Thursday, 15 February 2018
East Perth Jewish Cemetery
From the moment we're born to the last breath we take, we should always endeavour to celebrate as much of one's life as possible. We start writing our life stories as soon as we live them, and, if we're fortunate, they survive through the years and generations to be told and remembered long after we're gone. No-one knows this better than communities that have shared values or common cultural heritage, or who are united by faith.
In December last year, I attended the rededication of the Jewish pioneer cemetery in East Perth. Western Australia's Jewish community has a proud and rich history in my home state of Western Australia. It can trace its beginnings back to the settlement of the Swan River Colony in 1829, where the Samson family played a significant commercial, political and social role, particularly in and around Fremantle and Perth.
The convict era saw almost 10,000 British convicts sent to Western Australia on 43 ships from 1850 to 1868. Twenty-seven Jews were among those convicts brought over to a new and, I'm sure, daunting land. One of those Jewish convicts, David Joseph, was transported to WA, convicted on a charge of breaking and entering. Joseph died in May 1867, and was buried in the Church of England section of the East Perth Cemeteries. His ticket-of-leave compatriots, Abraham Rosenberg, Isaac Harris and Henry Seeligson petitioned for a separate burial ground for Jews. This act represented the first organised Jewish activity in Western Australia, despite the presence of Jewish settlers from the earliest days of the colony. Governor John Hampton agreed to their request, and designated Perth town lot E72 to be a cemetery for members of the Jewish persuasion. The lot was bounded by Stokes, Wickham and North Plains streets, and town lot E73. It was one rood and 32 perches. The three men exhumed Joseph's body and reinterred it, following traditional Jewish custom, in the new designated grounds of the cemetery.
In his introductory remarks at the rededication ceremony held late last year, Dr Keith Shilkin provided some historical context about the cemetery. He explained that between 1867 and 1899, when Karrakatta became the city's cemetery, 32 Jews were buried in this East Perth cemetery. It's noteworthy that of the 32, 11 died under one year of age, and half of the 32 were under the age of five. Many of the adults were only in their 30s or 40s; just one survived to be over 80. Over the years, poor life expectancy together with other demographic factors have all served to keep the Jewish population of the state at around just half of one per cent.
According to the 1891 census, Perth's Jewish population comprised just 43 people. This small but strong community welcomed the first ordained minister of the Jewish faith to Western Australia in that same year. Reverend Abraham Tobias Boas consecrated the Jewish cemetery during the several weeks he spent in Western Australia, much to the appreciation and joy of our then small Jewish contingent. The following year, in 1892, the Perth Hebrew Congregation was formed and assumed responsibility for the management of the Jewish cemetery. Dr Shilkin also remarked at the rededication ceremony, 'A Jewish community has remained here, thrived and has helped to enrich our state with its energy, talent and commitment.'
Remained and thrived it has. Throughout their history, WA's Jewish community has ensured the survival and celebration of their customs and traditions. In 1896, for example, the Perth Hebrew Congregation commenced the construction in Brisbane Street in Perth of a synagogue which was consecrated on its completion the following year by Rabbi DI Freedman.
According to the most recent census, WA's Jewish population now numbers well over 5,000, making it Australia's third-largest Jewish community. Most of Perth's Jewish population remains centred in the northern suburbs of Yokine, Coolbinia, Menora and Dianella. As it continues to grow, the characteristic sense of coming home that this community has established continues to grow and thrive. This includes having a final resting place to call their own, which is why the Jewish pioneer cemetery is so important. It is the connection between past and present. Approximately a quarter of those buried in the cemetery have living descendants in Western Australia, some of whom were in attendance at the ceremony. It's a source of great historical and cultural significance, providing a touchstone for the beginnings of Jewish family at settlement.
We must acknowledge those in the community who not only engage in understanding their history but who keep those stories alive. Their determination to keep alive the tenets and principals of their faith in this remote corner of the world by ensuring that members of their community were able to be buried in consecrated ground should not ever be forgotten.