Brief History of Australian Jewry


The Jewish community in Australia was born with the establishment of the first white settlement in 1788. Only in 1788 did Jews constitute more than one per cent of the total colonial community, and this only happened because most of the convicts sent out in the First Fleet were selected from the prisons of London.1 Among the convicts transported were at least eight, and perhaps as many as sixteen Jewish petty criminals, some still in their teens.

he first Jewish free settlers only arrived in 1821. The sea voyage from England was long and arduous. Some former convicts prospered in the new colony and returned to England but many stayed in Australia and became successful citizens. Others fared less well. By 1828, there were one hundred Jews in the colony. Numbers in the Jewish community continued to grow so that by 1841 there were 1,083 free Jewish settlers in the country. The 1841 census shows that at this time, New South Wales Jewry counted for 65.3 % of the total Australian Jewish population, and 0.57% of the total Australian population.2

The Gold Rush of the 1850s attracted a good number of Jewish immigrants to Australia. Most did not fossick for gold but become storekeepers and hawkers on the goldfields fields. Census figures show that between 1851 and 1861, the Jewish community almost tripled in size, growing to 5,486 persons.3 Many prominent Australian families, such as that of Sydney Myers, though no longer Jewish, can trace back their ancestry to these times. Other Australians with Jewish names, who are not Jewish are quite likely to have Jewish ancesters from this time.

The experience of Jews in Australian society has been rather different from that of Jews in other parts of the world, for one of its most outstanding features has been the relative normalness of Jewish life.. Many ex convicts such as the first policeman, John Harris became respected citizens. In fact, Jews tended to blend in with the rest of the British born population in colonial Australia and were not regarded as alien or usually subjected to discrimination. As the social historian Professor William D. Williamstein has commented: " The most judicious verdict by both contemporaries and historians is that antisemitism as a significant force was to be found infrequently in pre-Second World War Australia compared with other European societies or others derived from Europe...Such popular prejuduce as existed against Jews in Australian society never took any official or legal form, and was generally confined to small groups of extremists and unrepresentative fringe groups".4


Prior to the end of the nineteenth century most Jews were either English-speaking convicts or migrants from Britain or their Australian-born descendants. This must certainly have added to the normalcy of their situation for, apart from religion, they were indistinguishable from the general population. Some of the Jewish convicts themselves who arrived with the First Fleet, such as Esther Abrahams and their descendants were to make important contributions to the colony. Another example is the first Australian born writer of fiction, John George Lang whose grandfather was a First Fleet convict.5 Although a significant number of Jewish convicts arrived after 1788, organised Jewish life did not start until 1817 with the formation of a Jewish Burial Society in Sydney, when Jewish settlers, convicts and emancipists, formed their first minyan 6, indicating the start of an organised religious spirit. Lionel Fredman remarked that it was extraordinary how quickly an organised Jewish community appeared in some of the provincial towns as well as in Sydney and what substantial resources a small group, at no stage more than 0.5% of the population, could find to erect synagogues and maintain its activities.7


After the arrival in 1828 of more free English Jewish settlers, the first regular services were held in the home of Philip Joseph Cohen. After renting premises in George Street 1831, this was followed by a move to Bridge Street in 1838 and the establishment of the Jewish Philanthropic Society. The congregation moved to the first purpose-built synagogue in York Street, Sydney, in 1844.8 Most of the early settlers were Anglo-Jewish, middle class immigrants who transposed the English pattern of Jewish practice to Australia. In 1878 the Great Synagogue, Sydney, was consecrated with Rev. A .B. Davis as its first minister. Its imposing structure remains an historic feature of the Sydney cityscape, the building being restored for the bicentennial in 1988.

From the 1840s, Jewish settlers were to be found in most of the growing country towns. The oldest synagogue building in Australia is that of Hobart whose foundations were laid in 1943. It was once a flourishing community, but now numbers less than one hundred members. In Victoria, the real beginnings of Jewish settlement began in 1839, with the arrival of the immigrant ship 'Hope' from England. A community, headed by Asher Hymen Hart , was set up in 1841, later to be known as the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation. Unlike Sydney, where Jewish life from 1880 revolved around the Great Synagogue, the community was less centralised. Three well-established synagogues had emerged in Melbourne by this time, the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation (1844), the East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation (founded 1855) and the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation (founded 1871).9

In the second half of the nineteenth century, a high proportion of Jews lived in country areas where towns had sprung up at the time of the Gold Rush with flourishing communities in Goulburn, Maitland and Grafton, and later in Newcastle and Broken Hill. Other communities grew up in Kalgoolie and Ballarat and Bendigo, but with the decline of the supply of gold, the towns' Jewish populations moved to the cities. Nowadays nearly all Jewish communities are in the larger coastal cities and the only rural synagogues from this tiem that continue to function are the Newcastle Synagogue and that of Ballarat. Other communities have grown up inthe Gold Coast and Southern Highlands.

In this period and to the present day Jews participate in every facet of civic, economic and social life. Prominent figures included Sir Saul Samuels, Sir Julian Salamons and later, Sir Daniel Levy, Justice Henry Emanuel Cohen, Sir Isaac Isaacs, and General Sir John Monash. Sir Zelamn coehn shold not be forgetten and Sir justice michael Kirby continues to have a high profile.and Dr Karen Phelps, and there is the politician Michael Danby, former editor of the Austral ia /israel Review. Many of Australia's prominent doctors, lawyers, musicians and mathematicians are Jewish. Australian Jewry contributed to the war effort during both the First and Second World Wars.

