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Australia Virtual Jewish History Tour

By David Shyovitz and Mitchell Bard

Australia Table of Contents

The first Jews to arrive in Australia came as British prisoners in the 18th century. Today, Australia's Jewish population stands at approximately 118,000 - the ninth-largest Jewish community in the world. The majority of Jews in Australia reside in the major cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Community Origins
Early Jewish Life
The Community Grows
Post-War Developments
Relations with Israel
Jewish Tourist Sites

Community Origins

Learn More - Cities of Australia:
Adelaide | Ballarat | Brisbane
Perth | Sydney | Tasmania

When the American colonies revolted in 1776, England lost its biggest prison – convicts were routinely shipped to the thirteen colonies to make room in the perpetually crowded British jails. As a result, England annexed the island of Australia in 1788 as a new prison colony. While Australia had been known to Europeans since its discovery in the sixteenth century, the English were the first to settle there on a permanent basis, aside from the native Aboriginal population.

Among the 1,500 prisoners who initially arrived in Botany Bay on January 18, 1788, were 23 Jews. One of them was John Harris who, after being freed, became the first policeman in Australia.

By 1817, more had arrived, and enough had been freed to form an organized minyan and burial society. As their numbers swelled, primarily due to immigration from England and Germany, kehillahs (organized communities) sprang up in the cities of Sydney (1831) and Melbourne (1841), which were to become the two centers of Jewish life. The Sydney kehilla was founded by Joseph Barrow Montefiore, a cousin of Sir Moses Montefiore.

The Sydney congregation worshiped in houses and shops until 1844, when the growing community built the first synagogue in Australia. It was soon followed by synagogues in Hobart (1845), Launceston (1846), Melbourne (1847), and Adelaide (1850).

Rabbi Alexander Davis,
head of the Sydney
community from 1862-1904

The gold rush of the 1850s attracted more Jewish immigrants, so foreign-born Jews soon outnumbered the native-born. Many of the immigrants initially settled in rural locations, and not in the main, urban communities of Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, and Adelaide. Fear of assimilation, however, caused most Australian Jews to consolidate in cities by the end of the century. Consequently, the rapidly growing Sydney community soon needed larger facilities and, in 1878, built the Great Synagogue, which was widely considered the most impressive place of worship in Australia.

Early Jewish Life

Australia remains to this day the only country in the world, other than Israel, whose founding members included Jews. As a result, Jews were treated as equal citizens from the outset. In contrast to contemporary Europe, incidents of anti-Semitism were very rare in Australia. Jews were free to participate in economic and cultural life and played an important role in their development. The first Australian theater, for example, was built by a Jew, and an early Jewish composer, Isaac Nathan, has been described as the "father of Australian music."

An 1851 lithograph of the
Melbourne Hebrew Congregation

Jews also served as elected officials. In the nineteenth century, prominent Jews included the mayor of Melbourne, the premier of the state of South Australia, the speaker of the House of Representatives, and the speaker of Parliament. Interestingly, these political leaders were frequently the heads of their respective kehillas as well; unlike the politically autonomous kehillas of Europe, Australia's communities were cultural and religious institutions only.

The seamless integration of Jews into Australia allowed them to flourish in all spheres but religion. The Jews' incorporation into society led to a rise in intermarriage, a drop in synagogue attendance, and a lack of affiliation with Judaism in general. Nonetheless, there were still those who maintained their observance. The communities remained affiliated with the British Chief Rabbinate and founded numerous Jewish schools and synagogues.

In addition to the Ashkenazim, who comprised the vast majority of Australian Jewry, a small Sephardic community thrived during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. For some twenty years, there was a Sephardic congregation, and such prominent families as the Montefiores occupied important communal positions. Gradually, however, the Sephardic population decreased, and the congregation was disbanded by 1873.

The Community Grows

At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, as Australia was unifying its colonies into one independent nation, a wave of immigration from Europe bolstered the Jewish community both in terms of numbers and observance. Refugees from the pogroms in Russia and Poland came in the 1890s and brought an infusion of tradition to the assimilated communities. Following World War I, another stream of Jews arrived in the country, and when Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, that stream became a flood. The Australian government was initially hesitant about opening its gates to so many immigrants, but in 1938 decided to allot 15,000 visas for "victims of oppression." Some 7,000 Jews took advantage of the visas before the outbreak of war in 1939.

