Australian Jewry:  An Overview

This article is adapted from the
Asia-Pacific Survival Guide for the Jewish Traveller
by Michael Cohen, Asia-Pacific Jewish Association, Melbourne, 1988


The first Jews came to Australia literally on the first day of European settlement on the continent – 26 January 1788.

Among the 827 convicts on the English First Fleet who began Australia’s European settlement was a small number of Jewish convicts, estimated by historians at between eight and 14, transported from England to Botany Bay, near Sydney, for relatively trivial crimes.

The first free Jewish settler to arrive in Australia, however, came in 1816.

The first Jewish religious society in Australia, a burial society, began in 1817 and the first Jewish religious service took place about the same time.

Organised Jewish religious life in Australia began in the 1830s in Sydney, with the formation of the first permanent congregation.

The first synagogue, Beth Tephilah, was established in 1837.  By the mid-nineteenth century, an organised Jewish community existed in Sydney and in several country towns in New South Wales.  Communities also developed contemporaneously in 1840 and, too, in the remaining colonies.


There were 5,486 Jews in Australia in 1861 and 15,239 by 1901.

Most had come from Britain (rather than Eastern Europe) and were thus English-speaking.  In part because of this, they knew little or no organised anti-Semitism or persecution.

Many of these Jews were merchants or traders, although nearly all occupational backgrounds were to be found among these early Jewish settlers.  Many lived in country towns.

All Jewish religious worship until the 1930s was according to the Orthodox rite, and followed the Anglo-Orthodox tradition of British Jewry.

Although the Jewish community may claim to be the earliest organised non-Anglo-Celtic community in Australia, with its own synagogues and other institutions, pressures on it to assimilate and merge by intermarriage with the majority population were considerable.

This was particularly due to the lack of a Jewish day school system until the 1940s and because of a traditional Australian mistrust of non-British communities until after World War II.

In all likelihood, Jewish life in Australia would virtually have disappeared by the 1980s without the arrival of Central and East European refugees in the 1930s and 1940s and the creation of a distinctive network of Jewish institutions, especially the Jewish day school system.

Nevertheless, the Jewish community which existed here prior to the 1930s produced a remarkable range of great men and women who contributed considerably to the development of the Australian nation.

The Australian Jewish community was transformed in the 1930s and 1940s by the arrival of approximately 8,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany Austria and Czechoslovakia and, slightly later, by approximately 35,000 East European survivors of the Holocaust.

(Melbourne’s Jewish community is said to have the highest percentage of Holocaust survivors of any Jewish community in the world.)
These Central and East European Jews differed markedly in their outlook from the largely Anglo-Jewish community which they found on their arrival.  Most spoke Yiddish, Polish, German or Hungarian.

In contrast to many non-Zionist Australian Jews of British background, the newcomers were keenly Zionist in orientation and strongly supported the establishment of Israel in 1948 and since.

From the 1940s, too, substantial numbers of Sephardi Jews, especially from Egypt, have settled in Australia (particularly in Adelaide) as have, more recently, thousands of Jews from Southern Africa and the former Soviet Union.


As a result, the Australian Jewish community grew markedly and developed a flourishing range of communal institutions previously unknown.

Australian synagogues grew in number from about a dozen in the 1930s to over 80 today, representing nearly all streams in contemporary Jewish religious life from Adass Yisroel and Chassidic to Progressive Judaism.

The most important institution developed by the newcomers, however, has been the network of Jewish day schools, now numbering about 20, which in some respects is without parallel in the diaspora.

Over 75 percent of Melbourne’s Primary Jewish school children and over 50% of the city’s secondary school student, now attend a Jewish day school.  Melbourne’s Mount Scopus Memorial College, which takes students from pre-schoolers to high school seniors, is one of the largest Jewish day schools in the diaspora, with an enrolment of almost 2,000.

The estimated percentages for the Sydney Jewish community is 60% for primary and 40% for secondary students.


The great majority of Australia’s Jewish population (approx. 100,000) lives in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia’s two largest cities, with only Western Australia of the other states having as many as about 8,000 Jews.  (However, there are established Jewish communities in all major cities in Australia.)

Jews live mainly in the state capital cities, with only small numbers in the smaller country towns.  The only exceptions to this are in Queensland, where there is a substantial, rapidly growing Jewish population in the Gold Coast resort area, and in Tasmania.

