Judaism undergoes a resurgence in the NSW Hunter Valley

Rabbi Yossi Rodal has found home in the Hunter Valley.

“We have been here about two and a bit years,” he said.

“We have visited about probably 15 times throughout the past 10 years prior to that.”

The Hunter Valley had gone without a rabbi for over 65 years, until Yossi Rodal moved to town.

He came to the region after a decade of travelling around Australia to other communities in need of a rabbi.

“The natural choice was going to be Newcastle for us to settle, being that there was already an existing synagogue,” he said.

“There have been Jewish people living here the whole time, but I think they were fragmented because it wasn’t so active.

“It’s very heartening to see the increase in the official number.

“In a place like Cessnock it says there are eight Jewish people there. I only know of four so that gives me homework to do.”

Judaism rising
One of the big trends in the latest Census was a decline in religion, and the Hunter wasn’t immune.

In the last Census, almost 40 per cent of Australians identified as having no religious affiliation.

In the Newcastle Local Government Area it was a similar story, with 44.8 per cent of respondents saying they had no religion.

That was up from 32.8 per cent reported in the 2016 census, and when you pedal back to 2001 only 12.7 per cent of Newcastle residents said they weren’t religious.

Amongst the decline in religious belief, Judaism shone through on a micro scale.

When comparing the 2016 census to 2021, there has been a 42 per cent increase in people identifying as Jewish in the region.

The modern rise rests upon a rich Jewish history in the Hunter, which locals are working hard to preserve.

History of Judaism in the Hunter
The Newcastle synagogue is nearly 100 years old, and nearby Maitland was one of the first Jewish settlements outside of Sydney in the 1800s.

This history can be found right around the Maitland region, from the decorative synagogue in town to the unique heritage-listed Jewish cemetery found nestled behind a horse stud.

Husband and wife team Joe Eisenberg and Janis Wilton have been at the heart of a community project to restore the Maitland Jewish cemetery, that was in a bad way in 2004.

“I found the laneway in Louth Park where there was a small sign saying ‘Jewish cemetery’,” Mr Eisenberg said.

“I could barely open the metal gates. There were big lumps of grasses, headstones had fallen over and I almost burst into tears. I just couldn’t believe it.”

That was the start of the restoration of the Maitland Jewish cemetery, one of two free standing Jewish cemeteries in NSW.

“We started researching the people who are buried there. All the headstones have Hebrew on them which makes it quite unusual with Hebrew and English,” Ms Wilton, a historian, said.

“Our policy is to not restore but conserve.

“Now you can see where the headstones were broken and have been put back together and that, for us, is part of the story, that sense of things fading and them being revived again.”

This sense of Jewish history is not lost on Malki Rodal, who works alongside her Rabbi husband in the Newcastle congregation.

“When I walk into the synagogue I get chills, because I feel the history there,” she said.

“I just think of the people who built this building with such intention and love for their heritage and here we are over 100 years later being able to continue that and take that further and I just feel like these souls are soaring high.”