By the time the Foundation Stone was laid in 1937, the founders of the synagogue had already invested a lifetime of energy and work into creating this community. This is the much abbreviated story of how Temple Beth Israel (TBI) was built, who built it and what we have achieved as a community, from 1930 to 2013.
The first gathering of those interested in Liberal Judaism took place on 1 April, 1930. Among those present were the sisters Ada, Belle and Millie Phillips with five others, under the chair of Ernest Levinson. Ada Phillips and Ernest Levinson were early presidents of the congregation, which changed its name several times before arriving at its current name, Temple Beth Israel, in 1937. This is the name inscribed on the foundation stone which was laid by Sir Isaac Isaacs, the Governor General of Australia. The President of TBI at the time was Dr Montefiore David Silberberg, who served 1932-1949, longer than any other president.
TBI was served by three short-term rabbis before the arrival of Dr Herman Sanger from Berlin in August 1936. Rabbi Sanger revolutionized Judaism in Australia by establishing a home for the German and Austrian Jewish refugees who fled Europe for these shores in the pre- and post-War periods. Including Rabbi Sanger, there have been only four Senior Rabbis at Temple Beth Israel in 83 years. Rabbi Sanger was succeeded by Rabbi Dr John Levi, Australia’s first native-born rabbi, an academic who carried out seminal research in the field of early Jewish settlement in Australia, and a significant ethical spokesman within Australian society. Rabbi Levi in turn was succeeded by Rabbi Fred Morgan, an American who was ordained at the Leo Baeck College in London and had served a congregation in the UK for several years before coming to Melbourne. Rabbi Morgan’s interests focused on community building, interfaith dialogue, and the study of midrash and contemporary Jewish thought. Rabbi Gersh Lazarow, an Australian who trained at Hebrew Union College in the USA, took over the post in August 2013. The Senior Rabbis have been supported by a number of assistant and associate rabbis over the years, including several female rabbis and two rabbinic couples.
In 1938 Dr Herman Schildberger arrived to take over the musical direction of TBI. He introduced the majestic music of Lewandowski to the congregation. Over the decades the community has been blessed with the input of several cantorial soloists and choirs, and in June 2012 we welcomed our first invested cantor, Michel Laloum, another native Melbournian who was trained in New York.
In the 1950s TBI seeded new synagogues in Kew and Bentleigh. Many of the other Progressive shuls around Australasia also owe their establishment to this congregation. The King David School was founded in the mid-1970s, and the first Israeli shaliach was brought to Melbourne to work with the newly-formed Progressive Zionist youth movement Netzer in the beginning of the 1980s. Through these initiatives and many others, TBI has become the flagship synagogue for the Progressive movement in this region of the globe.
TBI has provided direction to the Jewish community of Victoria and Australia in a number of other areas as well, including the introduction of bat-mitzvah and baby-naming ceremonies for girls, interfaith work with both the Christian and Muslim communities, active support for social justice issues such as Aboriginal reconciliation and refugee welfare, hands-on celebrations of Israel, multicultural forums and synagogue open-house events, adult learning opportunities, communal pastoral care programming and hospital visiting, and social networking. We have created dynamic and imaginative ways to celebrate the festivals, putting on major events that appeal to young families. Through all these activities, developed over our eight and more decades of existence, we have successfully aimed to marry tradition with innovation.