built for Gold Rush Miners in Australia

The synagogue, the oldest still-operating down under, was welcomed by the people of Ballarat as a touch of class in a tatty town.

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Ballarat Synagogue
Ballarat Synagogue, front entrance.Credit: Helen Webberley/melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au

On January 25, 1861, the cornerstone was laid for the Ballarat Synagogue, today the oldest continuously operating shul on the Australian mainland.

The lovely white neo-classical building, in Ballarat, the third-largest city in Victoria state – after Melbourne and Geelong – had its origins during the 1850s gold rush, and at its peak served a Jewish population that reached an estimated one thousand.

Today, with most of Australia’s roughly 110,000 Jews concentrated in Sydney (where the country’s first congregation was founded in 1837), Melbourne and Brisbane, the synagogue functions as such only on holidays and special occasions.

Suffrage for white men

Ballarat is an inland town in Victoria, the state at Australia’s southeastern corner. European settlers began to arrive to the area, some 105 kms northwest of Melbourne, in 1838, but the town's real development began after the discovery of alluvial gold there, on August 18, 1851, with some 20,000 showing up within six weeks.

The gold yield was a generous one, and it continued to draw prospectors to Ballarat over decades, so that a real city was able to take root around the industry.

Ballarat is also where the so-called Eureka Rebellion took place. In the fall of 1854, miners began to organize and demonstrate against the laws that regulated the fees they had to pay, and their lack of political representation. A violent demonstration on December 19, 1854, led to colonial forces turning their guns on the miners, and in a period of less than a half-hour, 27 people were killed, 22 of them miners.

In the aftermath of the massacre, the movement’s tactics moved to political action. With public sentiment behind the miners, in 1856, Victoria state adopted full suffrage for all white males.

Minyan in the gold fields

As for the Jews, the first minyan (Jewish prayer quorum of 10 men) is said to have convened in the Ballarat gold fields for the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service in 1853. Within two years, the Ballarat Synagogue had formally incorporated itself. Prayer-goers met in the Clarendon Hotel.

An earlier building constructed for the synagogue had its land requisitioned by the town government in 1859, for construction of a town hall. As recompense, the town council allocated another lot to the congregation, at the corner of Princess and Barkley Streets, and paid for the erection of a new synagogue building.

Ballarat's tent city in the summer of 1853–1854: To a town like this, the brick synagogue added learning and class.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The cornerstone was laid by Charles Dyte, a British-born businessman and auctioneer, who was the second president of Ballarat synagogue. Though not a digger himself, Dite was active in the miners’ cause at the time of the rebellion. Later, Dyte became the city’s mayor.

The architect was T.B. Cameron, a Scottish-born designer who arrived in Victoria state in the late 1850s, and built a number of structures in Ballarat and the region before moving on to New Zealand, in 1864.

Cachet in a ratty town

The synagogue is neo-classical in style, with its entrance comprised of a pedimented portico and square Tuscan columns. Before an expansion and makeover, its walls were faced with brickwork, but subsequently it was covered with white-painted plaster, so it resembles a smaller version of the White House.

According to the architecture writer Helen Webberley, whose blog “Art and Architecture, Mainly” devoted a column to the synagogue, contemporary coverage of the new synagogue was enthusiastic: "The Ballarat newspapers were delighted that such an elegant building had been completed. They felt it gave Ballarat, so recently a tatty mining town of tents and cheap pubs, the cachet of refinement and learning.”

Ballarat Synagogue has always had a reputation for religious stringency. The new building included a mikveh (ritual bath) and room for a community cemetery, and according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, Ballarat was considered the center of Australian Orthodoxy in the 19th century.

By 1859, the number of Jewish adult males in Ballarat was tallied at 347, which is the source of the extrapolated figure of 1,000 for a total Jewish population. At its peak, the community supported a Hebrew day school, a “Hebrew Fire Brigade,” a men’s literary and debating society and a Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society, among other voluntary bodies.