No Locked Doors – Jewish Life in Shepparton

Book Cover, No locked doorsJewish life in Shepparton was centred around many families living in Orrvale and Shepparton East, nearby the former Shepparton Synagogue. Shirley Randles writes about the earlier history of Jews coming to Shepparton, growing up Jewish in rural Shepparton, and of the small Jewish community that lived in Shepparton, circa 1940.

No Locked Doors is the personal account of Shirley Randles Jewish childhood in Shepparton, Australia. Her family home was opposite the local synagogue, and her mother kept an open house; hence the title, "No locked doors".

Currently, it is thought that there are no Jewish families resident in Shepparton.

"No locked doors" provides an invaluable (albeit personal) account of Jewish history of Shepparton.

It is told that there was an settlement in Shepparton during 1913 of eight families in Orrvale: B. Bendall, R. Bereskinsky, B. Feiglin, M. Feiglin, S. Gorr, J. Moritz, H. Rubenstein and I. Rubenstein. There was also a short settlement of Lubavich Jews circa 1940. Shirley Randles grandparents went to Shepparton after a failed attempt at vegetable farming in Berwick, Victoria.

The early settlers formed a committee to deal with community issues. They purchased a five acre block of land on the corner of Doyles Lane and Poplar Avenue in Orrvale. In 1924, a small home was purchased from the Stagg family. It was moved to the Orrvale block and then converted into a synagogue. In 1928, with the Jewish Welfare Society assistance, the Jewish Community Hostel was built beside the synagogue.

Shepparton Synagogue

The Shepparton Synagogue, near Poplar Avenue, Orrvale

Diana Gelfin, in her Migrant Stories narrative, gives a description of the synagogue:

Part of our social life in our younger days was playing tennis at Mr Feiglin's house. This was beside an irrigation channel and after tennis we went for a swim. One day we decided to have a look at a little shed near the house. We found it was a mikvah (a ritual bath) and being children, we pushed each other in. Well, did we get into trouble! The Shul (synagogue) in Shepparton was on a site granted by the Government for religious purposes. It was a rectangular timber building with several windows. Inside was the Ark and in front were seats where the men sat. Then there was a small partition and several rows for the women.

Shirley Randles gives a description of the Jewish Community Hostel:

Compared to the small synagogue, the hostel was a large, rambling structure. It had a large hall and a stage. Behind the stage, several rooms and a kitchen were used for living quarters. On the west side of the hall a narrow room ran the length of the building. Its windows were covered with flyscreens, but no glass.

As much as possible, the well-respected committee created a self contained community that took responsibility for its members. It was united both by religion and as immigrants in a new land ... ... The committee met, discussed and acted to fulfil the needs of the Jewish community. They arranged to bring a teacher of Jewish studies and also, a shochet (kosher slaughterman) from Melbourne. These men, with their families, lived in the hostel.

Between the 1930's and 1960's, over sixty Jewish families lived in the Shepparton district. The Feiglins and Hayats were the two largest families. Each family consisted of parents, children and grandchildren. ... ... Jewish orchardists often lived miles apart, except for two areas. More than a dozen families lived close to the synagogue in Orrvale


The second area owned mostly by Jewish orchardists was Prentice Road in Shepparton East.

In the 1920's, Australia's then immigration policy severely restricted the number of European Jews entering Australia. In the late 1930's, anti-Semitism was increasing in Europe and many Jews were desperate to leave. Australia's immigration policy discouraged ghettos in urban areas. As a rural settlement, Shepparton Jewish Community received reasonably favourable results when they sponsored Jewish Migrants.

In the words of Shirley Randles' father,

The Shepparton Orchardists sponsored as many European Jews as possible. When asked by the Australian Jewish Welfare Society to sign papers as a sponsor, I did so without hesitation. I cannot remember all the names and have lost count of the number of people I sponsored. When the migrants arrived in Shepparton, many were unused to country live. The distance between neighbours, the lack of cultural activities and the different lifestyle made it difficult for some to adjust. They knew our sponsorship saved their lives, but as soon as possible, they left Shepparton and went to live in Melbourne. I remember sponsoring a man from Poland. He could not adjust to life in Australia. He returned to Poland and I later heard that he perished in the Holocaust.

In the 1950's, a Hachsharah (training) farm was formed on a Toolamba Orchard near Shepparton. It provided experience for young Jewish men and women who wanted to immigrate to kibbutzim Israel. It was a self contained group. Shirley Randles observes "Except for coming to synagogue on High Holy Days, we saw little of them".

Shirley Randles observed that the small Jewish population of Shepparton contained an array of people and families with differing adherence to orthodoxy. Jewish law (forbad) travel other than by foot on the Sabbath - use of horse and buggy and automobile on the Sabbath was enjoined by some families as a commonsense solution to the tyranny of distance from the Synagogue and from Shepparton Township, which was three or four miles away.

"The small population included Russian, European and Middle-Eastern Jews. Another grouping, mainly European Jews, disliked physical work and saw Shepparton as a cultural wilderness".

Shirley Randles also gives recollections of Lubavitch Jews in the district.

Before they were there, Poplar Avenue had been a quiet road. The influx of Lubavich Jews changed it to a busy thoroughfare. Suddenly I saw youths and bearded men walking on what seemed endless journeys to and from the synagogue. Their heads were covered and they wore jackets, even in the hottest weather. Occasionally, I'd catch a glimpse of the fringe hanging from beneath their shirts. When these men saw me, they said nothing, kept a respectable distance and gave no sign of recognition.

This book relates a personal history of growing up Jewish in rural Victoria, in the Goulburn Valley. It is a peerless record of a now-vanished community, and tells of a strongly knit community which faced its challenges together and succeeded in their settlement. It is also noteworthy that Shirley Randles' father, along with two other businessmen, set up the Orrvale Packing and Canning Company, in competition to the monopoly of SPC in those early days.

More information

Published by Makor Jewish Community Library, 2004
ISBN 1 876733 44 6

You can find out more about this book at Makor Publications.


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