Abraham Tobias Boas – Rabbi and Community Leader

From Australia’s Jewish Past:



First published in J-Wire March 21, 2022

Abraham Tobias Boas was born on 25 November 1842 in Amsterdam. He was the son of a Rabbi, Tobias Eliesar Boas and his mother Eva Salomon-Levi.

It was a family of distinguished Jewish scholars and ministers who had fled from Poland to Holland late in the seventeenth century. Abraham followed in the family’s footsteps and studied to be a minister. After training at the Amsterdam Theological Seminary, he travelled to England to continue studying and in 1867 he became minister at the Southampton Synagogue London, where, in 1869, the Chief Rabbi Dr Nathan Adler recommended that he should look at taking up an appointment at the Adelaide Synagogue and this he agreed to do.

Arriving at Semaphore Adelaide on 13 February 1870, Abraham was carried ashore on the shoulders of a sailor and met by several members of his congregation with whom he walked to Port Adelaide. There followed half a century of energetic spiritual, social, and intellectual leadership and, in forty years, he never took a holiday.

Within a year a new synagogue in Rundle Street was consecrated, accommodating 350 worshippers.

On 15 May 1873, Abraham married Elizabeth Solomon and they had ten children. His pastoral visits later extended as far as Fremantle, Perth and Coolgardie Western Australia, where new synagogues and schools were opened. He actively created goodwill both within and outside the Jewish community by the membership of numerous philanthropic, social, and cultural bodies.

Abraham was short and thickly built with a dark beard, hair turning grey, and piercing eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses. He was a popular lecturer, whose voice was ‘sonorous’ although with a pronunciation often ‘unfamiliar’. He was esteemed as a student of English literature and drama, particularly of Shakespeare and became the Vice-President of the University Shakespeare Society.

Abraham continued to move within the wider community and became a foundation member of the District Trained Nursing Society, Chairman of the Board of the James Brown Memorial Trust for housing indigent tuberculosis patients, President of the Jewish Literary Society, and Inaugural Chairman of the Jewish Choristers’ Club. He was also headmaster of the Adelaide Synagogue’s Sabbath and Sunday Schools and, it is impressive to know that in 1895 there was an enrolment of over 80 children. Together with all these organisations and committees, he was also Chairman of the Chevra Kadisha which he helped establish in 1907.

His efforts to introduce the triennial reading of the law in Australian synagogues failed. He looked upon ‘Christianity as the foster-child of Judaism’ and his standing in the wider religious community was attested at Easter 1899 by his successful intervention in a bitter controversy between Catholics and Protestants, which gained the thanks of both the Catholic Archbishop and the Anglican Bishop; a newspaper commented that ‘such a genuine Jew would make a splendid Christian’.

By 1914, Abraham was the oldest officiating Jewish clergyman in Australasia and the longest-serving Jewish minister in the British Empire. His activity was much curtailed by a stroke in 1918. In 1921, during a visit from London by Chief Rabbi Dr Joseph Hertz, Abraham was honoured with the status of rabbi, as he was regarded as ‘the most learned of Anglo-Jewish Rabonim’.

Abraham and Elizabeth were very proud of their children – all of whom became involved in building communities in Perth and Adelaide. In the next couple of weeks, we will learn more about this most interesting family.

Abraham died at his home in Gover Street, North Adelaide, on 20 February 1923, and was buried in West Terrace Cemetery. Elizabeth’s family was associated with the company Solomon & Salon – Adelaide auctioneers. She died in 1916 at their Gover Street home. She was most prominent in the Adelaide social circles and spent most of her time – despite ten children – with philanthropic work. She was associated with the South Adelaide Creche since its inception in 1887 and was President of the Jewish Ladies’ Benevolent Society for some twenty years.

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