Story: Diverse religions

Page 7. Jews

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Origins of New Zealand Judaism

Jewish communities arose in Auckland and Wellington in the early years of European settlement. The first Jewish religious service was held in Auckland in 1841. These settlers were almost all Ashkenazim (European Jews). Other Jewish communities were established in Christchurch, Dunedin, Nelson, Hokitika and Timaru. By 1901 New Zealand Jews numbered about 1,600. Since then the community has grown steadily, especially with the arrival of refugees from Nazi Germany before and after the Second World War. In 2013 the figure was nearly 7,000. Recent Jewish immigrants have come mainly from the former Soviet Union, South Africa and Israel.

What is Judaism?

Jews follow the religion of Judaism, which believes that God revealed his laws and commandments to the prophet Moses on Mount Sinai in the form of the Torah. Orthodox Judaism maintains that the Torah and Jewish law should be strictly followed. Progressive Judaism places more emphasis on individual choice in religious beliefs and practice. Progressive Jews have also been more liberal on issues such as gender equality in synagogue services and the ordination of women and gay rabbis.

Wedding bells

The first Jewish wedding in New Zealand was held on 31 October 1841, when Auckland storekeeper David Nathan married Rosetta Aarons in Kororāreka (later Russell) in the Bay of Islands. The couple then returned to Auckland, where their family business, L. D. Nathan, grew to become one of New Zealand’s largest retailers.

Jewish institutions and festivals

A flourishing Jewish community needs a Jewish cemetery and burial society (chevra kadisha), ritual bathhouse (mikveh), kosher food (conforming to Jewish law), a person trained to undertake male circumcision (mohel), and ideally a rabbi (religious teacher) and a minimum of 10 for public prayer (minyan). Annual celebrations during the year include Pesach (Passover), Yom Ha'Shoah (Holocaust Day), Yom Hatzma'ut (Israel Independence Day), Rosh Hashanah (the New Year), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), Hannukah (Festival of Lights) and Sukkot (Festival of Booths). The Sabbath (weekly day of rest) is celebrated in the synagogue (house of prayer) and in the home.

The synagogue is the focal point for collective Jewish identity in New Zealand. In the 2010s there were orthodox synagogues in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and progressive synagogues in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin.

Cultural mix

Beth Shalom, Auckland’s largest progressive Jewish synagogue, was the first in New Zealand to employ a full-time rabbi. In his first month in the job, US-born Ed Rosenthal received a lesson in his new country’s religious diversity. He officiated at a funeral for a Jewish New Zealander who had been married to a Māori woman. The service was strictly Jewish but the surrounding rituals and family gatherings were conducted by the widow and her children according to Māori custom.

Jews in Auckland

In the 2010s almost half of New Zealand Jews lived in Auckland. The orthodox community of Beth Israel, founded in the 1840s, had a mikveh (ritual bathhouse) and religious school, and ran a kosher delicatessen. The main synagogue was in the city, with a stiebel (prayer centre) in the eastern suburbs. Beth Shalom, the Progressive Jewish Community of Auckland, was founded in 1956 and offered services and religious education to Jewish families.

Jews elsewhere

Wellington’s orthodox community, Beth El, founded in 1843, had a mikveh and a kosher shop and offered religious classes and services. Temple Sinai, the Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation, was founded in 1959. The Canterbury Hebrew Congregation was orthodox and worked in partnership with Chabad of Canterbury, a group offering kosher food and religious services, mainly for Jewish travellers.

Jewish social organisations

There were two integrated, co-educational Jewish schools in New Zealand – Moriah College in Wellington and Kadimah College in Auckland. Two Jewish aged care homes – Shalom Court in Auckland and the Deckson Home in Hutt Valley – offered kosher facilities. Bnai Akiva and Habonim were Jewish youth groups, each running camps and a programme in Israel for young New Zealanders.


The New Zealand Jewish community’s concerns have included anti-Semitism (prejudice against or hostility towards Jews). In 2004 Jewish graves were desecrated at a cemetery in Makara, near Wellington. In 2010 shekhita (killing meat according to Jewish law and tradition) was ruled illegal by the minister of agriculture. The Jewish community prepared to contest the decision, and the ban was not implemented. However, it raised the issue of religious freedom in the Jewish community.

How to cite this page:

Paul Morris, 'Diverse religions - Jews', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 30 May 2024)

Story by Paul Morris, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 12 Jul 2018