Judaism at the Newcastle Synagogue

Looking at Judaism in Newcastle, Shea Evans attends a synagogue and interviews the service leader to get a better understanding of the faith and its place in Newcastle.

One Friday evening, I made my way to the Newcastle Synagogue, the first point of exploration on my interfaith journey. The synagogue on Tyrrell Street is currently the only house of Jewish worship between Sydney and Brisbane, and the inside of it is beautiful. I arrived uncertain, I’d never attended a synagogue before and was afraid of drawing attention to myself. Slipping into a place at the very back, I stood and listened as the leader of the service stood at the head of the small congregation and began singing in Hebrew. All those in attendance, about ten in total, stood and sung along out of the prayer books provided. The ceiling was high and patterned, the windows ornate with illustration. We each stood in front of polished wooden benches, and I admired the Hebrew lettering in the book open in front of me without understanding.

As the voices of the congregation lifted and fell, I closed my eyes in reverence and considered the faith of those around me. Judaism is a truly ancient religion, one of the oldest still practiced, and has been around for more than three thousand years. A highly traditional and historical faith, Judaism proved a key influence on the later Abrahamic religions of Islam and Christianity. Many of the ancient Jewish prophets are likewise considered worthy by the other monotheistic faiths, and the Torah (Judaism’s foundational holy text) makes up the first five books of the Christian bible. Judaism has also influenced the laws of today’s society, with many derived from the Ten Commandments given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Judaism, though practiced by relatively few, has had wide and far-reaching effects on the world. Its history in Australia began 1788 when several Jews arrived as convicts on the first fleet, beginning the tradition of Judaism in this country.

In the midst of pondering all of this, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A woman was holding a small cap out to me, smiling and saying “men must wear a head covering here”. I thanked her and put the kippah on my head, unsure of how to fit it and conscious of my faux pas. As I adjusted the kippah I noticed a thin and transparent veil running through the middle of the congregation and realised that I was on the wrong side of a mechitza, the barrier that separates men and women in an orthodox synagogue. I moved, as subtly as possible, away from the few women around me and slipped in with the men. A few heads turned, and I concentrated on studying the carpet at my feet and listening to the voice of the service leader.

At the end of the service I shook many friendly hands and was wished Gut Shabbos by all I met, meaning Good Sabbath. The congregation was a mix of young and old, and I was made very welcome by each of them. As the prayer leader, or cantor, who led the service removed his shawl and descended the Bimah (the high place from which rabbis teach and cantors lead prayer), I approached him and introduced myself. His name was Professor Leon Kleinman, and he graciously agreed to answer some questions I had. We went outside, returning and giving a well wished Shabbat Shalom as we went.

We sat on the Synagogue steps and spoke at length in the cool of the night air. Professor Kleinman, a semi-retired orthopaedic surgeon who gives the occasional lecture to the medical students here at UON, was a kind and patient interviewee whose conversation I was glad to share. When asked how long he had been leading the service for, and what had led him to it, his response was “on and off since I got here in 1988, somebody had to step up so I stepped up.” I was curious as to how one would become a rabbi, Professor Kleinman said that it took years of rabbinical school and that it “absolutely requires dedication”.

According to Leon, there are about 200 people in the Hunter’s Jewish community with 45 or 50 being part of the Newcastle Hebrew Congregation, and that evening’s service was “a little bit smaller than usual”. He said that in all of Australia there were somewhere between 110,000 and 120,000 Jews, and that they lived mostly in Melbourne and Sydney and a few other major cities. The Jewish community in Sydney, said Professor Kleinman, was a very vibrant and active community of about 40,000 with many synagogues. Rabbis, in short supply in Newcastle, often visit from the Sydney community to deliver sermons on the high holy days.

When asked what non-Jews could learn from Judaism, Professor Kleinman had this to say: “Tolerance. It’s the most tolerant of religions, it’s the only one I can think of which doesn’t sell a post-life insurance policy. In other words, what you do on earth is important, and how you behave. Our function on earth is to improve things for everybody, regardless of who they are, because all things on earth are God’s creation. Therefore from that all things are of equal value and all life is of equal value, that’s what I find of significance. Tolerance, humility, charity.”

I asked Leon about uni students, he said that there weren’t any UON students as part of the congregation at the moment but that some students did occasionally come up from Sydney for the services. His advice for us was both funny and meaningful. “Don’t drink so much beer,” he chuckled, “and study more. The secret to passing uni is to get yourself a wooden stool and nail yourself to it, don’t be slack with your studies.” The professor also cautioned against sticking with the same thing if you realise that it’s not for you, encouraging change; “if you’re sick of it, pack it in. You only get one life and it will be a long and difficult one if you decide what you’re doing is not what you want.”

There concluded our interview. I thanked the professor for his time, and he encouraged me to return. If you wish to attend the Newcastle Synagogue you can do so any Friday at 6:30pm, and I would advise you to do so. It is a warm and welcoming place, and any curious minds desiring to attend will be happily received. Just be sure to grab a Kippah and to sit on the right side of the mechitza!