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The Jewish Community in Christchurch

New Zealand was first settled by the Maori, a Polynesian people, about 1,000 years ago. In 1769 the British explorer Captain James Cook circumnavigated the country, mapping and describing it. The country was then visited mainly by sealers and whalers and gradually settled. It was largely at the instigation of Joel Samuel Polack (1807–1882), the first Jewish settler in New Zealand (1831), that the British decided to establish sovereignty over New Zealand and in 1840 the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between representatives of the British crown and Maori chiefs.

The first Jewish settlers arrived in the South Island Canterbury province in the early 1860’s and under the leadership of Louis Edward Nathan began holding regular services at his home in Christchurch. The moment there was a sufficient number of Jewish settlers in the region, Louis Edward Nathan established the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation, as it did not seem appropriate to include the name Christchurch in the name of a Jewish community. In 1864 the congregation of 30 people obtained a government grant of £300 to build a wooden synagogue in Gloucester Street. The members of the congregation were not affluent, but they wanted to have an organized congregation and paid officials. Despite the fact that it was difficult for them to raise the money needed to pay the reader, his salary was £1.12s. 6d per week. The exodus caused by a gold rush in another South Island settlement, Hokitika, almost caused the congregation to collapse, but the Jewish diggers and traders returned in 1870, bringing with them their minister Isaac Zachariah, born in Baghdad and educated in Jerusalem, who served the community until 1886. The small size of the Canterbury community meant that members faced a continuous struggle to maintain Jewish education and communal functions and they had to be very understanding about the different levels of observance of one another. In 1885 they decided to read the haftarah in English.

The community flourished under the leadership of Phineas Selig, later doyen of the New Zealand press, assisted by a group of energetic colleagues. Kosher meat was supplied locally from 1933; a welfare society was founded in 1938; a social club in 1940, and women’s synagogue membership was inaugurated in 1942. From 1930 to 1958 Jerusalem-educated S.N. Salas of Auckland was minister. A small number of immigrants of German and Polish origin came in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Synagogue in Christchurch

The Synagogue in Christchurch, New Zealand, 1972 Photos: Ida Cowen, New York The Oster Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People Courtesy of Ida Cowen


The social activity of the local congregation included a branch of The Union of Jewish Women of New Zealand later known as the Council of Jewish Women. The local Zionist organization is linked to Zionist Federation of New Zealand. Branches of WIZO and of JNF activate in Christchurch. Opposition to Anti-Semitism (Inc.), an organization set up in 1990 to fight the growing anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, activated for some time in Christchurch.
The wooden synagogue was replaced in 1881 by a brick and stone edifice on the same site, which served the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation until 1987, when it could no longer be maintained in good repair. In May 1988 the community consecrated the present synagogue and hall in Durham Street, which incorporates some of the outstanding features of the old building, including a large stained glass Star of David window, and the original wooden bimah.

In 1967 there was a Jewish population of 330. According to the 1986 census, there were 129 Jews in Christchurch; however, since then their number has increased and in the 2000s according to the 2001 census and more recent reckonings it was estimated at about 650 Jews in for the entire area of Canterbury, out of a total of 5,500-6,500 for the whole of New Zealand.

In 2011 there was no rabbi, but regular services and community functions are held and there is a Chabad representative who has been adopted by the congregation. The Chabad Rabbi runs is a weekly “cheder” class for children of the community, offers kosher food and helps to maintain the community’s institutions.

In the 2011 earthquake the Lubavitch House in Christchurch was destroyed. The community’s synagogue, however, was extensively repaired and strengthened in 2010, so it survived the earthquake with very little damage.

The earlier Jewish cemetery used by the Canterbury Hebrew Congregation from 1870 until 1885 was located on Hereford St. In 1943 all graves were re-interred in Linwood Cemetery under one gravestone. The current Jewish cemetery containing more than 250 graves is located within the Linwood Cemetery situated in a suburb of Christchurch.