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Rabbi Astor


In the 1930s and 1940s Rabbi Astor tried hard to soften the New Zealand govern­ment's approach in granting entry permits to refugees from Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe.

Alexander Ostroff, one of eight children, was born in Helsinki, Finland, on August 11, 1900. His father, Rabbi Theodore Ostroff, was a Talmudic scholar from Latvia and his mother, Gertrude Freedman, had been born in Lithuania.

The family moved to London shortly after Alexander was born, and he attended the Rutland Street council school, the Guildhall School of Music, the Yeshiva Etz Chaim theological seminary, and Jews’ College where he trained as an Anglo-Jewish minister. He was a foundation member of the Inter-University Jewish Federation of Britain and Ireland.

In 1926 he married Rebecca Myers. He had just received an assignation as a rabbi in a British Empire outpost – New Zealand. With their name changed to Astor  because of a fair amount of local resentment against foreigners, he and Rebecca moved to Dunedin where Alexander took on the role of rabbi for the local 350-strong community.

Daughters Ruth and Lorraine were born during the couple’s time in Dunedin and while Alexander was also doing part-time studies at the University of Otago, graduating with a BA in 1931. In Dunedin he was Vice-President of the Dunedin branch of the League of Nations Union of New Zealand, developed an interest in freemasonry, and published a booklet on the history of Dunedin Jewry.

Up in Auckland Rabbi Samuel Goldstein was getting on in years. He had been serving the local community as a rabbi for 50 years. After graduation in Dunedin the family moved to Auckland and Alexander became assistant rabbi for the 800-strong Auckland Jewish community. Upon Goldstein’s retirement in 1934 Alexander became the new Rabbi. He and his wife established the Auckland Judean Association in an attempt to keep the congregation from assimilation and intermarriage. Rebecca Astor started a monthly bulletin, the Auckland Judean, which was the only Jewish publication at the time which contained relevant international news items.

In the 1930s and 1940s Rabbi Astor tried hard to soften the New Zealand govern­ment's approach in granting entry permits to refugees from Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. Nevertheless, just 850 refugees were taken into the country, although another source talks about 1150.

In 1968 Rabbi Astor helped open the Beth Israel Synagogue and Communal Centre in Greys Avenue, today the site of the Auckland Hebrew Congregation. In the same year he was awarded an OBE for his services to the community. He remained an active freemason all his life and in 1978 he received the 50 years service badge of the Grand Lodge of New Zealand. Further, he was patron of the Auckland Ryder-Cheshire Foundation, and involved with many community organisations, ranging from the New Zealand Crippled Children Society and the Society for the Protection of Women and Children to the Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Society.

He was patient and methodical in his ways; he had a cantorial voice and was an impressive orator, the friend of many Auckland church leaders. In 1971, after 40 years of serving the Auckland community, Alexander and Rebecca Astor moved to Israel and settled in a retirement village. On one of their visits back to New Zealand, in 1980, declining health prevented Alexander from returning to Israel and so the couple settled in Wellington, near their daughter Lorraine and her family. Alexander Astor died there on June 24, 1988, Rebecca dying seven years later.

Image header above: Rabbi Alexander Astor (top right). Photograph of Rabbis Pitowksy, Van Staveren, Astor and Goldstein. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP-0339-1/2-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Reproduced here with permission.

Excerpted biography re-published here with the permission of Te Ara Encyclopedia of NZ

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