Little is known of Jews in New Zealand before about 1830, when the first Anglo-Jewish traders are known to have arrived. Their traditional roles as multi-lingual travellers between European ports gave them a flexibility in negotiating with the native Māori people. Spreading the news of economic possibilities to their economically depressed countrymen, they helped to urge development and emigration for people from the British Isles.
Small numbers of Anglo-Jewish immigrants followed, some subsidized by a Jewish charity in London which had a mission of caring for the poor and orphaned young people in the community. These "subsidized" Jewish immigrants were also intended by their benefactors to be devout members of the fledgling Jewish community in Wellington, to which the respected English business leader Abraham Hort, Senior, was sent from London to organize along London religious lines. The difficulties of life in early colonial New Zealand, together with historically high rates of intermarriage, made it hard to maintain strict religious observation in any of the new congregations.
Following news of gold rushes, Jewish immigrants poured in from new lands, such as Germany, following news of gold rushes, and then moved on when the boom was over. These immigrants, and others from Eastern Europe faced an increasingly stringent immigration policy throughout the end of the 19th and mid 20th century, but Jewish New Zealanders and their descendants have continued to contribute in business, medicine, politics, and other areas of New Zealand life, at the highest levels, and the spectrum of Jewish religious observance continues in communities throughout the country. While New Zealand has experienced several anti-Semitic incidents in recent decades, the government and public response has been swift and unequivocal.
LATE 19th CENTURY
The first Jews, who were proudly "English" and the early German Jews were seen as "white." They were able to fully participate in civic life in New Zealand at all levels decades before Jews in England were finally free to and were known as having an influence on business and government out of proportion to their small numbers. However, restrictions were instituted in 1881 that effectively closed off immigration to immigrants who were not from England, Ireland, or Scotland, who were Asian, or any other culture deemed too foreign (a category which also included eastern European Jews). New Zealand, like Australia, had struggled with its white, Christian identity. Some have attributed this attitude to New Zealand's geographic isolation at the time, to fear of economic competition, to the dilution of a perceived "white" culture.
As a result of the restrictions put into place earlier, few Jews were granted refuge in New Zealand before, during and after the Holocaust. First called "enemy aliens" because of their German nationality, popular sentiment suggested that they leave as soon as the war was over, as they were competing with New Zealanders for work. A major veterans group in 1945 suggested that not only should the "enemy aliens" go back where they came from, but that any money they had made during their stay should be turned over to the wives and children of the soldiers, who had risked their lives while the Jews stayed safely in New Zealand.
More recently, Jewish immigrants have come from South Africa, Israel, and the former Soviet Union.
ROLE IN LEADERSHIP
Three Prime Ministers have Jewish ancestry, although only Julius Vogel, who served twice during the 1870s, practised Judaism. Francis Bell was PM very briefly in 1925. The current Prime Minister, John Key, was born to an Austrian Jewish mother and is thus considered Jewish under Halakha, though he is not practising.
MORE RECENT RELIGIOUS DEVELOPMENTS
Moriah School, Wellington's only Jewish day school opened in 1985. It closed in December 2012, citing a lack of resources and fewer than 20 pupils.
In 2010 the practice of shechita, the ritual slaughter of mammals and birds, attracted controversy when the Minister of Agriculture reversed a decision that had banned it. The issue was about to be heard in the High Court but pressure from Jewish community members who wanted to slaughter poultry in the traditional manner promoted the move.
In recent years a small but growing Chabad movement has been established in several cities, including Otago and Auckland. The Chabad house in Christchurch was destroyed in the 2011 earthquake that hit New Zealand. International Jewish fundraising efforts helped the Chabad community to rebuild and continue their mission of strengthening Jewish religious observance.
In 1990, four children at an Auckland Jewish day school were stabbed by an apparently demented woman, but all survived.
In 2004, scores of Jewish graves, including Solomon Levy's and other historic early Jewish graves, were smashed and spray painted with swastikas and other anti-semitic messages at Wellington. The New Zealand Parliament responded rapidly to condemn the actions. Solomon Levy's grave was restored by the City of Wellington and re-consecrated in 2005.
In October 2012, a Jewish cemetery in Auckland was desecrated overnight with swastikas and anti-semitic statements scrawled across the grave stones. More than 20 graves were attacked at the Karangahape Road cemetery. The perpetrator, a young Englishman on holiday in New Zealand, was convicted and ordered to leave the country.
FOUNDING OF SYNAGOGUES
Three early synagogues at Nelson, Hokitika, and Timaru are no longer in existence. Hokitika's synagogue, which served the boom and bust Gold Rush Jewish population, was virtually abandoned for the last decades of the 19th century and was known as "the Ghost Synagogue."
A synagogue (Dunedin Synagogue) was established at Dunedin in September 1863.
The Canterbury Hebrew Congregation obtained funds in 1863 to build a small wooden synagogue on a block of land between Worcester and Gloucester Streets in Christchurch. The next synagogue was built on the same site and opened in 1881.
The first synagogue in Wellington was Beth El, established in 1870 at 222 The Terrace. By the 1920s, this wooden building with a capacity of 200 was too small for the city's 1400 participants and a new brick building was built on the same site and opened in 1929. The site was required to be vacated for motorway construction in 1963, and a new Wellington Jewish Community Centre was opened at 74-80 Webb Street in 1977.
In Auckland, a synagogue building was designed in 1884-85 and opened on 9 November 1885. The building still stands at 19A Princes Street, has heritage protection, and is known as the Old Synagogue. The community moved to larger premises at Greys Avenue in 1967.
In 1848, in New Zealand's total population of 16,000 there were known to be at least 61 Jews, 28 in Wellington and 33 in Auckland. The 2013 New Zealand Census data gives 6,867 people identifying as having a Jewish affiliation, out of the total New Zealand population of 4.5 million. Another estimation (2009) was around 10,000 Jewish people. In 2012 a book titled "Jewish Lives in New Zealand" claimed that there were more than 20,000 Jewish people in New Zealand, including non-practising Jews. There are seven synagogues.