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Congregation returns to synagogue

ABBIE NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 24/12/2013
Jewish congregation
DEAN KOZANIC/ Fairfax NZ

FAITH RESTORED: Jewish congregation members Michael Bekhar and Bettina Wallace are welcoming the reopening of the earthquake-damaged synagogue in Durham Street North.

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Christchurch has no kosher shop, no rabbi and, until recently, no functioning synagogue.

While it is "business as usual" for the Jewish community this week, the re-opening of the Christchurch synagogue is the highlight of 2013.

For Canterbury Hebrew Congregation president Bettina Wallace the return to the Durham St synagogue after nearly three years was an emotional one.

A lengthy and expensive repair programme meant holding services at a house in Merivale.

"It was a mess," Wallace said. "We had chaos here and it took us a long time to get it repaired."

Insurance covered most of the repairs but the community still need to raise at least $200,000 to finish it.

The Ark was a sacred area formerly on the front of the synagogue where the holy Torah scrolls were kept. It collapsed in the earthquakes and had to be demolished. Without it, the synagogue remains spiritually incomplete.

"At least we are back here," Wallace said. "We have to rebuild the Ark completely differently to meet the new building code. "It is essential for us, but it will also be a feature for Christchurch."

The pre-quake Ark was made from stone which has been saved. It will be worked into the design of the replacement.

Wallace hoped the Ark would be rebuilt by September.

About 600 Jews live in Canterbury and while the synagogue is Orthodox-affiliated, it welcomes Jews of all affiliations because the small population could not support multiple synagogues.

Being Jewish in Canterbury is a balancing act. There is no kosher shop and no access to kosher meat. Kosher Jews either ship their meat down from the North Island or are vegetarian.

Canterbury cannot even boast the presence of a rabbi. Wallace said there were plenty of Orthodox rabbis available worldwide, but the Canterbury congregation required a more liberal reform rabbi who would work with Jews of all affiliations.

"To us, the only thing that matters is that they are Jewish," Wallace said. There's no Jewish restaurants or street life here. This synagogue is the only place they can come and do their thing."

The synagogue includes community facilities, as well as running a regular education programme, cooking classes, book clubs, movie nights and festivals.

"We're not just living our culture, we're living the New Zealand culture too," Wallace said. "We live here because we want to, so we all think of ourselves very much as New Zealanders."

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