Jewish Cemetery Trust

History of Jewish burials at Rookwood


From 1832 to the 1860s, the main burial ground for the Sydney Jewish community was the former Devonshire Street Cemetery, just south of Sydney’s CBD.

The establishment of the Rookwood Necropolis in the mid-19th century was one of the great acts of foresight by the colonial government of New South Wales.

The Jewish section provides an important expression of the strong historic connections between the Jewish community and New South Wales society as a whole, dating back to the earliest years of European settlement.

In 1867 the government made the first allocation of almost a hectare of land within a new cemetery at Rookwood to the Sydney Jewish community for burials. Opened on 1 January 1867, the new cemetery was originally known by its location as the Haslem’s Creek Cemetery until 1878, when it became Rookwood Necropolis. In 1881 the Jewish community was allocated a further 4.5 hectares.

In 1923 a Joint Trust was formed from the individual denominational trusts to oversee development of the whole cemetery.

Today Rookwood Necropolis is one of the largest cemeteries in the world, with over one million burial sites.

Chevra Kadisha

Jewish funerals are organised through the Sydney Chevra Kadisha (approx translation: Holy Fellowship). Although the current Sydney Chevra Kadisha was established in 1912, the beginnings of their role date back to 1817, when a group of Jewish convicts were permitted to conduct their own burials.

The almost two century association of the dual organisations, one conducting the funeral and religious rites for the departed, and the other the ongoing care of the gravesites was commemorated on Sunday 23rd August 2009, with a newly developed section of the Rookwood Jewish grounds being dedicated by the Jewish Cemetery Trust to the Chevra Kadisha.

Transport

At first funerals travelled to Rookwood by horse drawn vehicle. In 1869, the railway line was extended into the cemetery by a spur line from Lidcombe and a railway station was built in the centre of the cemetery. Special funeral trains carried coffins and mourners from the Mortuary Station at Redfern to Rookwood. It wasn’t until 1948 that cars replaced the funeral trains.

Private Jewish cemetery

Resolving a disagreement between Sydney’s two synagogues, the York Street Synagogue and the new Macquarie Street Synagogue, concerning Jewish burial laws, Joseph G Raphael, Treasurer and L W Levy, President of the Macquarie Street congregation purchased the freehold title to 4.5 acres of land adjacent to the new cemetery for their congregation. It was named the Raphael Ground Cemetery and jointly consecrated by Rev A B Davis and Rev S Phillips, Ministers of the Macquarie and York Street Synagogues on 18 August 1867.

In his Will, Joseph Raphael, who died in 1879, left the property “unto the Presidents of the various Jewish Synagogues and their heirs and successors for persons dying professing the Hebrew faith”. When L W Levy died in 1885, there was no mention of the Jewish cemetery in his Will, so the property was registered in the name of the Trustees of his Will.

In 1889 the Trustees decided to transfer the cemetery to the Trustees of the Great Synagogue, Messrs G J Cohen, L M Phillips and M Gotthelf, provided Joseph Raphael’s widow and members of her family had free access of the ground at all times and were exempt from burial fees and charges.

By 1950 Raphael Cemetery was very neglected. Auburn Council and members of the Board of the Great Synagogue decided to relocate all legible headstones to the old Jewish section at Rookwood opposite the Martyr’s Memorial. The former Raphael Cemetery ground was gifted to Auburn Council for use as a children’s playground. A plaque on this site reads “Presented by the Great Synagogue of Sydney”.

Record keeping

Record keeping for Jewish burials became the responsibility of the Great Synagogue when it opened in 1878, replacing the former Macquarie Street and York Street Synagogues. The first Jewish burial recorded at Rookwood was of Isaac Abrahams on 22 June 1907.

The records show that in 1902 graves from the original Jewish cemetery at Devonshire Street near Central Station were relocated to the Raphael and Botany cemeteries to make room for Sydney’s Central Railway Station.

JCT records

Our Minutes begin with a Meeting of the Trustees’ Jewish Cemetery, Rookwood on Sunday 23 October 1904. It was recorded that 11 acres of land has been granted for burial purposes to the Jewish Cemetery Trust under the “Necropolis Act of 1893”. It was resolved that the Board of Management of the Great Synagogue be asked to transfer the balance of the funds now standing to the credit of the Trustees to a separate account to be opened in the name of Trustees of Jewish Cemeteries Rookwood.


Information from the Australian Jewish Historical Society and the world wide web.