The York Street synagogue,
used in Sydney between 1844 and 1877

The influx of immigrants led to a split among the urban Jewish centers. Most of the Jews who lived in Sydney were from Western and Central Europe. These Jews tended to be more secular than their Eastern European counterparts, who, by and large, settled in Melbourne. As a result, Sydney became known for its secular Jewish population and Melbourne for its highly Orthodox community. At the same time, Perth also became primarily Orthodox as thousands of observant South Africans arrived.

But if the German and Hungarian immigrants were secular in comparison to the Russians and the Poles, they were still far more religious than the Australians. Thus, even those Australians who remained non-Orthodox gradually became more involved in communal affairs. The previously synagogue-oriented kehillas began to focus their energies more on education, Zionism, and combating anti-Semitism, allowing even the irreligious to become involved. By the end of World War II, the community was very united in its opposition to assimilation, and was gradually becoming more observant of ritual and doctrine.

Post-War Developments

In the aftermath of the war, even more European Jews arrived in Australia, mostly from displaced persons camps. The trend toward observance continued to grow, especially once the Lubavitch movement gained a foothold, and day-school attendance rose steadily. The growth of the thriving community was briefly interrupted in the 1970s when a rise in intermarriage caused an unprecedented decrease in the total Jewish population. By the early 1980s, however, a census indicated that the Jewish population was once again growing, and that intermarriage had once again dropped to one of the lowest levels in the diaspora. Immigration did not let up, and, in 1989, the flow of primarily South African immigrants was augmented by refugees from the newly disbanded Soviet Union.

The long-dormant Sephardic community was also revitalized in the post-war period. Since the original community’s demise in the late 1800s, Sephardim had a difficult time gaining entry to Australia due to the racist White Australia Policy instituted by the government. In 1956, following the Suez crisis in Egypt, the government began to allow select Egyptian Jews to enter the country. In the ensuing years, pressure from the Jewish communities caused the government to drop its anti-Sephardic stance. By 1969, when the Iraqi government began to target the Jews for persecution, Australia allowed any refugee who could come to Australia to do so.

Today, approximately 113,200 Jews live in Australia, out of a total population of nearly 25 million. The Jewish community of Australia is the largest Jewish community in the East Asian Pacific Region. Approximately 80 percent of Australian Jews live in Melbourne (50,000) and Sydney (45,000), but there are also significant communities in Perth, Brisbane, the Gold Coast, and Adelaide.

Melbourne is still considered the more religious of the two cities, with about 80 percent of its Jews declaring themselves traditional. Nonetheless, Sydney boasts numerous synagogues and Jewish organizations as well as a very high rate of aliya. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) is the elected representative organization of the Jewish community.

There are 81 synagogues and 18 day schools in Australia, and several Jewish newspapers and periodicals. More than 50 percent of Jewish students are enrolled in Jewish schools, which is the highest rate anywhere in the world, with the exception of Israel. Australia also has a low rate of intermarriage compared to other Diaspora countries. There have been two Jewish Australian governors-general, and several Jewish Australians have served in senior leadership positions in the country’s military.

In April 2022, the Melbourne University Student Union passed a BDS resolution, which the university called “anti-Semitic.”

On July 9, 2024, the Australian government appointed a special envoy to address the rise in antisemitism across the country since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. At this time, antisemitic incidents in Australia reached 400% to 500% higher than before the war. 

Relations with Israel

An agreement was announced between the governments of Israel and Australia on October 22, 2014, to provide for more economic and cultural cooperation between the two countries. The agreement is a “Holiday & Visa” agreement, which will make it easier for young Israelis to work and vacation in Australia, and vice-versa. Under the agreement 500 work-travel visas will be awarded each year to Israelis and Australians between the ages of 18 and 30, and the individuals will be able to stay in the other country for a full year. In addition to Australia, Israel also has similar arrangements with Germany, New Zealand, South Korea, and others.

