On Yom Kippur, 1803, 22-year-old Joseph Samuel was sentenced to death by hanging in the penal colony that was Australia. After fellow convict Joseph Marcus, one of the earliest Jewish convicts with a decent Jewish education, recited the final prayers with Samuel in Australia’s first recorded instance of public Jewish prayer, Samuel slipped into unconsciousness as the execution cart was rolled away. To the great shock of the crowds gathered to watch the gory proceedings, the rope snapped, landing Samuel face down on the ground.

Another rope was tied, the noose placed over his head, yet it unraveled. Some of the crowd now began to protest his innocence. Hurrying to tie the rope again, the hangman did the deed, and the rope snapped yet again. The crowd was in an uproar. The marshal galloped away to seek a pardon from the governor, who granted it, declaring it to be “divine intervention.”

Like many dangerous convicts, the half-strangled Samuel was sent off to Newcastle, then known as Kings Town, some 100 miles north of Sydney on Australia’s east coast. There he languished for another three years working in the coal mines before mounting a wild escape attempt from the settlement by boat. The boat was found later on and Samuel declared drowned, his body never recovered.

More than two centuries later, another Newcastle resident—Claire Tipper, a native of Birmingham in the United Kingdom—experienced divine intervention of her own this past Yom Kippur when Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Yossi Rodal became the city’s first permanent rabbi since 1958, leading High Holiday services at a rejuvenated synagogue and congregation. It was a far cry from the improvised final Yom Kippur prayers of Marcus and Samuel so many years before.

When Rodal and his wife, Malki, became co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Newcastle in June, they were joining one of Australia’s oldest Jewish communities—one that they had been visiting for years. Founded in 1905, the Newcastle Hebrew Congregation is one of Australia’s oldest, as well the longest in continuous use outside of the major capital cities.

Founded in 1905, the Newcastle Hebrew Congregation is one of Australia’s oldest, as well the longest in continuous use outside of the nation's major capital cities.
Founded in 1905, the Newcastle Hebrew Congregation is one of Australia’s oldest, as well the longest in continuous use outside of the nation's major capital cities.

‘I Always Wanted to Keep a More Kosher Home’

An unexpected city for so historic a synagogue, Newcastle’s Jewish community has an equally fascinating history, harking back to the earliest days of European settlement in Australia.

The first Jews to settle in Newcastle—today Australia’s seventh largest city with a population of 440,000, and the world’s largest exporter of coal, producing a staggering 159.9 million tons in 2017—were of backgrounds like that of Samuel, albeit less dramatic.

In 1927, the community consecrated its first synagogue, with its rabbi, Latvian-born Rev. Isack Morris, leading the service, accompanied by Rabbi Francis Cohen of Sydney’s Great Synagogue.

In its heyday in the mid-20th century, the 300-seat synagogue was filled to capacity on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, with standing room only for latecomers. As the community slowly began to decline, with many younger members moving to more extensive Jewish life and opportunities in Sydney, the community held on, with the South African migration boom in the 1980s attracting new members.

Rodal and children help a local resident do the mitzvah of lulav and estrog.
Rodal and children help a local resident do the mitzvah of lulav and estrog.

But by the time that Tipper moved to Newcastle in 2009, she couldn’t obtain kosher meat locally. “I always wanted to keep a more kosher home,” she tells Chabad.org, “but it was challenging.” Taking the stress out of practicing Judaism for her and so many others, Rodal personally travels to Sydney, more than two hours to the south, to pick up Tipper’s kosher meat.

When Tipper’s eldest, Joshua, was due to celebrate his bar mitzvah in 2015, she knew who to call. Chabad of Rural and Regional Australia (RARA) had been undertaking biannual pastoral visits to Newcastle for a decade or so, strengthening the ailing congregation with its energetic young rabbinical students and young couples.

They assisted in leading the first night Passover Seder at the synagogue each year and hosted the second night Seder, and led High Holiday services, in addition to visiting Jews scattered through the region. Tipper asked Chabad of RARA’s Rabbi Yossi Rodal to officiate at Joshua’s celebration. When her daughter, Sophia, celebrated her bat mitzvah the next year, Rodal returned, and it was the first bat mitzvah Newcastle had seen for many years.

