History of the Jews in Australia: Wikis


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The history of the Jews in Australia began with the transportation of a number of Jewish convicts aboard the First Fleet in 1788 when the first European settlement was established on the continent in present-day Sydney. Today, an estimated 120,000 Jews reside in Australia[1], the majority being Ashkenazi Jews, many of whom were refugees and Holocaust survivors who arrived during and after World War II. The Jewish population has been swelled more recently by immigrants from South Africa, New Zealand and the former Soviet Union. According to the 2006 Commonwealth census, only 88,834 people identified themselves as Jews, but this understated the size of the Jewish population[1] as it did not count those overseas (i.e., dual Australian-Israeli nationals) and many non-practising Jews who preferred not to disclose their religion. In addition, the community proportionally has a high percentage of Holocaust survivors and their descendants and thus it is widely believed[2] that many prefer not to be counted on the census. (The answering of the question was optional.) Some estimates are as high as 120,000.[1] The largest Jewish community in Australia is in Melbourne with a population of about 60,000 (40,547 according to 2006 census), followed by Sydney with 45,000 members (35,253 according to the 2006 census). Smaller communities are dispersed among the remaining capital cities and regional centres.

Since the days of white settlement in Australia, Jews have enjoyed formal equality before the law and have not been subject to civil disabilities or other forms of state-sponsored antisemitism excluding them from full participation in public life. They assisted in the development of the country and were involved in the raising of sheep and cattle, where they were particularly prominent. Jews have been active contributors in science, art, and literature, and in the government of the colonial and Commonwealth eras, with a number attaining prominent public offices.

St Kilda in Melbourne is home to the Jewish Museum of Australia.


Colonial period (1788-1901)


Earliest Jewish congregation

The Great Synagogue, Elizabeth Street

A number of Jews are known to have came to Australia as convicts transported aboard the First Fleet in 1788 to Botany Bay.[3]

Over time these convicts became freed men, and were sufficiently attached to their religion to form a chevra kadisha (burial society). In 1820, the Reverend Dr. Cowper allotted land for the establishment of a Jewish cemetery in the right-hand corner of the then Christian cemetery. The Jewish section was created to enable the burial of one Joel Joseph. During the next ten years there was no great increase in membership of the society; and its services were not called for more than once a year.

The account continues:

"In 1827 and 1828 then the worldly condition of the Hebrews in the colony improved considerably, in consequence of the great influx of respectable merchants; and this, with other circumstances, has raised the Hebrews in the estimation of their fellow colonists. About this period Mr. P. J. Cohen having offered the use of his house for the purpose, divine worship was performed for the first time in the colony according to the Hebrew form, and was continued regularly every Sabbath and holiday. From some difference of opinion then existing among the members of this faith, divine service was also performed occasionally in a room hired by Messrs. A. Elias and James Simmons. In this condition everything in connection with their religion remained until the arrival of Rev. Aaron Levi, in the year 1830. He had been a dayyan, and, duly accredited, he succeeded in instilling into the minds of the congregation a taste for the religion of their fathers. A Sefer Torah [scroll of the Law] was purchased by subscription, divine service was more regularly conducted, and from this time may be dated the establishment of the Jewish religion in Sydney. In 1832 they formed themselves into a proper congregation, and appointed J. B. Montefiore as the first president."

In the same year, the first Jewish wedding in Australia was celebrated, the contracting parties being Moses Joseph and Miss Nathan. Three years later a Mr. Rose came from England and acted as the chazzan, shochet, and mohel. He was succeeded by Jacob Isaacs. The condition of the Jewish community improved to such an extent that in 1844 the first synagogue was formed in York Street, Sydney using rented space,[4] which continued in use for more than thirty years.

The Great Synagogue, located on Elizabeth Street, opposite Hyde Park, was consecrated in 1878. In 1895, the first Jewish newspaper, called the Hebrew Standard of Australasia, was published in Sydney, and is the forerunner of the Australian Jewish News.

