History of the Jews in Australia

History of the Jews in Australia

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 [ [http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/australia.html The Virtual Jewish History Tour: Australia ] ] , the majority being Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of Eastern European descent), 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 [ [http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/australia.html The Virtual Jewish History Tour: Australia ] ] 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. (The answering of the question was optional.) Some estimates are as high as 120,000. [ [http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/australia.html The Virtual Jewish History Tour: Australia ] ] In addition, the community proportionally has a high percentage of Holocaust survivors and their descendants and thus it is widely believed [Suzanne Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora] that many prefer not to be counted on the census. 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 (35,253 according to 2006 census) members. 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

Jews came to Australia as convicts transported aboard the First Fleet in 1788 to Botany Bay.

Over time these convicts became freed men, who were sufficiently attached to their religion to form themselves into a "chevra kadisha" (burial society). In 1820 the Jews established a Jewish cemetery by applying to the Reverend Dr. Cowper, who allotted to them the right-hand corner of the Christian cemetery. The death of one Joel Joseph prompted the application, and he was the first Jew buried there. During the next ten years there was no great increase in membership; and the services of the society 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 Jews improved to such an extent that in 1844 they erected their first synagogue in York Street, Sydney, in which they continued to worship for more than thirty years.

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; it was consecrated on 4 July 1845. Jews also began to assemble in Victoria in the 1840s and congregations sprang up in Melbourne, when in 1847 the first synagogue opened. 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. In South Australia, Jews settled considerably later than in Victoria; and it was not till 1871 that they were numerous enough to erect a synagogue in the capital city of Adelaide. Somewhat later still, the Brisbane (Queensland) congregation took form. For more than twenty years (1865-1886) they continued to hold services in the Masonic Hall; and at the end of that period they were able to build a commodious synagogue in Margaret Street, with a seating capacity of 400. The youngest of the Australian communities is that of Perth, the capital of Western Australia, the formation of which in 1892 was due to the great influx of people into the western colony after the discovery of gold in the 1890s. The Jewish congregation grew rapidly; five years after the first minyan, a synagogue was built and consecrated in Brisbane Street.

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.

Jews in public life

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.

Many Jews are prominent in business, again in disproportion to population. Notable for their success and high public profile are Sidney Myer, the Smorgon family and Frank Lowy. Notable for their public profile and success through less scrupulous dealings are Abe Saffron, Rene Rivkin, Joseph Gutnick and Rodney Adler.

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, one of the leading thoroughfares of Adelaide. 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.

In 1931 Sir Isaac Isaacs was appointed the first Australian born Governor-General; he 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. Monash University, Australia's largest university, is named after him. Malcolm Fraser, the Prime Minister of Australia, 1975-1983, had a Jewish Grandfather.

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

Jews in 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.

In the domain of art two Jews, 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) AO OBE, 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, who until recently lived in one of Melbourne's greatest mansions in Caroline Street, South Yarra, was born in Poland in 1918 and migrated to Australia in 1933. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for his services to the arts.

Early 20th century (1901-1939)

World War II and the Shoah (1939-1945)

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.

Postwar Jewish immigration (1945-1975)

The Australian Jewish community numbered only 23,000 Jews. between 1933 and 1939 8,000 Jews immigrated to the country. Between 1945 and 1955 another 27,000 immigrated from Displaced Persons camps in Europe. Among those organizations assisting these immigrants were the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the Australian Jewish Welfare Societies and Australian Jewish Welfare and Relief Society. A majority of the immigrants moved to Melbourne and particularly to Carlton. Others moved to Kings Cross and Bondi in Sydney.

Jewish immigration came at a time of Anti-semitism and the Returned Services League and other groups publicized cartoons to encourage the government and the immigration Minister Arthur A. Calwell to stem the flow of immigrants.

Late 20th century (1975-present)

Today, Australia's Jewish community thrives in all the major cities. 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.

In recent years, significant numbers of Jews have immigrated to Australia from South African, the former Soviet Union and some Israelis. The community in Sydney saw a large number of arrivals from Europe, many of whom were Holocaust survivors. In later years there has been an influx from South Africa. There has also been a large influx of Indian Jews, mostly from Bombay and Karachi.

Melbourne community

The Melbourne Jewish community is a particularly strong and vibrant one. There are approximately 50 - 60,000 Jews (40% of Australia's Jewish population) in Melbourne of varying backgrounds; the majority from Eastern Europe (especially Poland), as well as South Africans, South Americans and more recently, Israelis (7000). The large proportion of holocaust survivors in Melbourne, who brought with them their Yiddish culture, has largely shaped the community into what it is today. Within Melbourne there are 10 Jewish day schools and over 30 synagogue congregations ranging from the reform to the most orthodox, namely the Adass Israel sub-community, to the reform. In general, most Melbourne Jews are traditional or orthodox. In addition to these congregations, there are hundreds of separate organisations and institutions which handle all parts of community life, from the Jewish students' union to the Chevra Kadisha burial society.

