Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Boas, Abraham Tobias (1842–1923)

by Louise Rosenberg

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Abraham Tobias Boas (1842-1923), by unknown photographer

Abraham Tobias Boas (1842-1923), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 22104/17

Abraham Tobias Boas (1842-1923), Jewish minister, was born on 25 November 1842 at Amsterdam, son of Tobias Eliesar Boas, rabbi, and his wife Eva Salomon Levi, née Linse. It was a family of distinguished Jewish scholars and ministers who had fled from Poland to Holland late in the seventeenth century. After training at the Amsterdam Theological Seminary, Boas went to England at 23 to continue studying. In 1867 he became minister at the Southampton Synagogue, where his conduct encouraged Chief Rabbi Dr N. M. Adler to recommend him to the South Australian congregation late in 1869.

Arriving at Semaphore on 13 February 1870 in the Temesa, Boas was carried ashore on the shoulders of a sailor and met by several members of his congregation with whom he walked to Port Adelaide. There followed half a century of energetic spiritual, social, and intellectual leadership: for forty years he did not take a holiday. Within a year a new synagogue in Rundle Street was consecrated, accommodating 350 worshippers. Here on 15 May 1873 Boas married Elizabeth Solomon; they had ten children. His pastoral visits later extended as far as Fremantle, Perth and Coolgardie, Western Australia, where new synagogues and schools were opened. He actively created goodwill both within and outside the Jewish community by membership of numerous philanthropic, social, and cultural bodies.

Boas was short and thickly built with dark beard, hair turning grey, and piercing eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses. He was a popular lecturer, whose voice was 'sonorous' although with a pronunciation often 'unfamiliar'. He was esteemed as a student of English literature and drama, particularly of Shakespeare; from 1888 he was vice-president of the University Shakespeare Society. He was a foundation member of the District Trained Nursing Society, chairman of the board of the James Brown Memorial Trust for housing indigent tuberculosis patients, president of the Jewish Literary Society, and first chairman of the Jewish Choristers' Club. Boas was headmaster of the Adelaide Synagogue's Sabbath and Sunday schools—in 1895 the enrolment was over 80—and chairman of the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) which he helped found in 1907. His efforts to introduce the triennial reading of the law in Australian synagogues failed. He looked upon 'Christianity as the foster-child of Judaism' and his standing in the wider religious community was attested at Easter 1899 by his successful intervention in a bitter controversy between Catholics and Protestants, which gained the thanks of both the Catholic archbishop and the Anglican bishop; a newspaper commented that 'such a genuine Jew would make a splendid Christian'.

By 1914 Boas was the oldest officiating Jewish clergyman in Australasia and the longest-serving Jewish minister in the British Empire. His activity was much curtailed by a stroke in 1918, but in 1921 during a visit from London by Chief Rabbi Dr J. H. Hertz, he was honoured with the status of rabbi, as he was regarded as 'the most learned of Anglo-Jewish Rabonim'. He died at his home in Gover Street, North Adelaide, on 20 February 1923, and was buried in West Terrace cemetery.

His son Isaac Herbert was a prominent scientist and two others were active in public life in Western Australia. The eldest, Lionel Tobias (1875-1949), after moving to Perth in 1896, was secretary to the Karrakatta Cemetery Board, 1918-37. Elected to the Subiaco City Council in 1906, he served for thirty-six years and was mayor in 1917-20. He was prominent on behalf of ex-servicemen and in civil defence, as well as in numerous local sporting, cultural and philanthropic organizations. His main achievement was the foundation in 1905 with J. J. Simons of the Young Australia League, of which he was president for over forty years until his death. His brother Harold (b.1883), an architect, was a prominent town planner.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Jewish Historical Society, Journal, 7 (1972), no 2
  • Register (Adelaide), 30 Mar 1899
  • Bulletin, 1 Mar 1923
  • Boas material (Australian Jewish Historical Society, Sydney)
  • Boas family records (State Library of Western Australia and Perth Hebrew Congregation Library).

Citation details

Louise Rosenberg, 'Boas, Abraham Tobias (1842–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/boas-abraham-tobias-5277/text8897, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Abraham Tobias Boas (1842-1923), by unknown photographer

Abraham Tobias Boas (1842-1923), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 22104/17