Jewish settlement outside New South Wales

Tasmania, being the second oldest settlement in Australia, is most likely the second Jewish settlement in Australia. The oldest surviving synagogue is the Egyptian Revival Hobart Synagogue‎ in Hobart was consecrated on 4 July 1845. The largest numbers of Jews in Tasmania was recorded in 1848, when the census recorded 435 Jews in Tasmania.

Jews also began to assemble in Victoria in the 1840s. The Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, Melbourne, formed in 1841, and the first synagogue building opened in 1847, at 472 Bourke Street, with a seating capacity of 100.[5] With the arrival of large numbers of immigrants in the 1850s, the need for a larger synagogue was felt. Construction of a larger 600 seat synagogue at South Yarra commenced in March 1855. This was followed by St Kilda, Geelong, Bendigo, and Ballarat (1853). By the 1850s, during the time of the Victorian Gold Rush, Melbourne had become the largest Jewish settlement in the country. The East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation split from the Bourke St congregation in 1857. A religious court (Beth Din) was set up in Melbourne in 1866. The St Kilda Hebrew Congregation was formed in 1871, with the first services held in St Kilda Town Hall and the building of a permanent building in Charnwood Road commencing in 1872. [6]

Jews settled in South Australia considerably later than in Victoria. The first synagogue was erected in Adelaide in 1871.

Somewhat later still, the Brisbane (Queensland) congregation took form. Services were held in the Masonic Hall for more than twenty years (1865-1886), after which a synagogue with a seating capacity of 400 was built in Margaret Street.

The youngest of the Australian communities is that of Perth, Western Australia. It was formed in 1892 as a result of the great influx of people into the western colony after the discovery of gold in the 1890s. The Jewish congregation grew rapidly, with the Brisbane Street synagogue being built and consecrated five years after the first minyan.

Each of the colonies has witnessed the rise and decline of a congregation. In New South Wales there was at one time a flourishing community in Maitland. A synagogue was built there in 1879; but owing to adverse circumstances most of the Jews left for other parts. The same fate befell the congregation of Toowoomba, Queensland, where in 1879 the Jews built a beautiful house of worship on their own ground, and under such favourable conditions that within a few years the synagogue was entirely free from debt. It was used only on the High Holidays by the few living at Toowoomba. Rockhampton, also in Queensland, has suffered similarly.

Perhaps the shortest career was that of the Coolgardie community in Western Australia. In 1896 a number of Jews, attracted by the rich gold-fields, were in that city. They at once obtained a grant of land from the government, collected subscriptions, and forthwith proceeded to build a synagogue. Within three years, however, such a thinning-out had taken place that the remaining members were unable to pay the debt on the synagogue; and the building was sold by the creditors to a Masonic body and converted into a Masonic hall.

Integration into Australian society

Public life

Jews have made a contribution to public service in Australia.

Jews have been mayors of nearly all the capital cities of Australia, as well as of many smaller towns. The Hon. H. E. Cohen is on the judicial bench in Sydney; and the appointment of chief justice was offered to, accepted and held by, Sir Julian Salomons. The agent-generalship of New South Wales, has been administered by two Jews, Sir Saul Samuel, Bart., K.C.M.G., one of the most prominent and successful Jews in Australian politics, and Sir Julian Salomons. Numerous Jews have sat in the State and Commonwealth parliaments; and, in proportion to the population, a large percentage have held ministerial portfolios.

In 1931, Sir Isaac Isaacs was appointed the first Australian born Governor-General, and was the first Jewish vice-regal representative in the British Empire. Sir Zelman Cowen also served as Governor-General, between 1977 and 1982. Sir John Monash, a distinguished Australian Lieutenant-General during World War I, leading Australian troops both in Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

Several Jews have served as State Governors and as Chief Justices of particular states. Mahla Pearlman was Chief Judge of the NSW Land and Environment Court from 1992 to 2003, and she was the first woman chief judge in any (State) jurisdiction in Australia.


Many Jews are prominent in business. Notable for their success and high public profile are Sidney Myer, the Smorgon family and Frank Lowy.

