Temple Sinai: a capital congregation founded in 1959. Jewish community life in New Zealand was organised along Orthodox lines for country’s first 100 years, with the chief rabbi of the Commonwealth—formerly the old British Empire—being the titular head. During the 1950s, however, non-Orthodox congregations were also established in Auckland and Wellington. Both these groups, which are affiliated to the worldwide progressive Jewish movement, remain very active and, given their relatively small size, highly visible.
The roots of Wellington’s Progressive Jewish Congregation, which for much of its history was known as the Wellington Liberal Jewish Congregation, date back to 1959, when Rabbi John Levi came to Wellington from Melbourne to investigate the possibility of establishing a new Liberal congregation. A number of Jews in the capital were interested. Later that same year, Temple Sinai began reformist life.
Reform Judaism maintains that Judaism and Jewish traditions should be modernised and compatible with participation in the surrounding culture. Its various branches hold that Jewish law should undergo a process of critical evaluation and renewal. Traditional Jewish law is therefore often interpreted as a set of general guidelines rather than as a list of restrictions whose literal observance is required of all Jews. Its differences with traditional Judaism can be seen in, for instance, its more liberal interpretation of Jewish identity, which allows for the offspring of mixed marriages in which only the father is Jewish to be counted as fully Jewish if the child is raised accordingly.
Aspects of the Progressive Congregation’s services in Wellington will be familiar to congregants accustomed to Reform, Reconstructionist, Liberal and Jewish Humanist services. Officially, it is affiliated to the Union for Progressive Judaism-Australia, New Zealand and Asia, and its current name was agreed to by members in 1997. The group, which meets at 147 Ghuznee Street, describes itself “a forward-thinking organisation” dedicated to improving the lives of members and the wider community.
Rabbi Adi Cohen, who came to Wellington from Brit Olam, a progressive Jewish congregation in Kiryat Ono, in Israel. He was also a rabbi at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College. The group has enjoyed considerable profile over the years, and sometimes even mild controversy, as for instance when it publicly rebuked a former foreign minister, Winston Peters, for his statements about Muslim groups. It took an active role in responding to the desecration of local Jewish graves in 2004.
It was also notable for having recruited a female rabbi, the country’s first, in 2006. Johanna Hershenson, who was 40 when she took the position, attracted considerable attention from outside the community as well.
The Washington, DC-born Hershenson had completed her studies at Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati earlier in the decade and arrived in Wellington after holding a rabbinic post at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a large synagogue in Los Angeles.
In an interview with the New Zealand Herald, she talked about the sexism she said she had experienced in her role, something she attributed to either "ignorance or maybe a sort of edgy humour." And she feels only compassion when members of her congregation are embarrassed to admit to having a woman rabbi in front of their more traditional family members. "I understand the pressure of pleasing parents or trying to keep your adult child from drifting too far away. I totally get that," she said. In her case, she said, the response tended to come from the opposite reaction, a type of reverse sexism in which she is, in a sense, viewed as a trophy rabbi.
Image above header: Temple Sinai, Wellington. Photography by Keren Cook. © JoM 2013