Herman van Staveren was born Manus van Staveren in Bolsward, Friesland, the Netherlands, on 26 January 1849, the son of Isak Barends van Staveren, a rabbi, and his second wife, Seentje Simons Adelaar. He was educated in Antwerp and London, and was ordained as a rabbi in 1868. Van Staveren married Miriam Barnett at the Great Synagogue, London, on 1 September 1875; they were to have nine daughters and four sons. In 1877 the chief rabbi, Dr Nathan Marcus Adler, suggested him to Joseph Nathan, representing the Wellington Hebrew Congregation in New Zealand, as a minister for that community.
Herman and Miriam van Staveren and their daughter Manarah sailed from London to Lyttelton, New Zealand, on the Waikato, arriving on 26 July 1877. They went at once to Wellington, where accommodation was arranged by the congregation's board of management until a minister's residence behind the synagogue was completed in mid 1878. That was to be their only home, and it was regularly enlarged to meet the needs of a growing family.
In the synagogue, van Staveren was known by his Hebrew name of HaRav Menachem ben Yitzhak. As minister of a small isolated community, he undertook numerous activities. He gave the weekly Shabbat (Saturday) service, organised and taught a twice-weekly Hebrew school, carried out the kosher killing of meat at the meatworks at Petone, and performed the rite of circumcision. He consecrated Jewish cemeteries in Karori (1892) and Gisborne (1904) and promoted the formation of a chevra kaddisha (burial society) to ensure that religious burial was available to all Jews. Within the Jewish community he was active in the formation of the Wellington Jewish Philanthropic Society. From 1882 he also collected the membership subscriptions that ultimately formed his salary (£250 per annum plus house). As senior New Zealand rabbi he was involved in matters raised throughout the country.
Two great events marked Herman van Staveren's religious life. The wooden synagogue, which comfortably housed a congregation of 200 members in 1878, was inadequate for over 1,400 by 1925, and he promoted a larger brick replacement on the same site. With his assistant for over 20 years, Chananya Pitkowsky, he officiated at its consecration on 22 September 1929. Then, on attaining 50 years of ministry, he received the greatest possible honour when the chief rabbi conferred upon him the title morenu (teacher).
Van Staveren's beliefs led to an involvement in benevolent work in the wider community – work which he termed his 'hobby'. He was an elected member of the Wellington and Wairarapa Charitable Aid Board (1878–1910), the Wellington Hospital committee (1888–1910) and the Wellington Hospital Board (1889–1910), of which he was chairman in 1892. When these boards merged in 1910 to become the Wellington Hospital and Charitable Aid Board he was appointed a member; he was an elected member of the same body from 1913 to 1921 and of the replacement Wellington Hospital Board from 1921 to his death. Van Staveren practised a liberal approach to charitable aid, occasionally clashing with supporters of a more rigorous policy. Unlike some of his fellow board members he made himself freely available to applicants for relief.
Van Staveren had other interests as well. He regularly topped the public poll of the licensing committee, and was an active member of the Terrace School committee and Wellington Benevolent Institution. In 1891 he was a founding member of the Junior Wellington Club (later the Wellesley Club) and for various periods he belonged to the Rotary Club of Wellington and the Waterloo and Hinemoa Masonic lodges.
The people of Wellington held van Staveren in high regard: he was affectionately known to all as 'Mr Van' or in later years 'Old Van'. Tales abound of his physical presence and stature – he stood over six feet tall, and sported a frock coat, silk hat and venerable beard. He made good press, whether falling asleep at a social evening, or travelling on a family ticket with his larger-than-average family. To young children he was a mystery and sometimes a cause for fear. A child is said to have asked him if he was Daddy Christmas: 'No darling, I'm not; I'm his uncle', was the reply.
Van Staveren was not unworldly, and maintained a healthy interest in business. Although the rules of the Wellington Hebrew Congregation strictly forbade the minister undertaking any mercantile pursuits, his family benefited from his advice and his support of the formation of van Staveren Brothers Limited in 1905.
Most of Herman and Miriam van Staveren's children – Henry died, tragically young, in the 1918 influenza epidemic – were active in the Jewish and wider community as teachers, musicians, charitable workers and businesspeople. Only seven of the 13 married, and only five had children themselves, so there are few direct descendants. Herman van Staveren died on 24 January 1930 in Wellington. His funeral reflected the great respect the entire community held for him, with over 150 cars in the cortège and people lining the streets. Miriam van Staveren died on 10 October 1930.