The foremost among the Jews who have figured as pioneers in Australia was Jacob Montefiore, a cousin of Sir Moses Montefiore. South Australian history records him as one of the founders of the colony; and he was selected by the British government to act on the first board of commissioners, appointed in 1835 to conduct its affairs. His portrait hangs in its National Gallery, and his memory is perpetuated by Montefiore Hill, much visited by tourists for the view it offers of the city of Adelaide and its backdrop of the lower Mount Lofty ranges. J. B. Montefiore's activity was not confined to South Australia. With his brother Joseph Montefiore he gave an impetus to, and left his impress upon, the progress of New South Wales. Jacob owned one of the largest sheep-runs in the colony, and founded and for many years acted as director of the Bank of Australasia. The firm that the two brothers established in Sydney in its early days ranked among the first of the business houses of that city. The close connection of these brothers with the colony is further evidenced by the township of Montefiore, which stands at the junction of the Bell and Macquarie Rivers in the Wellington valley. Joseph Montefiore was the first president of the first Jewish congregation formed in Sydney in 1832.

The Hon. V. L. Solomon of Adelaide is remembered for the useful work he achieved in exploring the vast northern territory of his colony, the interests of which he represented in Parliament. M. V. Lazarus of Bendigo, known as Bendigo Lazarus, also did much to open up new parts in the back country of Victoria. The coal industry of Victoria received a great impetus from the persistent advocacy of the Hon. Nathaniel Levi, who for many years urged the government of Victoria to develop it. The cultivation of beetroot for the production of sugar and spirits likewise owes its existence as an industry to Levi's ceaseless efforts. In his labours on behalf of this industry he published in 1870 a work of 250 pages on the value and adaptability of the sugar-beet. In Western Australia, the townships of Karridale and Boyanup owe their existence to the enterprise of M. C. Davies, a large lumber merchant.

The arts

Barnett Levy founded an early theatre in Australia. Having been refused a license by then governor Darling in 1828, though in the following year he was permitted to hold approved performances in his Sydney Hotel. A record of that fact is found in the following entry in "Sydney in 1848," a work published in that year: "In the late twenties His Excellency Sir R. Bourke granted Barnett Levy a license for dramatic performances, with a restriction that he should confine himself to the representation of such pieces only as had been licensed in England by the Lord Chamberlain." Levy was at that time the owner of the original Royal Hotel in George Street; and he fitted up the saloon of that establishment as a theatre, where the first representations of the legitimate drama in the colony were given. The encouragement that this undertaking received induced the enterprising proprietor to enlarge his sphere of action. He built a theatre called the Theatre Royal, which was opened in 1833, at a cost which almost bankrupted him.

Isaac Nathan, who emigrated to Australia in 1841, wrote the first Australian opera, Don John of Austria to a libretto by Jacob Levi Montefiore. It premiered on 3 May 1847 at the Royal Victoria Theatre in Sydney.

There have been major Jewish contributions to Australian visual arts. Georges Mora, born Gunter Morawski in 1913 in Leipzig, Germany of Jewish/Polish heritage, fled Germany to Paris in 1930, then to Melbourne in 1949. He established the Tolarno Gallery in Melbourne's bohemian St Kilda. This became a venue for exhibitions of Australian Modernist avant garde art. Printmaker and projection artist Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack graduate and professor of the Bauhaus was deported to Australia as an "enemy alien" on the ship HMT Dunera, spending time in internment camps in Hay, Orange and Tatura, before being sponsored for Australian citizenship by (Sir) James Darling, headmaster of Geelong Church of England Grammar School. He was influential in the introduction of Bauhaus principles into visual art and design curricula in Australia. E. P. Fox and Abbey Alston have achieved distinction. Paintings by both these artists have been hung in the Melbourne National Gallery. In the Adelaide Gallery hangs a tribute to the memory of H. Abrahams for the services he rendered to the progress of art in Australia. Two Jews of Australian birth have attained to some distinction as writers, S. Alexander and Joseph Jacobs.

In May 2004, the art collector and dealer, Dr Joseph Brown (artist), donated his substantial collection of Australian art of the 20th century to the National Gallery of Victoria. It was the largest single gift of works of art ever made to a public gallery in Australia. Dr Brown migrated from Poland in 1933. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his services to the arts.


