Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Porush, Israel (1907–1991)

by Suzanne D. Rutland

This article was published online in 2014

Israel Porush, photo of painting by W. E. Pidgeon, 1961

Israel Porush, photo of painting by W. E. Pidgeon, 1961

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L40777

Israel Porush (Porusch-Mandel) (1907-1991), rabbi, was born on 16 July 1907 in Jerusalem, Palestine (Israel), second of seven children of Elias (Eliyahu) Porusch-Mandel, hospital manager, and his wife Deborah Gittel, née Makofki. Strict Orthodox Jews, Elias’s family had arrived in Palestine in the first half of the nineteenth century from Eastern Europe; Deborah came from a well-known rabbinic family. Israel grew up in a deeply religious home, studying at the Etz Chaim Yeshiva until the age of fifteen. Wanting him to have a secular education, his father sent him to school in Germany in 1922. Matriculating in 1927, he studied mathematics and other secular subjects at the University of Berlin and rabbinics at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary, Berlin. In 1931 he completed a doctoral thesis in algebra at the University of Marburg (PhD, 1933), and the following year was ordained.

Employed as a principal of a Talmud Torah, he lost his work permit in 1933 and, repulsed by the oppression of Jewish people under Hitler’s regime, decided to migrate to London. Rabbi Dr Isidore Epstein, principal of Jews’ College, employed him as a tutor and later commissioned him to translate two tractates for the Soncino Talmud. He enrolled in an English matriculation class at the London Polytechnic and with improved English skills accepted a job at Finchley Synagogue in 1934. The same year on 7 October he married Berta (Bertha) Link at Golders Green Synagogue.

In 1938 Porush refused the offer of a post at the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation. A year later, concerned at the gathering war clouds and hopeful that the role would enable him to deal with a broader range of religious and community matters, he accepted the position of senior rabbi at the Great Synagogue, Sydney.

Inducted on 6 June 1940, Porush served for nearly thirty-three years, becoming known as the ‘uncrowned chief rabbi of Australia’ (Apple 2008, 96). The Commonwealth’s chief rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, described him as combining ‘rabbinical learning, general scholarship and exceptional leadership’ (Apple 1988, 5). His years of service covered a watershed period in Australian Jewish history, due to the impact of the pre- and post-World War II European Jewish refugees and survivors. He was naturalised on 25 September 1941. Concerned at the influence of Nazi anti-Semitism, he founded the New South Wales Council of Christians and Jews in 1943.

The ultimate diplomat, he needed to be so, given that the term of his predecessor, E. M. Levy, had ended in controversy. He worked to bridge the gap between the established Anglo-Jewish community and the newcomers. Faced with the challenges of intermarriage and low levels of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws), he strengthened observance. He had to make compromises, such as continuing with a mixed choir, but upheld the most significant principles of Jewish law. A strong supporter of religious Zionism, he was a member of the Mizrachi movement. He served as head of the Sydney Beth Din (rabbinical court) from 1940 to 1975, and oversaw the congregation’s expansion and the opening of the War Memorial Centre in 1956. He established the Great Synagogue Youth, providing intellectual dialogue, but was also able to play table tennis with young people. Always there to provide wise counsel to congregants, he maintained an office to receive visitors at the synagogue and at home.

Porush organised the first conference of the Australian rabbinate in 1946; it became the Association of Jewish Ministers of Australia and New Zealand in 1952. He served as its president until 1975, convening seven conferences. One of his regrets was that he was not able to create greater unity in the rabbinate. He experienced tensions with some of his colleagues. His strong Orthodox position resulted in conflict with Rabbi Rudolf Brasch, the senior Reform rabbi. He found Rabbi L. A. Falk ‘difficult’ (Apple 2008, 98), and faced a conflict with the leadership of Sydney’s Central Synagogue, especially in 1961 when Rabbi Harry Freedman created a rabbinical assembly competing with Porush’s authority in New South Wales. He clashed with the lay leader Maurice Ashkanasy in relation to rabbinical representation and official recognition of marriage celebrants.

Deeply interested in education, Porush worked closely with the New South Wales Board of Jewish Education, serving as honorary director for over twenty years, and as president (1950-51 and 1969-73). He was active in the creation of suburban education centres, which later developed into congregations. A strong advocate for Jewish day schools, he also assisted in the formation of the New South Wales Association of Sephardim and the Canberra Jewish Community.

Another of Porush’s passions was his people’s history in Australia. President of the Australian Jewish Historical Society (1948-74), he wrote a history of the Great Synagogue, The House of Israel (1977), as well as twenty-one articles for the AJHS Journal of Proceedings, over two hundred articles for the Great Synagogue Journal, and entries in the Encyclopaedia Judaica. Selected sermons were published as Today’s Challenge to Judaism in 1972, and his memoirs, The Journal of an Australian Rabbi, in 1992. From 1951 he lectured part time in the department of Semitic studies at the University of Sydney. Appointed OBE in 1966, he received the B’nai B’rith award in 1981.

Of imposing appearance, Porush was dignified, with a neatly trimmed beard. Throughout his career Bertha was his constant companion. She assisted newcomers in both London and Sydney, and worked for the women’s auxiliaries of the synagogue and the New South Wales Board of Jewish Education. After his retirement from the synagogue in 1973, the couple lived at Bondi, before settling in Melbourne in 1975, after he stepped down from the Beth Din. He died on 22 May 1991 at North Caulfield, survived by Bertha and one daughter; another daughter had died in 1969. He was buried at the Springvale Chevra Kadisha cemetery in Melbourne and was later reinterred at the Har Hamenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem. His portrait, painted by William E. Pidgeon, won the Archibald Prize in 1961 and was later donated to the Great Synagogue. He is also remembered by Hillel College’s Rabbi Porush Kindergarten.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Apple, Raymond, with members of the congregation. The Great Synagogue: A History of Sydney’s Big Shule. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2008
  • Apple, Raymond, ed. Yismach Yisrael: Historical Essays to Honour Rabbi Dr Israel Porush. Sydney: Australian Jewish Historical Society, 1988
  • Porush, Israel. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 29 November 1974. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Rosenberg, Louise. ‘An Appreciation: Rabbi Dr. Israel Porush O.B.E. 1907-1991.’ Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal 11, part 2 (1991): 259-69.

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Citation details

Suzanne D. Rutland, 'Porush, Israel (1907–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/porush-israel-15194/text26388, published online 2014, accessed online 19 November 2019.

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