Rabbi Levine and the Brisbane Synagogue
Guest blogger: Carmel Hart (nee Levine) - adapted from her mother's memoirs
Rabbi Nathan Levine was born in Swislotz, Belarus in 1890 and was brought to England when a small boy. His father was appointed Rabbi in Liverpool, where he published some notable Hebrew books. In such an environment, Nathan was reared, seeing only love and reverence for Judaism and Jewish learning. His early education was at the Liverpool Hebrew School where he became a choir boy. His voice was attracting attention and when his father was appointed to the Synagogue in Little Alie Street, London, Nathan then about fifteen years old, was noticed by Sir Robert Waley Cohen who created a scholarship for him to study at the Royal Academy of Music. The foundation he received there in the art of voice production gave him that remarkable ability to sing without effort, which kept his voice sweet and true. Soon Nathan was attending Jews' College and was studying, besides Rabbinics, Chazanut under the late Rev. Spiro, an illustrious Chazan of almost noble authenticity.
Nathan's first appointment was at the Golders Green Synagogue. Then the Bayswater Synagogue where the chief worshipper was Chief Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz. The First World War commenced during this time and Nathan volunteered for a Chaplaincy in France and Flanders. While visiting hospitals "up the line", an aerial torpedo struck his tent. After hospital treatment in Abbeville, Sir Robert Waley Cohen arranged for Nathan to convalesce in Ramsgate where he was given a letter of introduction to the Rev. Herman Shandel, (Minister of Ramsgate Synagogue for 45 years: appointed by the late Sir Moses Montefiore). Here Nathan met and later married, the Rev. Shandel's youngest daughter Evelyn who was a teacher of Hebrew and Music at a Jewish school in Ramsgate. Meanwhile he was appointed Rabbi of the Walthamstow Synagogue, moving on after two and a half years to Port Elizabeth Synagogue, South Africa.
In 1925 Nathan received a 'call' from the Brisbane Synagogue where he continued his pioneering ministry which included the whole State of Queensland. In all these communities both Nathan and Evelyn created innovative additions to Synagogue life: At Walthamstow, a Synagogue magazine, the first of it's kind: The Shool News, a Literary and Debating Society, enhancing the very basic style of a neglected community. At Port Elizabeth, a Publication of Hebrew Treasures: to enable Jewish parents in isolated and inaccessible towns to teach their children the tenets of Hebrew and Judaism, by means of pictures and simple explanations. Again, Jewish Guides and Scouts, 'At Homes' at the Rabbi's house for undergraduates and their friends. Both Nathan and Evelyn were highly aware of the social inequalities of Apartheid which considerably influenced their attempts to improve the quality of everyday life.
In Brisbane, Nathan restored in the Sabbath services the return of the Triennial Reading of the Law, while at Queensland University he introduced the Hebrew language which became an integral part of students degree courses in Divinity. Above all, Nathan's visionary talent in representing the Jewish community became evident on every civic platform; a frequent visitor at Government House, the Archbishop's residence and Parliament House.
After eleven highly successful years in Brisbane, in 1936 Nathan took his family to Israel, where he completed extra Rabbinical Studies, sanctioned in Tiberias and Jerusalem. Ironically the family were not allowed to stay for more than a year. Evelyn pleaded with the great woman Zionist Henrietta Szold who declared we would be preventing Jews escaping from Europe to be allowed in, as there was a quota empowered by the British government. We were British citizens and therefore had to return to England just in time for the Second World War! - twenty more years for Nathan to build a new community in London at the Highams Park and Chingford Synagogue.