1894 Rosh Hashanah in Coolgardie

From Australia’s Jewish Past:


Where there is a will there is a way

First published in J-Wire September 14, 2021

Etching of Coolgardie Miners in 1890s Western AustraliaPossibly one of the most unique High Holiday services ever held in Australia took place in 1894 in Coolgardie WA for Rosh Hashana.

The services were not held in a synagogue, nor in a home — in fact, not even in a building. The service, in which eleven men participated, just surpassing the bare minimum required, was held in a tent during the time of the WA’s gold rush period. As we all know, life on the goldfields was extremely hard, with primitive conditions and few amenities. Water, food and housing were scarce, and business was conducted in tents, sheds, shacks — the crudest of shelters. Yet within these harsh parameters for life, Jews clung to their traditions.

Most of the worshippers were not actually among the thousands of miners who had rushed to Western Australia after gold was discovered there in 1892, but Jewish businessmen who followed in their wake. In this era, Jews were drawn to these frontier towns with booming business potential and often contributed significantly to the building of infrastructure and community. There were, however, a few Jewish miners in Coolgardie and neighbouring Kalgoorlie, some of whom became very wealthy.

Within a year of the tented Rosh Hashana service, community members petitioned for land to build a synagogue. Built in time for Rosh Hashana 1896, the new shule was fittingly named the Goldfields Hebrew Congregation.

Unfortunately, the flame of Jewish life in Coolgardie flared and died out quickly with the fortunes of the town, and the Goldfields Hebrew Congregation was out of use by 1899. In neighbouring Kalgoorlie, however, where gold had been discovered in 1893, Jewish life established itself in much the same way: through wealthy miners and businessmen, shopkeepers and artisans, and poorer miners, all of whom came together to form a community.

Kalgoorlie’s Jews made the usual appeal to the government for land on which to build a synagogue in 1896, citing a population of ‘over 50’ co-religionists in the town. This time, in part owing to the influence of the mayor, who enjoyed enough goodwill within the community to be honoured at the first circumcision held in Kalgoorlie, the plea was successful. After a few years of red tape, a synagogue was built in 1902, though High Holy Day services were held as early as 1896 in municipal buildings.

Despite the prominence of many wealthy Jews, there is little, if any, evidence of anti-Semitic sentiment on the goldfields. Members of the Jewish community, both rich and poor, were integrated and welcomed as members of the larger Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie communities. Some were involved in local politics; many were acknowledged as contributing to the larger well-being and communal development of the towns.

From Australia's Jewish Past is written by Ruth Lilian OAM for AJHS and published weekly in J-Wire. ​