Australia and the United States sided with Israel’s safety and security in December 2014 when they were the only two countries on the UN Security Council to vote against a Palestinian statehood resolution that would have required Israel to relinquish its territory captured after the 1967 war. The Palestinian statehood measure was brought before the Security Council by Jordan on behalf of the Palestinians and needed nine yes votes out of the fifteen members of the Security Council in order to pass. The United States and Australia voted against the measure, while Nigeria, Britain, Lithuania, the Republic of South Korea and Rwanda abstained from voting. The measure did not meet the required number of votes, garnering eight “yes’s” instead of the nine required to pass. The eight countries that voted in favor of the resolution were China, France, Russia, Argentina, Chad, Chile, Jordan, and Luxemburg. This vote marked the first time that Australia had voted “no” on a proposed resolution during its two-year term on the Security Council.

Avi Hasson, the chief scientist of the Israel Ministry of Economy, made his first official visit to Australia in late November 2015. Hasson met with Australian business leaders and government officials, seeking to increase economic, scientific, and technological cooperation between the two countries. A research & development agreement was signed between Hasson and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia during the visit.

Australia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, received the Hebrew University’s Torch of Learning award and delivered a speech titled “The changing face of the political landscape in Israel, the Middle East and in Australia,” in Sydney, Australia, on November 22, 2015.

French officials welcomed representatives from 70 countries, including Australia, to a conference in Paris on January 14, 2016, to “reaffirm their support for a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The conference, which was opposed by both the Israelis and Palestinians, ended with the adoption of a Joint Declaration. Following the conference, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop clarified her country’s stance on the Declaration, stating that “while the Australian government was represented at the Paris conference this does not mean we agree with every element of the final statement.” Bishop went on to air the Australian government’s opposition to “one-sided resolutions targeting Israel,” and recommended a “resumption of direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians for a two-state solution as soon as possible.”

Benjamin Netanyahu became the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Australia on February 22, 2017. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull welcomed Netanyahu at a press conference in Sydney, where Netanyahu lauded Turnbull’s opposition to a recent anti-Israel UN Security Council Resolution.

Australian Energy and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg signed a Declaration of Intent with his Israeli counterpart Ze’ev Elkin on April 25, 2016, which called for cooperation on multiple environmental issues. The representatives signed the declaration during a three-day visit by Frydenbeg to Israel, promising to work together on sewage treatment, water and air quality, greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, biodiversity, clean energy technology, and coastal preservation.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull traveled to Israel in October 2017. “Israel and Australia have a vital interest in working more closely and intensely together to keep our people safe from terrorism,” Turnbull said, after signing a Memorandum of Understanding on mutual defense.

The Australian government announced the suspension of all foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority on July 1, 2018, due to the likelihood the funds would be used to pay Palestinian terrorists and their families.

Israel’s Rafael Defense Systems won a bid in May 2018 to provide missiles for Australia’s Boxer armored fighting vehicles. In August, Rafael signed an industrial cooperation agreement with Australian company Varley, creating a jointly owned company to be known as Var. The cooperation agreement provides for the establishment of production lines in Australia for Rafael’s Spike anti-tank missiles, as well as the sale to the Australian military of the Trophy system for the protection of tanks and APCs, the Iron Dome missile defense system, and the Iron Dome anti-torpedo system for the protection of vessels at sea.

In December 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australia recognized West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He said the embassy would remain in Tel Aviv, however, and added the government supports a two-state solution and “resolved to acknowledge the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future state with its capital in East Jerusalem.” In 2022, the Labor government of Anthony Albanese reversed the policy.

Australia opened a trade and defense office in Jerusalem in March 2019. The move was not announced on government websites, and no senior Australian or Israeli officials attended the opening ceremony of the new office. “It is a commercially focused office, established and managed by the Australian Trade and Investment Commission,” according to a spokesperson for the Australian embassy. It “will not have diplomatic status and is not an extension of the Australian embassy in Tel Aviv,” the spokesperson stressed.

Australia-Israel trade is now more than $1.3 billion per year.

The Australian government struck another blow against terrorism in February 2022 by listing Hamas as an outlawed “terrorist” organization. Australia had previously listed Hamas’s al-Qassam Brigades military wing as a “terror” group in 2003, but the new designation, which will come into force in April, will list the entire organization, including its political wing.

“The views of Hamas and the violent extremist groups listed today are deeply disturbing, and there is no place in Australia for their hateful ideologies,” said Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews. “It is vital that our laws target not only terrorist acts and terrorists, but also the organizations that plan, finance and carry out these acts,”

The designation will place restrictions on financing or providing other support to Hamas – with certain offenses carrying a 25-year prison sentence.

