Hawaii’s largest synagogue, following the election of a new board president, is looking to oust Peter Schaktman, their rabbi of seven years, allegedly for his sexual orientation. In light of the recent scuffles at board meetings, “rabbi wars” and the dwindling number of attending families (60 out of 230 defecting in the past year)that have been reported at Temple Emanu-El, Hawaii’s Jewish community may be waxing nostalgic for simpler days.
The history of Jews in Hawaii is purported to have origins as far back as 1798 when the log of whaling ship Neptune noted that a Hawaiian king came aboard and brought a Jewish cook with him. But since that cook obviously didn’t sell the Hawaiian’s on gefilte fish as opposed to ahi poke, the migration of Jews to the Islands in earnest is generally considered to have begun in the mid-1800s, when Jewish merchants began establishing themselves as suppliers to the plantations.
The political climate of Europe in the early 1800s and the allure of making a good living as merchants to the Pacific whaling fleet first brought Jews in Hawaii. But aside from the occasional Jewish marriage or funeral, there isn’t evidence of an established population or organized worship groups from that tiime.
Things got interesting when a Elias Abraham Rosenberg arrived in 1886 from San Francisco. A Russian-born eccentric Jewish immigrant said to have had a long white beard, Rosenberg only spent about a year in Hawaii. But he did leave behind a curious reputation and received royal appointments to several positions (including that of kahuna-kilokilo, or, royal fortune-teller). In his book, History of the Later Years of the Hawaiian Monarchy, Hawaii historian, William Dewitt Alexander penned the first mention in Hawaii’s history of the man, saying in November of 1986, at the 50th birthday of King David Kalakaua, “A fortune teller by the name of Rosenberg acquired great influence with the King.”
In just one short year, the Jewish soothsayer, said to have referred to himself as “Rabbi Rosenberg,” became a close confidante to the King.
“Some people say he was a Rabbi, but it was really unknown,” says UH–Manoa historian and professor Robert Littman. But while Kalakaua was amused by the chants and even took lessons in Hebrew from his new sage, many of the King’s advisors viewed Rosenberg as somewhat of an opportunistic pest, perhaps even a con artist of sorts.
“We do know he was a fortune teller and sold lottery tickets (in San Francisco),” said Littman. “But he seems to have been well-learned in Hebrew, the Bible and Jewish law.”
The King took such a shine to him that at one point Rosenberg was actually granted a room in ‘Iolani Palace for fortune-telling and drinking sessions which the King frequently took part in. Kalakaua was, at the time, facing deep political unrest leading up to what became known as the “Bayonet Constitution,” which stripped him of much of his power.
Before his hasty and unexplained retreat from the islands in 1887, Rosenberg gifted the King an impressive Torah scroll and a pointer (known as a yad). The Torah–known now as the Kalakaua Torah–was later frequently lent out to the Jewish community by the royal family. Before, there was no Torah available during services. In fact, Jewish religious practice was so lax that in 1898, when the first recorded communal Jewish service was held at Progress Hall in Honolulu, it was conducted by various laymen.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Jewish pouplation in Honolulu began to falter. Asians began dominating the merchant trade, and the population of already-established Jews in the region aged. Even after The Hebrew Congregation of Hawaii came about in 1901, the population remained in serious decline. It was the growth of the military in Hawaii and the presence of its Jewish members that revived the community.
Post-WWII was the most prolific time of accomplishments by the local Jewish community. The Jewish Welfare Board was established, as was a Jewish Community Center on Young Street which served as Honolulu’s first synagogue. In 1942, the Honolulu Jewish Community established the Hebrew Burial Society and obtained a section of O’ahu Cemetery for use as a Jewish burial site. “The real wave of Jewish population first started in World War II,” notes Littman. “There were a certain amount of Jewish soldiers who stayed here.”
Hawaii has seen several notable Jewish residents over the years, among them the prominent civil rights attorney Kirk Cashmere, a historian and champion of organized Judaism in Hawaii who had the yearly Kirk Cashmere Jewish Film Festival (held at Doris Duke Theatre) named after him. Then there’s businessman Harry Weinberg, for whom the eponymous philanthropic foundation is named, and dance virtuoso Arthur Murray. And let’s not forget Linda Lingle, who was Mayor of Maui County–which has the second largest Jewish community after O’ahu–before later becoming the governor of Hawaii, and the first Jewish one at that.
So how many Jewish people are there in Hawaii today?
“My guess would be about 10,000, but it’s really a guess,” said Littman. Part of the reason it’s hard to know an exact number is that many people of Jewish ethnic origins aren’t necessarily religious practitioners, and therefore don’t always identify themselves as Jewish, he explained. “The rate of affiliation here is lower than the mainland,” Littman added. This, along with the often transient nature of Hawaii’s general population, makes the exact number of Jews in Hawaii hard to pin down.