This is another good news story – amazingly that makes our second for the year, I think I need a Valium. It relates to a former synagogue in Strathfield, and the local council’s unusual move to heritage-list the building against the wishes of its owners. This doesn’t happen every day, for some councils it doesn’t happen every year, and for many it doesn’t happen at all. So first and foremost our congratulations go to Strathfield Council, who passed the motion 4-1 at its 21 May meeting, and of course Mayor Daniel Bott who initiated the heritage listing.
Naturally for every good deed there is a denier, and in this case it is the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, who represent the building and the land it sits upon, and have declared their intention to sell off the synagogue as a prime development site. This is despite Strathfield Synagogue vice-president Sam Steif telling the Australian Jewish News in 2011 that “the only way we are going to get a minyan is if we put a mirror on the wall, but we will not sell the synagogue… If we got to that point I would go to the Jewish Communal Appeal and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and do anything I could to save it because this is a war memorial synagogue and we need to keep it.”
Unfortunately for the Jewish Board’s plans for sale, the heritage listing has complicated matters somewhat.
Built in 1959, the synagogue, known as the War Memorial Synagogue due to its internal plaques adorning the walls that commemorate Jewish victims of the Holocaust, was closed in 2011 as a result of shrinking congregations. The multicultural area was once rich with postwar Jewish immigrants, but over the ensuing decades the demographic has obviously changed as many of the Jewish families have moved away.
A preschool that operates on the site was initially set up for Jewish children but now caters for the greater community, and despite the closure of the synagogue, the site still operates at a profit thanks to the ongoing preschool lease.
Samuel Tov-Lev was the resident Rabbi for 15 years but his contract has since been terminated and he was effectively locked out of the site. He has campaigned for the heritage listing of the synagogue against the Board’s aspirations, and gathered 12,000 signatures in support. He sees the heritage of the building as unique in the area and deserving of recognition and retention. When asked about the successful heritage listing by Australian Jewish News he replied “I’m pleased but at the same time I’m very sad to see people calling themselves Jews fighting to destroy the holy and sacred synagogue.”
The Jewish Board of Deputies sees it only as an unexceptional building that contains plaques that could readily be moved to the centralised Sydney Jewish Museum. They have even gone so far as to say the naming of the ‘War memorial Synagogue’ was purely for taxation reasons, as memorial items attracted tax concessions at the time.
What they fail to acknowledge is that the heritage of the site is more than just the plaques that can be lifted and replanted elsewhere. It is, as with all heritage listed items, the synergy of the whole… It is the presence of the plaques, within the community where it was created, it is the modernist building design that reflected a new life for many postwar Jewish immigrants, away from the trauma of war, to a new country, a new community, so welcoming and accepting of refugees and settlers from all corners of the globe, and the symbolism that represents. It is the growth of that community to form a new society in a land so far away from their roots. It is the freedom and acceptance that made Australia such a reliable refuge for peoples removed from their homelands. And the simple walls of this synagogue represent much of that sentiment.
I think, despite the Jewish Board’s opposition, that Jewish people in general would be grateful for the protection of this historic suburban synagogue. I think that residents of Strathfield would be grateful for their council’s bold actions. And I think Australians in general would be grateful for the preservation of a piece of multicultural heritage, a small contribution to a country so great that people traversed the globe en masse because they wanted to live here – and part of keeping that country great, an important part, is maintaining its heritage for future generations to see, not just internal fixtures but the physical structures – and that blinding truth, unfortunately for some, far outstrips the requirement to make real estate profits to the maximum level.
Main image courtesy Australian Jewish News.
Thanks to Quentin Dempster on ABC’s 7.30 New South Wales for publicizing the story.