In 1933, the combined Australian Jewish communities numbered only 23,000 people, with most of them being from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds. Between 1933 and 1939, 8,000 Jews immigrated to the country; and between 1945 and 1955 another 27,000 immigrated, prominently Holocaust survivors of eastern Europe.

The arriving migrants were helped to settle by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Australian Jewish Welfare Societies and Australian Jewish Welfare and Relief Society. A majority of the migrants settled in Melbourne, particularly in Carlton, while others settled in Sydney in suburbs such as Kings Cross, Bondi and St. Ives.

In recent years, significant numbers of Jews have immigrated from South Africa, the former Soviet Union and some Israelis. There has also been a large influx of Indian Jews, mostly from Bombay.

The present Jewish population of Australia is estimated to be 120,000, with Melbourne having a community of about 60,000, followed by Sydney with 45,000 members. Smaller communities exist in the other capital cities, regional centres and scattered as individual families or groups throughout the country.


Australia was a safe haven for Jews throughout World War II. With the notable exception of the exclusionary policies of several "gentlemen's" clubs, there was no systemic or organised persecution of (or discrimination against) Jews during this period.

Post-war Jewish immigration came at a time of antisemitism, with the Returned Services League and other groups publishing cartoons to encourage the government and the immigration Minister Arthur A. Calwell to stem the flow of immigrants.

However, attacks on Jewish property and institutions increase with tensions in the Middle East, and security precautions have had to be increased. In 1975, ASIO documents revealed that Palestinian terrorists planned to kill high profile Jewish figures including the Australian ambassador. People considered to be supporters of the Israeli position, such as former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, were also considered for attack.[7]

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Jews in Australia have seen a rise in attacks on synagogues and violence against persons of Jewish descent.[8] However, Australia has seen a significantly lower amount of anti-Semitic incidents than Western Europe and North America.

Present position

Today, Australia's Jewish community thrives in all the major cities, and in all facets of society.

Public life

Jews are especially prominent in the legal profession; for example, in Melbourne alone, the Hon. Michael Rozenes sits as Chief Judge of the County Court of Victoria, Justice Redlich sits on the Court of Appeal, while Justices Raymond Finkelstein, Alan Goldberg, Mark Weinberg and Ron Merkel have all sat in recent years on the Federal Court of Australia.


Until the 1930s, all synagogues in Australia were nominally Orthodox, with most acknowledging leadership of the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. To this day the vast majority of synagogues in Australia are Orthodox. However, there is a wide range of Orthodox congregations, including Mizrachi, Chabad and Adass Israel congregations. There are also Sephardi congregations.

There had been short-lived efforts to establish Reform congregations as early as the 1890s. However, under the leadership of Ada Phillips, a sustained liberal congregation, Temple Beth Israel, was established in Melbourne. Subsequently another synagogue linked to the United States Reform Movement, Temple Emanuel, was established in Sydney. Following these two congregations, a number of other Liberal synagogues have been founded in other cities. [9]

Since 1992 Conservative (Masorti) services have been held as an alternative service usually in the Neuweg, the smaller second synagogue within Temple Emanuel, Woollahra, Sydney. In 1999, Kehilat Nitzan, Melbourne's first Conservative (Masorti) Congregation was established, with foundation president Prof John Rosenberg. The congregation appointed its first rabbi, Ehud Bandel in 2006.

See also


  1. ^ a b c The Virtual Jewish History Tour: Australia
  2. ^ Suzanne Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora
  3. ^ The Great Synagogue - Torah and Traditions
  4. ^ http://www.greatsynagogue.org.au/history.html
  5. ^ Melbourne Hebrew Congregation - beginnings
  6. ^ St Kilda Shule
  7. ^ Palestinian plot to kill Hawke
  8. ^ Sydney synagogue rocked by attack
  9. ^ Rubinstein and Freeman, (Editors), "A Time to Keep: The story of Temple Beth Israel: 1930 to 2005" A Special publication of the Australian Jewish Historical Society, 2005.


  • Jewish Encyclopaedia
  • Sydney in 1848, by Joseph Fowles, Sydney 1848 (Facsimile reprint 1973, Published by Ure Smith in Association with The National Trust of Australia (NSW))

External links

This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.


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