Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) was the huge mining company that ran the town of Broken Hill for its 27,000 citizens at the turn of the new century. 1100 ks west of Sydney, this outback city could not have been more isolated from the urban centres of Australia, nor more remote from the centres of Jewish learning. From Broken Hill, Sydney is 1,167 kms, Melbourne 817 kms and Adelaide 506 kms. Yet Jewish migrants were attracted to Broken Hill, presumably because employment was always available and small businesses always had a ready market with the mining families.
Broken Hill synagogue,
Some early evidence of the community comes from the tombstones. The first Jewish burials in Broken Hill’s cemetery occurred when a typhoid epidemic hit the town in 1888. Other gravestones tell of how the young son of Rebecca and Isaac Joseph died in 1892, and how Louis Dias was killed in the mines by a runaway cart in 1895.
The Broken Hill Jewish community was formally inaugurated in 1900, but as there was no special building available, religious services were held in the Masonic Hall. The first minister, the Rev Zalel Mandelbaum from Minsk, was appointed in 1905.
The foundation stone for the synagogue in Wolfram Street was dated 1910, at a time when the Jewish population of Broken Hill was c150. The façade was roughcast stone brick, but the rest of the building was corrugated iron, a typically Australian material. Next to the synagogue there was a house for the minister and his family, the place where Sunday school classes were held.
Plaque outside Broken Hill synagogue,
marking the opening ceremony, 1910
Broken Hill's great days were in the 1920s and 30s, but WW2 was the beginning of the end of this impressive community. All young male citizens went into the army, the mines were closing and the remaining Jewish congregation was thinking of moving to Melbourne or Sydney. In 1962 the synagogue was permanently closed, with fittings given away to a Melbourne congregation. The last senior citizens of Broken Hill’s synagogue, too elderly to move once again, eventually died and were buried in the Jewish section of the local cemetery.
The synagogue building has been heritage listed and in 2004 it was taken over and restored, without its fittings, by the Broken Hill Historical Society. To celebrate the centenary of the synagogue in November 2010, a programme of historical talks and personal reminiscences about the Jews of Broken Hill and their contribution to the town was organised. They also arranged a bus tour of places where Jews had lived and worked, a walking tour of the Jewish section of the cemetery, and a tour to the Miners’ Memorial Arch. 200 ex-members of the town, or their children, gathered in the restored synagogue.
Restored synagogue interior
The book Jews of the Outback was edited by Suzanne Rutland, Leon Mann and Margaret Price, and published by Hybrid Publishers in 2010