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by  Stephen Levine

Whether seeking a better life or fleeing for their lives, Jewish immigrants have brought to New Zealand a passion for education, a devotion to family and communal survival, and a strong social conscience.

19th-century immigration

Early arrivals

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.

Settling in

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.

    • Charles Brasch, ‘Dunedin’, in Jewish writing from down under: Australia and New Zealand, edited by Robert and Roberta Kalechofsky, Marblehead: Micah, 1984, pp. 151–2. › Back

20th and 21st-century immigration

20th-century arrivals

During the 20th century, Jewish migrants came to New Zealand from a wider range of countries. The rise of Nazism brought some Jewish people from Germany during the period before the Second World War: most of the 1,000 or so fugitives from Nazism who came up to 1939 were Jewish. But New Zealand admitted few Jewish refugees during the war and its aftermath.

The failed Hungarian uprising in 1956 brought a further group of Jewish refugees, while the 1980s and 1990s saw Jews coming to New Zealand from Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. Israelis escaping the political violence of the Middle East, along with South African Jews, have been among the most recent arrivals.

Contributions to New Zealand life

In the 20th century the children and grandchildren of Jews who had succeeded in business flourished in other fields. New Zealand’s first woman doctor, Emily Siedeberg, was Jewish; so was the first woman lawyer, Ethel Benjamin. Michael Myers became chief justice in 1929. One 20th-century arrival, Fred Turnovsky, is better known as a supporter of the arts than for the success of his leather business. He was one of many Jewish refugees from Nazism who did much to enrich the cultural life of Wellington during and after the Second World War.

Cultures connect

Esther arrived in New Zealand as a child in 1971. She has found that her Jewish background not only complements the New Zealand part of her identity; it has helped her to understand the country’s different cultures:

‘I have found quite a few similarities between Maori and Jewish culture … the whole family thing, the whole thing when someone dies, the family gets together for a length of time. The importance of the land, that was a big thing in Israel.’ 1

The community

The number of Jews in New Zealand has never been very large. They comprise less than 1% of the population, and the proportion has not risen. Jewish immigration has been offset by emigration, principally to Australia, the United Kingdom and Israel. Despite New Zealand’s geographic isolation and its own internal preoccupations, its Jewry has been outward looking, with an active interest and involvement in worldwide Jewish concerns and organisations.

Emigration to Israel

The establishment of Israel and the success of New Zealand Zionist organisations has made emigration to Israel a factor in New Zealand Jewish life. Each year young New Zealand Jews take part in work and study programmes in Israel, and many of those subsequently choose to live there.

In 1987, during the only official visit yet made to New Zealand by Israel’s head of state, then President Chaim Herzog pointed out that no English-speaking country has had a higher proportion of its Jewish population emigrate to Israel than New Zealand. This migration to Israel has had its effects on New Zealand Jewry, reducing its numbers and depriving the community of its likely future leadership.

  1. Quoted in Livia Kathe Wittmann, Interactive identities: Jewish women in New Zealand. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 1998, p. 81. › Back

Communal life

Organised Jewish life

The New Zealand Jewish community, although small, has offered its members the full range of facilities and services required of organised Jewish life. This includes the building of synagogues and the employment of rabbis, who have to be recruited from overseas. In the different communities there has been established a chevra kadisha – a society to assist with burials – and land has been consecrated for Jewish burial grounds. There is provision for a mikveh (ritual bath), arrangements for brit milah (ritual circumcision for infant boys), and for the conduct of Jewish weddings. There are facilities for Jewish education, such as Hebrew schools for young children. Kosher meat and other food products can be bought. Philanthropic societies assist new arrivals and the poor, and there are places for the care of elderly members of the community.

Social groups

Jewish social groups, including sports teams and women’s organisations, have also played an important role in the maintenance of Jewish life in New Zealand. Increased emphasis has been given to Jewish education, with the establishment of Jewish day schools (Kadimah College in Auckland, in 1971, and Moriah College in Wellington, in 1986) as well as kindergartens and preschool groups. The community has for a long time also had its own publications, with the nationwide newspaper The New Zealand Jewish Chronicle augmenting congregational newsletters.

The Jewish community in New Zealand has been organised along orthodox lines, with the chief rabbi of the Commonwealth – formerly the Empire – being the titular head. During the 1950s non-orthodox congregations were also established in Auckland and Wellington. They are affiliated to the worldwide progressive Jewish movement.

Zionism in New Zealand

History and development

The Zionist movement works for the return of the Jewish people to Israel and the maintenance of Jewish sovereignty there. Zionism has had a particularly strong influence on the development of New Zealand’s Jewish community.

New Zealand Jewry has been Zionist since the establishment of the movement by Theodor Herzl in 1897. Communal records show concern about the welfare of Jews overseas, in Tsarist Russia (where Jews suffered from state-sponsored prejudice and the violence of intermittent pogroms), and in the land of Israel itself.

Annual fundraising appeals for Israel were for a long time an important feature of the New Zealand community’s annual calendar. Branches of the Jewish National Fund raised money for the planting of trees and the restoration of Israel’s landscape. Zionist organisations raised funds to assist the Zionist movement and, subsequently, Israel. Youth groups (Habonim and Bnei Akiva) raised the consciousness of young New Zealand Jews about a land that they had never seen.

During the 1980s the Wellington Jewish community went so far as to purchase a house as an official residence for Israel’s ambassador to New Zealand. In late 2002, however, Israel downgraded its representation in New Zealand. The embassy in Wellington was closed and representation in New Zealand is now provided through cross-accreditation from the Israeli embassy in Canberra.

Combating prejudice

While New Zealand’s Jews have not had to face hostility or prejudice comparable to that experienced by many Jewish people elsewhere, anti-Jewish sentiments have not been completely absent from the media and wider culture. The New Zealand Jewish Council, aided by regional Jewish councils, was established in 1981 to respond to expressions of anti-Jewish feeling, including misleading statements in relation to the extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis during the Second World War. The New Zealand government’s attitudes toward Israel, and toward Middle East issues generally, has occasionally been a source of concern both to the Jewish Council and the various Zionist organisations.

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Israel.

  • 1976 census: 149
  • 2001 census: 549
  • 2006 census: 846
  • 2013 census: 858

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Israeli/Jewish: 1,599 (2006); 1,353 (2013)

Religious affiliation

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents who described their religion as Jewish.

  • 1871 census:1,262
  • 1901 census: 1,611
  • 1951 census: 3,661
  • 2001 census: 6,636
  • 2006 census: 6,858
  • 2013 census: 6,867

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Stephen Levine, 'Jews', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Stephen Levine, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005