Early Jewish Settlement in Nelson


Jewish traders were recorded in New Zealand as early as 1829 -  probably sealers and whalers. Settlers arrived with the New Zealand Company, established in 1839 by Edward Gibbon Wakefield in London, England. The Company had a number of Jewish shareholders,  the most prominent one being Director Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, Baronet (the first Jew given a knighthood).

Poverty in Europe in the 1840s was a powerful motivation to emigrate and when, in the 1860s gold was discovered in Otago and Westland, the Jewish population spread throughout New Zealand. While Auckland and Wellington still accounted for the majority of New Zealand's Jewish population, communities were established in Dunedin, Christchurch, Hokitika, Timaru, Nelson, and Hastings. In 1861, 326 Jews lived in New Zealand. By 1867, that number nearly quadrupled to 1,262 comprising 0.6% of the total population.

Nelson became a flourishing township in 1866 when prospectors found gold in the district. Important and respected Jewish citizens included Morris Levy,  Hyam Davis and Robert Levien.  Hyam Davis came to Nelson from Sydney in 1864 and set himself up as a successful merchant trading in hops and barley. In 1876 he sold his Nelson interests to his son Moss, who prospered.  In 1885, Moss sold out his business in Nelson to Robert Levien, a relative of Sir Isaac Goldsmid.  Moss's sons (Ernest Hyam Davis and Hon Eliot Davis) continued to prosper in the brewing industry in Auckland and, in 1961 erected a memorial to their father on Princes' Drive in Nelson.  Levien's children also did well, particulary Joseph Henry Levien, who became mayor of Nelson in 1874, rescued the city from its financial woes and supported the establishment of the Nelson Synagogue.

Robert Levien (c. 1906) In The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Nelson, Marlborough & Westland Provincial Districts], NZETC.
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Other prominent Jews in Nelson included Hyam and P. Phillips, storekeepers, and M. L. Marks, a merchant. Saul Moss Solomon, outfitter and clothier, and F. P. Josephs came at the time of the gold-rush and remained for many years. Trooper Peter Levy was a policeman. Across the bay at Motueka, a single Jew gained distinction. Simon Bucholz, the storekeeper, traded by barter for the reason that little money circulated in the district. He collected produce from the farmers he visited in exchange for grocery provisions from his store.

A Jewish grave, with hebrew script, at Wakapuaka Cemetery
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David M. Isaacs, who had served the Jewish ministry in Dunedin and settled in Nelson in 1863 earning his livelihood as a photographer, became Nelson's first Jewish Minister.

Nelson's Beth Israel Synagogue

As a very pious and devout man, Hyam Davis, a successful local hops and barley merchant, yearned to build a synagogue as soon as he had arrived in Nelson.  He and Isaacs tried to obtain a government grant for the purpose, just as they had received a grant for a cemetery. In 1867 there were 130 Jewish people in Nelson and this was considered insufficient to warrant a grant. Nevertheless, Hyam Davis's determination urged him on his own account to buy Plot 454 on the town plan at the corner of Nile Street and Trafalgar Square. With monetary assistance received from other congregations in New Zealand, the small community built an imposing wooden synagogue, which David M. Isaacs dedicated on 29 August 1869. 

A lively account of the event is reported in the Nelson Evening Mail of 30 August 1869.  About 80 feet long by 30 feet wide, it looked almost an exact but smaller replica of the synagogue at Hokitika. It had two rows of seats for men, a reading desk and the Ark containing holy words downstairs, a gallery for women upstairs and four high Corinthian pillars ornamented the entrance. Lead-light windows gave the lighting for the interior. Those who worshipped therein regarded it as a delightful gem of a synagogue.

After the goldfields proved to be less lucrative than hoped, one by one the Jewish families, inclucing Isaacs, left the settlement. Simon Bucholz carried on as Honorary Reader at the Nelson synagogue after Isaacs departed, but when Bucholz left, services were rarely held in the building. In 1888, the Bank of New Zealand sold the synagogue land by default, but the Davis family redeemed it. Soon after, when the total Jewish population in the province dwindled to less than forty men, women and children, the synagogue, although in a good state of preservation, was never opened except when visited by Isaac Van Staveren, the eldest son of the Wellington Jewish minister Herman Van Staveren, who took it upon himself, whenever he was in Nelson, to pray in the building on the Sabbath, and, as the sole congregant, to read from the only Scroll of the Law in order to preserve it. When Van Staveren ceased to visit the district from about 1895, the synagogue never opened again for Jewish worship. Abraham Manoy of Motueka took the Sefer Torah into his possession for safe keeping.