Although the Sydney Jewish community was enriched by small numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing the Russian pogroms at the turn of the century, and by Polish Jews arriving in the 1920s, these 'foreign Jews' did not have a significant impact on the community. Their names are to be found interspersed in the ledgers of the Hebrew Friendly Society with those of their English compatriots. The dramatic changes and evolution of Sydney Jewry are largely due to the arrival of Jewish refugees escaping from Nazi Europe in 1938-39. These changes included the formation of communal roof bodies such as Australian Bureau of Jewish Affairs which evolved into the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies in 1945, the Australian Jewish Welfare Society (now the Jewish Community Services), Mt Scopus College, and Temple Emanuel (Now called Emanuel Synagogue) and Moriah College.

The further influx of Holocaust survivors after the war revitalised the community and led to the establishment of a large number of suburban synagogues. Proportionally to its numbers, Ausrtalia recieved the highest number of Holocaust survivors. Nowadays their numbers are diminishing and the majority are child survivors. Further waves of immigrants from Hungary in the mid-1950s, Sephardi Jews from Egyp, the Middle East and Calcutta in the 50s, South Africa, Russia and Israel in 1970s and 1980s have enriched the NSW community which today has more than 20 Orthodox Synagogues, two Temples, a Conservative congregation, and five Jewish day schools (Masada, Moriah, Mount Sinai, Emanuel and Yeshiva). The schools cater for about 50 per cent of Jewish children in Sydney. This phenomenon was mirrored in Melbourne where a larger proportion of the Holocaust survivors are German. The many organisations in the community include the Australian Friends of the Hebrew University, the Montefiore Homes, the Jewish Communal Appeal (JCA), a strong Zionist structure with the United Israel Appeal (UIA), the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the Women's International Zionist Organisation (WIZO), the State Zionist Councils and the National Council of Jewish Women, which combines support for Israeli, local Jewish and general causes. Cultural life has also developed with B'nai B'rith, a service organisation, the Folk Centres for Yiddish culture, the Jewish Arts and Culture Council (JACC) and the Hakoah Club with a membership of more than 10,000. The opening in 1992 of the Sydney Jewish Museum, and the earlier Melbourne Jewish Museum dedicated to the Holocaust and Australian Jewish history have enriched the community at large. The Makor Library in Melbourne continues to flourish and recently the Lamm Library opened its doors.

The Jewish community in Australia currently numbers about 110,000 people, and estimate made on the basis of the lastest census. Jews can be found in all parts of the Greater Sydney area, although approximately two-thirds reside in the Eastern Suburbs, from Vaucluse, through Randwick, Bondi and Double Bay, to Darlinghurst-East Sydney, where the Jewish Community Centre, the Sydney Jewish Museum and the B'nai B'rith Centre are located. Most of the remainder live on the north side of the Harbour, predominantly in the suburbs situated between Chatswood and St Ives. In the other states Melbourne has a large diaspora community which is numerically greater than that of NSW, with strong Jewish areas including Caulfield, Toorak, Elsternwick, Kew and Doncaster. Perth Jews, many of whom reside in the Mount Lawley area number about 6,000, with smaller communities in Adelaide, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, Canberra and samll numbers in Hobart and Launceston in Tasmania.


Jews have lived in the free and open society of Australia for the duration of European settlement. Antisemitism, although not very widespread, is still occasionally in evidence here, especially during times of political tension in Israel. However, usually antisemitism has a negligible impact on Jewish participation in Australian life. Individual Jews and the community as a whole have contributed significantly to the larger community, with leaders such as George Judah Cohen, Sydney D Einfeld, Professor Julius Stone, Professor Peter Baume and Justice Michael Kirby coming from its ranks. Australian Jewry continues to contribute to the wider community and enjoy its benefits, while enriching the multicultural life of present day Australia.

See also: Virtual Jewish Tour of Australian Synagogues on this site in section marked "Virtual Jewish World". Excellent site for information on world Jewry.

Further Reading

Australian Genesis by John S. Levi & G. F. J. Bergman 2nd ed., Melbourne University Press 2001 (Early history till 1860).
The Jews in Australia: A Thematic History. Volume One. 1788-1945 by Hilary L. Rubinstein. Volume Two. 1945 to the Present by William D. Rubinstein, Melbourne, William Heinemann, 1991.
Edge of the Diaspora by Suzanne Rutland. 2nd rev.edn, Sydney, Brandl & Schlesinger, 1997



  1. See G. F. J. Bergman & John S. Levi, Australian Genesis , 2nd ed. (Melbourne University Press 2001), 12.
  2. See Charles Price, Jewish Settlers in Australia (Canberra, Australian National University,1964), appendix 1.
  3. See Israel Porush, The House of Israel (Melbourne, Hawthorn Press, 1970) 334, table 1. The table shows that there were 856 Jews in NSW and 57 in Victoria out of a total Jewish population of 1,183.
  4. W. D. Rubinstein, The Jews in Australia: A Thematic History. Volume Two 1945 to the Present (Melbourne, William Heinemann, 1991), 379.
  5. Nancy Keesing, John Lang and the Forger's Wife: A True Tale of Early Australia (Sydney, John Ferguson, 1979), ix.
  6. Group of ten men for meeting together for prayer. See Report of the Committee of the Sydney Synagogue (Sydney, 1845), 1.
  7. Lionel E. Fredman, 'The Rise and Decline of Provincial Jewry', in W. D Rubinstein, Jews in the Sixth Continent (Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1987), 51, 56.
  8. See Suzanne Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora: Two Centuries of Jewish Settlement in Australia, 2nd rev. edn (Sydney, Brandl & Schlesinger), 1997, 28-29.
  9. See Hilary Rubinstein, Chosen: the Jews in Australia (Sydney, Allen & Unwin), 1987, 26.

See Short summary by Michael Cohen
Marianne Dacy
University of Sydney
September 10 2013