ABRAHAM TOBIAS BOAS 1842 –1923

(Presented at the May 17 meeting of the SA Council of Christians and Jews by Merrilyn Ades)

Just from what I have read about this wonderful man, I have a warm feeling for him.  He was not an ordained rabbi, but came to Australia a reverend or minister.

Abraham Boas was born in Amsterdam in 1842, the son of Rabbi Tobias Boas and his wife Eva Salomon Levi.

Rev Boas was educated at Amsterdam Theological Seminary until the age of 23, when he went across the North Sea to England to further his studies.  In 1867 he became the Minister at the South Hampton Synagogue where his conduct encouraged the Chief Rabbi to recommend him to the South Australian Hebrew Congregation. A small group of Jews had arrived in South Australia from as early as 1836 following on from when Jacob Montefiore was appointed one of 11 commissioners in the setting up of South Australia as a free colony.  Public worship was held until 1844 in a small room in Tavistock Street.

The synagogue in Rundle Street was built on land owned by George Morphett (who sold it for $280 – (equal to approx almost 2 million $ today) and soon there were more than 130 subscribing members in the congregation. In 1869 Abraham Boas was chosen by the congregation in Adelaide and in November of that year the Jewish Chronicle reported that the Rev A T Boas had accepted the office of Minister and Lecturer. During his three month voyage to Adelaide, the ship (The Tamesa) lost most of her mast, rigging and sails in a cyclone east of the Cape of Good Hope, but survived and arrived safely at Semaphore on 13thFebruary 1870.

The young 28 year-old minister was met by several members of the local Jewish congregation, who accompanied him on his walk from Semaphore to Port Adelaide, where he caught the train to the city,  He boarded with Gabriel Bennett and family.  (When Gabriel Bennett died in 1895, excerpts from his obituary reported in the Advertiser read as follows:  Stockbreeders and dealers and the sporting community in particular will receive with much regret the news of the death of Mr Gabriel Bennett, one of the oldest auctioneers and sporting patrons in the colony.  His death, which occurred at his residence in Gover Street North Adelaide was not unexpected.  On his arrival in Adelaide from Melbourne in 1853 he commenced business as a butcher in Hindley Street.  As a member of the Jewish community, Mr Bennett always took great interest in synagogue affairs, and held office in several capacities, including President, laying the foundation-stone of the old synagogue assisted by Rev Boas.  He was an ardent supporter of the agricultural society, acting as a judge on many occasion as well as horse-racing in this state. He was survived by five children and eight grandchildren.)

On the first Sabbath following his arrival (19thFebruary), Boas preached his first sermon to the Adelaide congregation, and before long, he became an active participant in many aspects of South Australian life.

The following month, March 1870, the South Australian Advertiser reported that the recently arrived Jewish minister had delivered an address at the Town Hall to a large attendance which was characterised by great ability and eloquence and listened to very attentively.  A few weeks later, Boas gave another lecture at Prince Alfred Wesleyan College and other educational institutions and conducted several marriage ceremonies.  One of the first was for Alfred Myers of Wallaroo and Rebecca Hains, who were married in the Oddfellows Hall at Port Adelaide on 16 November 1870.

Abraham Boas became involved with the Adelaide Theological College and conducted exams in Hebrew.  Later, he willingly placed his rich knowledge of Hebrew literature at the disposal of the theological students of Christian faith and became a well-known figure in all movements intended to enhance the cultural and material good of the community.  Some of his children attended Prince Alfred College for their education.

When proposals were made for the establishment of a university, a committee, with Boas elected to the council, met in October 1872 to discuss how donations collected were to be used.

In May 1873, at the age of 31, he married Adelaide born Elizabeth Solomon, who was the daughter of Isaac Solomon, an early pioneer, and together they had 10 children.

Boas was well-read and esteemed as a student of English literature and drama, particularly of Shakespeare.  He was Vice-President of the University Shakespearean Society from 1887.  When he gave the Shakespeare Anniversary Lecture in June 1901, he made the suggestion that a statue of the Bard he erected on the reserve facing the university but that was never done.

Down to earth and thoughtful, but broad-minded and anxious to be of service to other denominations as well, he was a welcome visitor at the YMCA and often lectured on aspects of Jewish life and Old Testament history.  He was a committee member of the Inebriate Asylum and also spoke in support to form a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals.  He became secretary of the South Australian branch of the Anglo-Jewish Association.  Not afraid to speak his mind, he was a valued member of any committee.

In 1882 he became the treasurer of the Syrian Colonization Fund which aimed to assist Russian Jews to settle in north Syria and engage in agricultural pursuits and two years later was elected to the Strangers’ Friend and Charity organisations society, followed by becoming a committee member of the Hospital Charity Saturday and Sunday.

When Queen Victoria’s jubilee was celebrated in 1887, he delivered an appropriate sermon in the synagogue and sang God Save the Queen in Hebrew.  In August it was reported that among the numerous loyal addresses to her Majesty from South Australia, one of the best and certainly the most original in design was that which spoke of the loyalty of the Hebrew colonists.

In July 1891 at a meeting at the Fremantle Town Hall in WA chaired by the Premier Sir John Forrest, he delivered a talk on the topic of “popular proverbs” quoting some examples such as:  “God heals – the doctor takes the fees”.

Boas became a foundation member of the District Training Nursing Society, chairman of the James Brown Memorial Trust for housing needy tuberculosis patients.  This foundation built a hospital at Belair and bought Escort House for £3000 and paid another £4000 to make it a home for crippled children and blind aged people. By the end of the year he had completed 25 years of service to the Jewish community.

During that same year, above and beyond his many other commitments, he attended meetings of the District Training Nursing Association, the Indian Famine Fund, Adelaide Jewish Literary Society, of which he was president, the Home for Incurables and many more.  No wonder one newspaper stated that his ministry was one of energetic, spiritual, social and intellectual leadership.

The influence of Abraham Tobias Boas was far greater and wider than his role as minister to the Jewish community might suggest and apart from his visits to Broken Hill and Western Australia, he also addressed gatherings in Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart and Launceston.  He actively created goodwill both within and outside the Jewish community by membership on boards of many inter-denominational philanthropic, social and cultural bodies.

Whilst Rev Boas became the longest-serving Jewish minister in the British Empire in 1914, a reception to honour the occasion was held, and in his address in reply he stated:  I have tried to be of some use to my fellow men, Jew and Gentile, in the spheres of charity and benevolence and in that of literature.  My humble endeavours have been to render the name of Jew respected and I believe in this, my efforts resulted in some measure of success.”

He finally resigned from official duties in 1918, two years after the death of his wife in 1916, in consequence of a stroke from which he never fully recovered.  In 1921, he was given the official status of Rabbi in recognition of more than 50 years’ service to the Adelaide congregation.  He died in February 1923 at his home in Gover Street, North Adelaide and was buried in the Jewish section of the West Terrace Cemetery. He was survived by nine of his children.

His death was reported in all South Australian, interstate and many country newspapers with some of them inserting lengthy obituaries.  Some of the statements referred to him as a “valuable citizen, a venerable rabbi, a true minister of religion with a fine career of usefulness and eagerness to help any denomination”.

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