Nelson Synagogue, 1911(closed for worship since 1895) From Goldman. History of the Jews in New Zealand. [NZETC]
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The synagogue was pulled down in 1917. In 2011 architect Christopher Vine applied successfully for the street, where it was located, to be renamed Synagogue Lane (it had been Church Lane).

David M. Isaacs

David M Isaacs came to Wellington in 1843 with Abraham Hort Senior.  Hort had come with the sanction of the Chief Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, London, and chose to bring Isaacs with him to act in a religious capacity as a Shochet, Mohel and Chazan.

Isaacs had trained in manual work at the Neveh Zedek Institution and also studied shechitah and Brit milah.  He became the lay minister in Wellington from 1843 to c1851.

He was invited to be minister in Melbourne and then went onto Ballarat - a gold rush boom town.  However, because Isaacs was still a bachelor, those in the community who preferred their ministers to be married disliked him.  Part of the Congregation emanated from Germany and Poland, and believed that English Jews, which included their minister, did not reach the appropriate standards of piety and learning. "Because Isaacs is an Englishman," wrote the secretary of the congregation, "some of the foreign Jews think he can do nothing right."

Isaacs' next appointment came in 1863, when the Dunedin Jewish Congregation engaged him after a glowing recommendation from Abraham Hort, his initial sponsor in New Zealand. He came to Nelson in 1867, where the sunny climate suited his constitution better. In Nelson, he performed his religious duties for the Jewish community at the weekend and, during the week, worked as a photographer, a profession then newly introduced into New Zealand.

Isaacs still maintained good links with Wellington returning there to perform the duties of a shochet and mohel from time to time, and he had the honour of acting as the officiating minister when the Wellington Synagogue was consecrated in 1870.

He served the community in Nelson until the general exodus of the Jewish congregation following the gold rushes on the west coast. There Isaacs tried his fortune as an auctioneer at Charleston, a mining town upon the West coast, which many at the time thought would flourish but did not. Eventually Isaacs returned to England where he ended his days, a hale and hearty old man of over eighty, welcoming visitors from the Antipodes.

Synagogues in New Zealand

Seven synagogues were erected in New Zealand between 1865 and 1885. Today there are synagogues in the four main centres, the congregation in Dunedin being the most southern in the world. Three synagogues, established at Nelson, Hokitika, and Timaru, are no longer in existence.  

The earliest synagogue erected in New Zealand appears to have been in Hokitika in 1865. Like all other denominations, the Hokitika Hebrew Congregation received a grant of land for the erection of a house of worship, and, according to Goldman, "on Plot 665 the adventurous young Jews built a beautiful, small, wooden synagogue on traditional lines, with the Bimah in the centre and a ladies' gallery."

The attractive design appears to have been replicated in the Beth Israel Nelson Synagogue which was consecrated 29 August 1869.  The Beth El Synagogue in Wellington  was consecrated in 1870 with Rev. David Isaacs acting as officiating minister on both occasions. Title deeds for Wellington had been obtained in 1868, the same year a synagogue was built in Dunedin on the corner of Moray Place and View Street. This first building was sold and an imposing edifice was built in Morah Place opposite.

Timaru had a synagogue by June 1875 and in Christchurch the congregation built a wooden edifice on a block of land between Worcester and Gloucester Streets, on the site where the next synagogue was also built and consecrated in 1881.

In Auckland Jews had been in a small building. On 9th November 1885 the ceremony of opening a new Auckland Synagogue was held.

2012 (updated 2023)

Sources used in this story

  • New Zealand Jewish Archives: https://www.nzjewisharchives.org/
  • Goldman, L.M. (1958) The History of the Jews in New Zealand. Wellington, NZ: Reed Publishing 
  • Consecration of the new synagogue (1869, August 30) Nelson Evening Mail, p.2
  • Levine, S. (1994)  A standard for the people, the 150th anniversary of the Wellington Hebrew Congregation. Christchurch, N.Z. : Hazard Press Publishers

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  • T B Louisson was not Jewish- he is buried in the old Presbyterian part of the Wakapuaka cemetery in Nelson. He is my great great grandfather who emigrated from Scotland arriving in Nelson in 1855. This Louisson family is not related to the Jewish Louisson family who settled in Christchurch, emigrating from London.
    Ed. This has been corrected. 29/10/19

    Posted by Helen Jemson, 29/10/2019 9:06am (5 years ago)

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