As noted, the two largest Jewish communities by far in Australia are in Melbourne and Sydney.

It is often said that the ambience of the two communities is different, with the Melbourne community (approx. 50,000) primarily of Polish background, being more conservative, and the Sydney community, with relatively more Hungarian and German Jews, being more liberal.  (This may reflect the tone of the two cities as much as anything else.)

In both cities there are distinctly Jewish areas where many (though certainly not all) Jews live and where most Jewish synagogues and other institutions may be found.

In Melbourne, about 75 percent of the Jewish community lives south of the Yarra River in a belt running from South Yarra and Toorak to Moorabbin and Glen Iris, and centering in Caulfield and St. Kilda.

The ‘main street’ of Melbourne Jewry is Carlisle Street, East St. Kilda, while the well-known tourist district around St. Kilda’s Acland Street also has a Jewish ambience.

Much of the Caulfield-St. Kilda area is heavily and recognisably part of a ‘Jewish neighbourhood’, with many Jewish interest shops, kosher restaurants, cafes, butcher shops, and numerous Chassidic residents. About 20 percent of the community lives in a second belt of Jewish settlement in north-eastern Melbourne, with synagogues and community centres in Doncaster and Kew.

Before the Second World War many Jewish migrants lived in Carlton, north of the city centre, but Jewish settlement there has declined in recent decades.

Another distinctive feature of Melbourne life (much more so than of other Jewish communities) is the amount of Yiddish still spoken by the Jewish community.  Many older Jews still prefer to speak Yiddish.  There is also a Yiddish school and Yiddish theatre in Melbourne.

The Jewish community of Sydney is more spread out than in Melbourne.

The traditional centre of Jewish life in Sydney is in the eastern bay and beach suburbs from Double Bay through Woollahra to Bondi, although these areas are not as distinctively ‘Jewish’ as their equivalents in Melbourne.  Bondi contains a number of Jewish shops and the principally-Jewish Hakoah Club.

Many Jews also live in the northern suburbs to the north of Sydney Harbour, known as the North Shore, which has a strong Southern African Jewish ex-patriate presence.

There are no distinctively Jewish areas in other Australian cities.  However, many Jews in Perth live in Yokine, Dianella West and Noranda which, like Sydney’s North Shore and Melbourne’s Doncaster, is home to large numbers of South African and Zimbabwean Jewish migrants.


The Australian Jewish community has a well-organised system of communal self-government which represents nearly all synagogues, schools, communal groups, and institutions at both the national (federal) and state levels.

The national roof body of the Australian Jewish community, which represents the Jewish community at a national level to the Australian government, is known as the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ).

As in Britain, at the state level the roof body of the Jewish community is often known as the Jewish Board of Deputies.  Most Australian states have such a Board – or an equivalent body.  The Melbourne-based board is the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV).


There are currently about 35 synagogues in Sydney and an equal or greater number in Melbourne representing, in both cities, a variety of strands in religious Jewish life – Sephardi and Ashkenazi Orthodoxy (middle-of-the-road, Chassidic, etc.) and Progressive (Liberal/Reform) Judaism.

Most are located in the major areas of Jewish settlement, but in both Sydney and Melbourne there are architecturally distinguished and historically important synagogues near the centre of each city and away from these areas, viz. the Great Synagogue in Elizabeth Street, Sydney, the East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation in Albert Street, East Melbourne, and the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation in Toorak Road, South Yarra.

In Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and the Gold Coast (Queensland) there are synagogues in each city, representing the Orthodox and Progressive communities.

Hobart, Launceston, Newcastle and Ballarat each has a single Orthodox synagogue, although the Hobart synagogue is today shared by the Orthodox and Reform communities of that city.

Although American Judaism is traditionally divided into Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative Judaism, the latter two movements have never really found their place in Australian Jewish life.

Nevertheless, most Australian Jews who are affiliated to synagogues would define themselves as traditional – perhaps even ‘Conserv-adox’.

Furthermore, there have been fledgling attempts in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane to establish Conservative congregations in recent times.  Reconstructionist Judaism, an exclusively American Phenomenon, has not, however, made a mark on Australian Jewry, which is still strongly attached to its European roots.


Perhaps the most notable and distinctive feature of Australian Jewish life is the system of Jewish private day schools which now educate most Australian Jewish children of school age.

