Tablet Magazine

The Gold Rush Shul

Australia’s Ballarat Synagogue tries to preserve its unusual cultural history

Jews have dedicated prayers to the welfare of reigning monarchs since biblical times, when Jews exiled from Jerusalem to Babylonia reached out to the Prophet Jeremiah for guidance on navigating their relationship with their new rulers. In the British Commonwealth, Jews in modern times commonly incorporate such prayers into Shabbat services, expressing hopes for the king’s or queen’s well-being. A unique manifestation of this practice can be seen at the Ballarat Synagogue in Australia, an hour’s drive from Melbourne. The synagogue proudly displays two sizable wooden plaques featuring the prayer for the queen’s well-being, one inscribed in Hebrew and the other in English, commemorating Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887. Ballarat, located in the Australian state of Victoria, rose to prominence during the mid-19th century after gold was found there in 1851, igniting a gold rush; over the next year, the city drew approximately 90,000 people from around the world. At the peak of the gold rush, between 1852 and 1853, Ballarat stood as the world’s wealthiest alluvial goldfield. The city attracted Jews from England who were seeking their fortunes as well as other European Jews who were escaping antisemitism. In 1853, a minyan was established on the Ballarat goldfields for the High Holidays and by 1859, the town boasted a Jewish community with more than 300 men. In 1861 it consecrated its synagogue. I’ve always had a personal interest in the synagogue because my great-great-grandparents moved to Ballarat from America in the 1800s as part of the gold rush, and are buried in the large Jewish section of the Ballarat cemetery. After 162 years, the Ballarat Synagogue continues to host a monthly Orthodox Shabbat service, including a prayer for the well-being of the British monarch. “It’s been my synagogue since I was a kid,” said Ballarat Synagogue President John Abraham, whose family moved from North England to Australia in the 1800s and settled in Ballarat during the gold rush. “My father was on the board for many years and was treasurer. My grandfather and my great-grandfather were also on the board. My great-grandfather was one of the first married in the shul.” ...

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