Story: Astor, Alexander

Page 1 - Biography

Astor, Alexander

1900–1988

Rabbi, community leader

This biography was written by Ann J. Gluckman and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Alexander Ostroff, one of eight children of Rabbi Theodore Lionel Ostroff and his wife, Gertrude Freedman, was born in Helsinki, Finland, on 11 August 1900. Several months later the family left for London. His mother had been born in Lithuania, and his father, a noted Talmudic scholar, in Latvia. Alexander attended the Rutland Street council school, Guildhall School of Music, the Yeshiva Etz Chaim theological seminary and then Jews’ College, the training institution for Anglo-Jewish ministers. He was a foundation member of the executive of the Inter-University Jewish Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.

Chief Rabbi J. H. Hertz persuaded him to serve in the British Empire, and in 1925 he was selected as rabbi for the small (350 congregants) Dunedin Jewish community by visiting representatives, including the merchant David Theomin. As there was considerable prejudice against foreigners in New Zealand, they suggested he anglicise his name to Astor, which he did with the approval of his parents. Shortly before leaving for Dunedin he married Rebecca Myers in Westminster on 19 January 1926. The couple were to have two daughters, Ruth and Lorraine.

Astor combined his rabbinical duties with study at the University of Otago, graduating BA in 1931. He became vice president of the Dunedin branch of the League of Nations Union of New Zealand, developed a lifelong interest in Freemasonry and published a booklet on the history of Dunedin Jewry. In 1931 he was appointed to the Auckland Jewish community, which then numbered about 800, as assistant to the aged Rabbi Samuel Goldstein, who had served there for 50 years. When Goldstein retired in December 1934 Astor became rabbi. With his wife he established the Auckland Judean Association, a cultural, social and recreational group, which they hoped would help save the congregation from assimilation and intermarriage. In 1940 Rebecca Astor started a monthly bulletin, the Auckland Judean , the only regular New Zealand Jewish publication at that time, to bring overseas news to every Jewish home.

Astor showed great dedication in maintaining orthodox Judaism in a small congregation, remote from centres of Jewish culture and scholarship, and in moulding a community from people diverse in their countries of origin, degree of orthodoxy and cultural background. In the 1930s and 1940s he made strenuous efforts to persuade the reluctant New Zealand government to give entry permits to refugees from Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe. However, it is estimated that between 1936 and 1945 fewer than 850 Jewish refugees were admitted to New Zealand. In 1940 he was commissioned as the first non-Christian chaplain to the New Zealand armed forces. With the influx of American troops, including many Jews, into Auckland, he also worked with them as an honorary chaplain. In 1945 he visited New Zealand troops in Egypt and spent some time in Palestine.

In 1968 Astor officiated at the opening of the Beth Israel Synagogue and Communal Centre in Grey’s Avenue, which replaced the 83-year-old Princes Street Synagogue; the hall in the new complex was named after him. The same year he was appointed an OBE for services to the community. With characteristic modesty he saw the honour as a mark of the high regard in which the Jewish community was held. He remained an active Freemason and in 1978, as past grand chaplain, he received the 50 years’ service badge of the Grand Lodge of New Zealand.

Dignified in manner and bearing, Astor had a magnificent cantorial voice and was an impressive orator. He was patient and methodical, and a wise and caring counsellor. In contrast, his talented wife was generous and impulsive. He did not limit his efforts to the Jewish community, serving as patron of the Auckland Ryder-Cheshire Foundation, and being much involved with the New Zealand Crippled Children Society, the Prisoners’ Aid and Rehabilitation Society, the League for the Hard of Hearing and the Society for the Protection of Women and Children. Long before inter-faith interactions were common, Astor was much sought after as a speaker on Jewish culture to the wider community. He was also a valued friend of many notable Auckland churchmen.

Alexander and Rebecca Astor were fervent Zionists. In 1971, after serving the Auckland community for 40 years, they settled in a retirement village in Israel, where he functioned as a resident rabbi. In 1976 he returned briefly to Auckland as rabbi emeritus, and in 1979 he represented New Zealand at an Anzac Day ceremony in Israel. The following year the Astors again visited Auckland, to celebrate their 80th birthdays, but Alexander’s health declined and they were unable to return to Israel. Instead they moved to a Jewish retirement home in Wellington, near their daughter Lorraine and her family. Alexander Astor died there on 24 June 1988 and was buried in the new Jewish cemetery at Waikumete, Auckland. He was survived by his wife and daughters; Rebecca Astor died in 1995.