Melbourne’s Mount Scopus Memorial College, the first such school to make a real impact on the Jewish community, was founded in 1947.  In the years since, 19 other Jewish day schools have been established in Australia.

There are ten such schools in Melbourne.  Others include the Adass Israel School, Yeshiva College and Beth Rivkah Ladies’ College, representing Chassidic or strictly Orthodox Judaism, Leibler-Yavneh College, connected with the Mizrachi movement (modern Orthodox/Zionist), The King David School, established by the Progressive (Liberal) stream, Bialik College, a Zionist school, and Sholem Aleichem College, emphasising Yiddish language and culture.

In Sydney there are six Jewish day schools.

Moriah War Memorial College, the largest, has over 1,500 students and is a traditional community school, located in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

Masada College (enrolment - approximately 800 pupils) located on the North Shore and Mount Sinai College, are also traditional schools.  Yeshiva Girls’ High School and Yeshiva College (for boys) are strictly Orthodox, while The Emmanuel School represents Progressive Jewry. There are also Jewish day schools in Perth (approx. 850 pupils), Adelaide (for elementary grades only), Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

Additionally, there are numerous Jewish Sunday Schools (part-time Jewish education for Jewish students who attend non-Jewish schools) and many Jewish youth movements, representing a wide range of religious and secular movements in the community.


There are numerous Jewish courses available at many of Australia’s universities and at some Colleges of Advanced Education.

Shalom College, a residential house at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, provides kosher facilities.

There is a large and well-established Australasian Union of Jewish Students as well as Jewish student bodies at most universities and other tertiary institutions.

The Chassidic movement maintains a rabbinical training institution in Melbourne.  And there are kollelim in both Melbourne and Sydney.


The Jewish community has a long-established and highly regarded welfare and relief system providing, especially, assistance for newly-arrived immigrants in need, for children and teenagers in financial or emotional difficulty and for the handicapped and the aged.

The Montefiore Homes in Melbourne and Sydney are impressive residences for the aged.  A wide variety of other Jewish welfare organizations exist in all Jewish communities.

There is, especially in Melbourne and Sydney, a rich variety of Jewish organizations, clubs and societies of every description relating to women’s, sporting, political, cultural, and veterans’ activities, inter alia.

The B’nai B’rith, the first Australian branch of which was founded in 1945, is an important part of the Australian Jewish scene.
Additionally, there are numerous societies of Holocaust survivors and former anti-Nazi resistance fighters and important Yiddish cultural activities, especially those associated with the Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre and National Library.

There is a national English-language weekly newspaper, The Australian Jewish News, serving the Australian Jewish community.

There are also several other Jewish publications, including AIJAC, which carries news of the Middle East and surveys extreme right – and left-wing anti-Semitism, and the Melbourne Chronicle, a Yiddish-interest literary magazine which is published several times a year.

Most synagogues and Jewish societies publish regular journals.  There are several hours of weekly Jewish broadcasting on the ‘ethnic’ radio stations in Sydney and Melbourne which carry Jewish-interest broadcasts in English, Hebrew and Yiddish.  These programs are advertised in the press.  Local Jewish internet sites also abound.

A number of excellent Jewish museums exist in Australia, together with Holocaust Museums and resource centres.

There is also a well-established Australian Jewish Historical Society with branches in Sydney and Melbourne.  It publishes an important Journal and has collected a plethora of historical and genealogical material relating to Australian Jewry.


Like all other Jewish communities worldwide, the Australian Jewish community strongly supports the State of Israel, and many of its public activities are directed toward assisting it and demonstrating support for its continuing progress.

Education about Israel is an important part of the curricula of the overwhelming majority of the Jewish day schools, and many organizations exist specifically to support Israel or to assist Australia-Israel friendship and trade.

There are numerous bodies in the Jewish community which work directly to support the State of Israel.

The most important is the Zionist Federation of Australia, with branches in all states.

Many other organizations, such as the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Industry, exist whose aim is to promote Australia-Israel contact.

Communal Yom Yerushalayim, Yom Ha’atzmaut, and other celebrations, and Yom Hazikaron and Yom Hashoah commemorations, are attended by thousands of community members.

In sum, Jewish life in Australia is vibrant, and the community has much of which to be proud.


Jewish, 2001