The Melbourne community is today most prominent in the city's south-eastern suburb of Caulfield, where approximately 50% of residents are Jewish. Jews are also prevelant in the Toorak and Brighton area, however there has been considerable decline in previous Jewish neighbourhoods such as Doncaster and Carlton. Within Jewish areas there are a number of kosher butchers, cafes, restaurants, deli's, bakeries and other amenities.

ydney community

Sydney is home to roughly 40-50,000 Jewish people. Whilst the Jewish community in Sydney enjoys many of the same benefits as its Melbourne counterpart, it is generally seen as more secular and less active. Like Melbourne, the Sydney community was built upon the arrival of holocaust survivors (especially those from Hungary), whilst more recently Jews have arrived in Sydney from South Africa. There are still a number of Jewish schools in Sydney as well as a variety of synagogue congregation and other institutions and societies. The Sydney community however does not enjoy the same variety of Jewish amenities as does Melbourne.

Today the community is most prominent in the affluent eastern suburbs of Bondi and its surrounds and in the northern area of St. Ives.

Perth Community

The Perth Jewish community of 7-10 000 persons mainly consists of South African immigrants as well as some Europeans. The Jewish Community has boomed over the last 10-15 years because of this large influx from South Africa which has given this community a unique atmosphere. Perth Jews are particularly 'close-knit', as well as being quite united and active. Most of the Jews in Perth are 'modern-orthodox', however due to the small population most organisations and institutions are not run independently and rather co-depend on their East-coast counterparts. Perth does have its own Jewish Day School - the Carmel School as well as a variety of Kosher eateries and outlets. However the Perth community today faces some problems with many of the younger generations migrating to Sydney and Melbourne Jewish Communities.

Perth Jews are most prevelant in the suburb of Dianella.

Adelaide Community

The Adelaide Jewish Community, number only 1500 people, is the smallest of the larger communities. The community has continually struggled to increase membership, and many now believe numbers are on the decline. Despite this the city still has its own Jewish Day School, albiet only a Primary School, and a number of Synagogues. Recently the community was almost without a Rabbi.

Other Communities in Australia

Other than on the Gold Coast, with a community of mainly retirees and some families, most other Jews in provincial Australia and other larger cities are non-affiliated. In Victoria only in Ballarat does the Synagogue there operate on the High Holidays. An estimate of 2000-5000 Jews live outside the main community centers.


Until the 1930s, all synagogues in Australia were Orthodox, acknowledging leadership of the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom.

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 US Reform Movement, Temple Emanuel, was established in Sydney. Following these two congregations, a number of other 'liberal' synagogues have been founded in other cities, and in New Zealand. It is notable that the first Australian-born rabbi, Rabbi John Levi, served the Australian liberal movement. [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.]

Since 1992 Conservative (Masorti) services have been held as an alternative service usually in the Neuweg, the smaller second synagogue within Temple Emanuel, Woolahra, 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, Rabbi Ehud Bandel in 2006.


ASIO documents revealed that Palestinian terrorists planned to kill high profile Jewish figures including the Australian ambassador in 1975. Prominent Jewish supporters such as former Prime Minister Bob Hawke were also targeted [ [http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/palestinian-plot-to-kill-hawke/2006/12/31/1167500010729.html?page=fullpage#contentSwap1 Palestinian plot to kill Hawke] ] .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 [ [http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/sydney-synagogue-rocked-by-attack/2006/07/31/1154198074617.html Sydney synagogue rocked by attack] ] . However, Australia has seen a significantly lower amount of anti-Semitic incidents than Western Europe and North America.

ee also

*List of Oceanian Jews
*Religion in Australia
*Australian Jewish Historical Society

Article references

* [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=2151&letter=A 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

* [http://www.ajhs.info/jha/timeline.htm Timeline for Australian Jewish History]
* [http://www.jewishmuseum.com.au Jewish Museum of Australia]
* [http://www.joyfulnoise.net/JoyAustralia5.html AUSTRALIAN & NEW ZEALAND JEWRY: Discovering Jewish History Down Under] Jewish community then and now
* [http://www.chabad.org/centers/default.asp?country=Australia Chabad centres in Australia]
* [http://wwww.ajhs.info Australian Jewish Historical Society ]
* [http://wwww.ajhs.info/journal Australian Jewish Historical Society Journal ]
* [http://www.oztorah.com/feature/archive/aujewry.php OzTorah - articles on Jews and Judaism in Australia]
* [http://www.jewishaustralia.com JewishAustralia.com - Australian Jewish web portal]

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