When the Rodals began directing Chabad of RARA—now celebrating its 20th year of service to rural Jews—in 2015, Newcastle served as a base of sorts for their treks throughout a large swath of Australia’s east coast.

“We had a shul there,” says Rodal, “and a home always available for us to use, thanks to a generous community member,” which gave them a respite from Chabad’s colorful “Mitzvah Tank”—the custom-fitted synagogue-on-wheels that hosts the rabbis and their families as they tour the vast continent tending to their flock.

Newcastle is located on Australia's East Coast, a 100 mile drive north of Sydney. (Map: Google)
Newcastle is located on Australia's East Coast, a 100 mile drive north of Sydney. (Map: Google)

‘They’ve Thrown Themselves Into the Community’

With their frequent visits and the dozens of rabbinic students they sent there, the Rodals fell in love with the Newcastle community and resolved to settle there permanently to the delight of the community members, who hadn’t had a rabbi since the departure of Rev. Dr. B. Gottshall, an Auschwitz survivor, in 1958.

The Rodals made the move north from Melbourne during the Australian winter with their three children. After a few months settling in and becoming more acquainted with the wider community (in a coronavirus-safe environment), the busy High Holiday season arrived. Their state, New South Wales, home to Australia’s largest population, has seen 53 deaths due to the coronavirus and Newcastle has had few cases, allowing them to conduct services in a safe way in accordance with government regulations.

During Simchat Torah, as the community sang and danced, an older member shared emotionally with the rabbi that it was his first Simchat Torah celebration in Newcastle since he was 7, when he recalled waving a flag and dancing, more than 60 years ago.

They’ve given the congregation a new lease on life, with some community members previously fearing their beloved shul would eventually be forced to shut its doors. “Attendance kept dwindling,” says David Gubbay, a retired late-night radio talk-show host, and vice president and honorary treasurer of the congregation, who was born in Newcastle and has been part of the community since 1974. “Every minyan was a struggle. With Chabad’s establishment, we’re seeing new growth. Their frequent visits revitalized our congregation, and our relationship is blossoming.”

Malki Rodal and children with a local resident in their "Sukkamobile".
Malki Rodal and children with a local resident in their "Sukkamobile".

The Rodals have begun tapping into new demographics with programs catering to students at the University of Newcastle, as well as for children and teens. They have opened a Hebrew school and a CTeen chapter, and host regular get-togethers for the university students.

“This is a fast-growing community,” says Rodal, “and very soon we hope to have more regular services and establish Newcastle’s first-evermikvah.”

More than just Newcastle, the Rodals’ flock stretches from Umina Beach to Forster to Muswellbrook, covering an area almost the size of New Jersey. Rodal regularly visits towns throughout the Central Coast, giving Torah classes and meeting individuals and families one-on-one, no matter how isolated or unaffiliated. For Rodal though, it’s not such a vast region, considering that at his previous posting as national director of Chabad of RARA he oversaw—and personally visited—the entire vast continent, from visiting a lone Jew in Jindabyne to establishing the first-ever Jewish cemetery in remote Darwin, on Australia’s northern tip, closer to Papua New Guinea than to any Australian capital city.

The Rodal family's arrival in Newcastle was front page news.
The Rodal family's arrival in Newcastle was front page news.

“They’ve thrown themselves into the community,” Tipper enthuses, “and they’re having such an impact. They encouraged my son to put on tefillin daily, and it gives me such nachas to see Joshua (18) and Sophia (16) still actively involved in Jewish life, when many kids drop everything after their bar or bat mitzvah.”

Tipper and her family spent much of the holiday season with the Rodals, and recently committed to koshering her kitchen—no easy feat in Newcastle. “They’re family to us,” she says of the Chabad couple. “It’s a rebirth for the community.”

Gubbay adds to the effects his community is experiencing, saying “they’re the most welcoming people I have ever known; they love visitors. Just joyous!”

Bringing the holiday to local residents.
Bringing the holiday to local residents.
The city has welcomed the Rodal family with open arms.
The city has welcomed the Rodal family with open arms.