There have been Jewish people in New Zealand from the beginnings of European settlement. In the north, Jewish traders from England, including John Montefiore, Joel Polack and David Nathan, were active from about 1830.
Jews were on the first ships to arrive in Wellington. A Jewish community was founded in 1843 with the arrival from London of Abraham Hort. He held the first organised prayer service on 7 January 1843, only days after he and his family arrived aboard the Prince of Wales.
Several hundred English, German and Polish Jews were among the gold seekers of the 1860s. They became a prominent part of business life in the West Coast town of Hokitika. Some later moved on to become leading members of business communities in larger cities like Christchurch.
After 1881 some Russian and Polish Jews, fleeing from persecution by the Tsarist government, came as far as New Zealand.
From the outset New Zealand adopted a welcoming attitude towards Jews. There may have been some prejudice initially, but in contrast to the United Kingdom, Jews faced no political or civil disadvantages or discrimination. They were able to take a full part in the civic life of the colony. As with most 19th-century migrants to New Zealand, most of the Jewish immigrants arrived either directly from the United Kingdom or Australia.
During the 19th century, synagogues were established in the main centres of European settlement, including Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland, as well as in Hokitika, Nelson and Timaru. A range of buildings were used, from existing stores and houses to purpose-built synagogues.
Business and politics
The past imagined
The Dunedin poet Charles Brasch (1909–1973) came from one of the city’s successful business families. He wrote of the connection with his Jewish ancestors:
‘By what long tortuous path did the Brasches and the Hallensteins come to settle in those obscure northern regions so far from their origin, centuries before, in Palestine? … No record of all that past remains, but I try at times to imagine it; and when travelling I feel some unaccountable sense of having seen a place before, I wonder if it had sunk deeply into the eyes and mind of some ancestor whom I shall never know of.’ 1
Jews were prominent in early commercial ventures, particularly in Auckland and Dunedin. In Auckland, this tradition began in 1840 when David Nathan opened several successful stores. Other Jewish families among the founders of Auckland’s business community were the Keesings and Ashers. In Dunedin, the Fels, de Beer, Hallenstein, Brasch and Theomin families were successful in enterprise, and socially prominent.
Several of those who entered local or national politics had first excelled in business. Hugo Friedlander became mayor of Ashburton after founding a substantial company supplying grain to the county.
Jews were elected to positions in local government as mayors and councillors, and as members of Parliament. In 1873 a Jewish MP, Julius Vogel, became premier, serving two terms from April 1873 to July 1875, and again from February 1876 to September 1876.