A GROWING CONGREGATION

Melbourne prospered firstly in the years after the gold rush and then the development of a metropolis, leading to the great economic development of the 1880's. As early as February 1861 Nathaniel Levi was elected to the Victorian Parliament and a number of noted Jewish citizens were also elected. Noted among them was Sir Benjamin Benjamin (1834-1905) , three times Mayor of Melbourne, a Member of the Legislative Council and thirteen times President of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation.

In the 1880's he was foremost among Melbourne citizens. Another leading personality was the Hon Edward Cohen, President of the Congregation for five years, Mayor of Melbourne (1862-1863) and a Minister in the Victorian Parliament . When he died in April 1877 his funeral was the largest seen in Melbourne. The Governor, Sir George Bowen in his carriage followed the funeral procession. Ephraim L Zox,  President (1883-1885) of the congregation was also a greatly respected Victorian Parliamentarian.

A suburban Melbourne growing in wealth and public achievement developed  a proud Congregation. The building was re-consecrated in 1877. However, it was felt there was a need for scholarly religious leadership,  and the Congregation in 1883 called a new spiritual leader - Rabbi Dr Joseph Abrahams - with his great Rabbinical and secular knowledge - to teach and to judge ( “yoreh, yoreh, yadin, yadin”). He was a great and erudite scholar with a Ph D (Leipzig) and M A (Melbourne).    

His religious determination over the next forty years helped  shape the destiny of Melbourne and indeed Australian Jewry. Joseph Abrahams was the son of Rabbi Barnett Abrahams, headmaster of the Bevis Marks School, London, and the brother of the noted Jewish Scholar at Cambridge - Israel Abrahams. He himself had studied at Hildersheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin under Ezriel Hildersheimer, David Hoffman and Abraham Berliner - these rabbis being the principal Orthodox rabbis in Germany in the closing years of the nineteenth century. His great scholarship paved the way for his successors at Melbourne - Israel Brodie, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth (1948-1965), Harry Freedman, a modern world authority on Hebrew,  and Hugo Stransky , also a graduate of Hildersheimers.

Joseph Abrahams had many demands made upon his knowledge . He allowed a mixed choir. This followed requests for organ music to accompany the service. He was opposed to this, and as a compromise permitted a mixed choir. He fielded many requests for conversion to Judaism and always felt that such conversions became his responsibility and reflected upon him. In the century that elapsed from his arrival to the retirement of Rabbi Dr  Rapaport in 1979, the religious authority of the congregation was considered  paramount.