In 2023, Plasan Sasa Ltd. in Israel signed a contract with BAE Systems Australia to armor the first three Hunter class frigates for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Bisalloy Steel Australia will be responsible for the production of the ballistic steel under the contract.

Jewish Tourist Sites

The Ark of the Melbourne Synagogue


Today's Jewish community is concentrated in the St. Kilda district, home of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, the oldest and largest synagogue in the city. The original kehilla that was formed in 1841 moved into this large, stately building in 1930, and the dome-topped, Victorian structure has been in use ever since. Other synagogues in Melbourne include Temple Beth Israel, a Liberal synagogue that seats more than 2,000 people; the St. Kilda Hebrew Congregation, which is more in the old-world style; and the Kew synagogue, the newest and most modern-looking temple.

The Jewish Museum of Australia displays Judaica, ritual objects, Holocaust material, and paintings and sculptures by Jewish authors. The nearby Kadimah Cultural Center shows Jewish and Yiddish drama and has a large library of Judaica. There are also kosher restaurants and grocery stores throughout the St. Kilda area.


The most important Jewish sight in Sydney is the Great Synagogue. Built in 1878, the imposing building is one of the most spectacular synagogues standing today. Its four-story pointed towers, arches, and stained glass clerestory are prime examples of Victorian architecture. The building also houses a Jewish museum and library.

Sydney Great Synagogue Interior

While the Great Synagogue is located in the center of the city, most of Sydney's Jews live in the Bondi and North Shore suburbs. Bondi features the Hakoah Club, a Casino with a kosher dining room that is reminiscent of Atlantic City. The area, which overlooks the ocean from a towering cliff, also features kosher restaurants, a Lubavitch yeshiva, and several synagogues.

The North Shore Synagogue, established in 1947 by German immigrants Reverend William and Rosalie Katz, is a modern Orthodox community situated in the Lindfield area of Sydney. Known as the "Garden Synagogue" for its beautiful surroundings, the synagogue is within a garden of tall Australian trees. North Shore Synagogue holds regular services, as well as services for Shabbat and festivals, has a Hebrew School and a B'nai Mitzvah program, and has over 850 families in its congregation. Next door is the local Jewish day school's junior school of Masada, and the senior school is a few minutes up the road in another Jewish suburb on the north shore, St. Ives.

The recently built Museum of Australian Jewish History and the Holocaust is located in Darlinghurst. It includes exhibits on the convicts who founded Sydney's Jewish community, and a recreation of George Street in central Sydney, where a number of Jewish businesses were located in the mid-1800s.


Hobart Synagogue

Its foundation stone was laid on August 9, 1843; the Hobart Synagogue in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia is the oldest synagogue in Australia. It was designed by James Alexander Thomson, a Scotsman originally sent to Australia in 1825 for attempted jewel robbery, in the Egyptian Revival Style. The Egyptian style represented antiquity, and the synagogue’s design was meant to indicate Judaism’s ancient roots.

The synagogue’s entrance is decorated with two carved pillars supporting an architrave and cornice, upon which appears the Hebrew inscription from the Book of Exodus: “Wherever my name is mentioned there will I come and bless you.” The synagogue’s Ark is enclosed by a light and elegant bronzed railing and is approached by circular steps. On either side of the doors of the Ark, which are richly carved and gilded, are placed two elaborately carved pillars, supporting an entablature and cornice of cedar, which is also gilded.

The Hobart Synagogue Ark contains multiple Torah scrolls thought to be as old as the synagogue. One of these scrolls was donated by Lady Rachel Ezra of Calcutta, India, though it is probably of Syrian origin, in 1951 and is kept in an ornamental silver casing in the Sephardi style. On display is a Memorial Sefer Torah from Czechoslovakia, which is one of the 1,564 scrolls seized from desecrated synagogues by the Nazis.

The synagogue is currently shared by an Orthodox and a Progressive group and, since 1956, there has not been a permanent rabbi in residence so the congregation depends on members who have received traditional Jewish instruction for leadership. The Hobart Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in the southern hemisphere still in regular use.

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Photos courtesy of:
The Great Synagogue.
The Melbourne Hebrew Congregation
Center for Tasmanian Historical Studies
Hobart Synagogue
Hobart Synagogue Photo courtesy of Hobart Synagogue