In the 1850s, when prospectors were flocking to California, Australia experienced a gold rush of its own, turning Ballarat, located some 70 miles inland from Melbourne, into a boomtown. No small number of Jews were among Ballarat’s new residents, and by 1861 the city had a lavish synagogue, which still holds services today. Mark Pinsky writes:
On the whole, the Jews who streamed into Ballarat for the gold rush in the 1850s and 1860s were more likely to supply the shovels than to wield them. Yet there were some Jewish miners among the shopkeepers, tradesmen, and gold buyers. Two years after the initial find [in 1851], the first service was held in a hotel. A local newspaper observed, approvingly, that the fact that “the Children of Israel had made such an investment in Ballarat was by no means the least significant ‘sign of the times’ upon the great western goldfield.” According to [a book on the history of the synagogue], the cantor at High Holiday services on October 11, 1853, a native of Lemberg, [led services] in the traditional red shirt and high boots of a gold-mining “digger.” . . .
The synagogue, the oldest on the Australian mainland, . . . built to seat 350, is a rectangular box laid out in traditional Orthodox style, with the bimah in the center of the room, facing the ark on the front wall. There are numerous clues to the congregation’s vintage. Flanking the ark are two gold-leaf tablets honoring Queen Victoria’s 1887 jubilee, in Hebrew and in English. Other tablets memorialize members who were killed in the two world wars. A stained-glass window above the ark, said to have been taken from an Irish mansion, is thought to date from the time of Elizabeth I. . . .
When the gold played out, many Jews stayed in Ballarat and helped build the young congregation. At its peak in the 1870s and 1880s, membership included 300 men, who may have represented 1,000 family members and required expansion of the women’s gallery. . . .
[The synagogue’s] decline in the early decades of the 20th century mirrored Ballarat’s falling economic fortunes. In the 1920s there were weeks when, for the first time, the . . . congregation was unable to muster the necessary quorum for Shabbat prayers. By 1942, the congregation was hanging by a thread. . . . Then [a] contingent of U.S. Marines—including about 100 Jews—was temporarily based in Ballarat, training to fight the Japanese in the South Pacific. On the eve of Purim, they packed the synagogue’s pews, along with the locals, as Master Sergeant J. Green led the festival service.