A History of Jews in Hawaii & the Kalakaua Torah

The first mention of Jews in connection with Hawaii was in 1798, when a sailor on the whaling ship Neptune recorded in the ships log that the Hawaiian king had come aboard and brought a Jewish cook with him! Jewish merchants began arriving in Hawaii between 1850-1900 and established themselves as suppliers to the sugar plantations, as well as owners of coffee plantations. A Torah which had been given to King Kalakaua in the 1880s was frequently borrowed from the Kawananakoa family for use in services.

In 1901, 40 residents formed the first congregation, the Hebrew Congregation of Hawaii, which lasted about six years. After World War I the Jewish Welfare Board sent Alexander and Jennie Linczer to establish a JWB Center in their home. They were later joined by Max Goldman and the Usheroff family as leaders of the Jewish community. The origins of an organized Temple Emanu-El date back to 1938 when 35 Jewish families on Oahu formed the Honolulu Jewish Community.

In 1939, in cooperation with the Jewish Welfare Board, a small chapel on Young Street was leased and converted into a Jewish Community Center (JCC), which also served as Honolulu's first permanent synagogue. During World War II, the JCC continued as the focal point of the Jewish community with religious services conducted by military chaplains stationed in Hawaii. In 1942 the Honolulu Jewish Community established a Hebrew Burial Society consecrating a section of the Oahu Cemetery in Nuuanu for use as a Jewish cemetery.

In 1947, the JWB sent Rabbi Emanuel Kumin to Hawaii to serve as its director and the HJC also hired him to serve the congregation on a part-time basis. Sisterhood was organized, and the religious school was begun. From the early 1950s to the present, the congregation grew from 60 to about 300 members. During this time significant changes occurred: the congregation affiliated with the Reform movement, changed its name to Temple Emanu-El, built a sanctuary and education building, hired full-time rabbis and directors of its religious school.

The Kalakaua Torah Scroll

This Sefer Torah (Pentateuch) and Pointer were brought to Hawaii in 1886 by Elias Abraham Rosenberg who came here from San Francisco. Although the rabbinical lists do not contain his name, he called himself a rabbi. He appears to have ingratiated himself with King David Kalakaua and became a royal soothsayer, of sorts, preparing horoscopes and prophecies for the King as well as telling him Bible stories and teaching him Hebrew.

When Rosenberg hastily returned to San Francisco in 1887, because of political unrest in Hawaii, he left the Torah and Pointer with Kalakaua for safe-keeping. When Rabbi Julius J. Nodel saw the Scroll, he researched it and confirmed that it was, indeed, the Kalakaua Torah Scroll. The pointer and scroll, along with other artifacts of King Kalakaua, eventually came into the possession of the Kawananakoa family (descendants of Kaumualii, king of Kauai) through Queen Kapiolani. During the 1930's and 40's -- the times are uncertain -- the family graciously lent the scroll from time to time to the Honolulu Jewish community for High Holy Day services. Through her grandmother, Princess Abigail Campbell Kawananakoa (1882-1945), the pointer came into the possession of Abigail Kekuaulike Kawananakoa.

Through a friend of hers it came into the possession of Rabbi Roy Rosenberg of Temple Emanu-El. At the dedicatory services of Temple Emanu-El on May 29, 1960, Rabbi Rosenberg also dedicated the pointer to the temple. It is believed that, subsequently, the Kalakaua Torah also came into the possession of Temple Emanu-El from the Kawananakoa family.


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