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History of NSW Jewry

The history of NSW Jewry is relatively short compared to that of overseas communities, but it has many fascinating aspects. As a small community, it has struggled to maintain its Jewish identity and has emerged as one of the most vibrant of Jewish communities in the world today.

The position of Jews in Australian society has been rather different from that of Jews in other places. As historian W. D. Rubinstein has written, one of the most outstanding features has been the normalcy of Jewish life. This normalcy can be traced as far back as 1788. It has been noted that there were at least eight, and perhaps as many as 14, Jewish petty criminals among the convict cargo on the First Fleet. Thus Jews were among the first whites to arrive in NSW and so have never been considered to be aliens to quite the same extent as elsewhere. Most of NSWs Jews prior to the end of the 19th century 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 passed in colonial society indistinguishable from the general population. Overall, the experience of Jews in NSW and across Australia has been inextricably bound up with that of all other whites.

Of the Jewish convicts who arrived with the First Fleet, some, like Esther Abrahams, were to make important contributions to the colony. While 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.

After 1828 free English Jewish settlers began to arrive and the first regular services were held in the home of P.J. Cohen. After renting premises, the congregation moved to the first purpose-built synagogue in York Street, Sydney, in 1844. 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 landscape, the building being substantially restored for the bicentennial in 1988.

During the 19th century a high proportion of Jews in NSW lived in country areas, with communities in Goulburn, Maitland and Grafton, and later in Newcastle and Broken Hill. These communities were too isolated and today the only reminder of their existence are the Jewish gravestones in country cemeteries and disused synagogues, apart from the Newcastle Synagogue which continues to function. In this period Jews participated in every facet of civic, economic and social life of NSW and prominent figures included Sir Saul Samuels, Sir Julian Salamons and later, Sir Daniel Levy and Justice Henry Emanuel Cohen. In 1917 the Legislative Assembly had to close on Yom Kippur because both the Speaker and Deputy Speaker were Jewish. Sydney Jewry contributed to the war effort during both the First and Second World Wars and NAJEX, the Jewish Ex-Servicemen's organisation, was formed to support those involved in fighting for their country.

While 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.

It was the Jewish refugees who arrived largely from Central Europe in 1938-1939, escaping from Nazism, who laid the basis for the dramatic changes and evolution of Sydney Jewry. These changes included the formation of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies in 1945, the Australian Jewish Welfare Society (now JewishCare), the Temple Emanuel (now the Emanuel Synagogue) and Moriah College. With the further influx of Holocaust survivors after the war, the community grew, with a large number of suburban synagogues being established.

Further waves of immigrants from Hungary in the mid-1950s, South Africa, Russia and Israel in 1970s and 1980s have enriched our community which today has more than 20 Orthodox Synagogues, two Progressive synagogues and five Jewish day schools (Masada, Moriah, Mount Sinai, Emanuel and Kesser Torah). The schools cater for about 50 per cent of Jewish children in Sydney. The many organisations in the community include the NSW Board of Jewish Education, the Montefiore Home, the Jewish Communal Appeal (JCA), a strong Zionist structure with United Israel Appeal (UIA), Jewish National Fund (JNF), Women's International Zionist Organisation (WIZO), the State Zionist Council and the National Council of Jewish Women, the first women's organisation formed in NSW, 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 Centre 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, dedicated to the Holocaust and Australian Jewish history and located in the historic Maccabean Hall, was a landmark event for this community.

The Jewish community in Sydney currently numbers about 40,000 people. 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 Bnai Brith 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.

Jews have lived in the free and open society of NSW for the duration of European settlement. Antisemitism, although not very widespread, is still occasionally in evidence here. However, it has had 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 and Professor Peter Baume coming from its ranks. In this way, NSW Jewry has contributed to and benefited from the wider community, enriching the multiculturalism of present-day Australia.

Further Reading:

Edge of the Diaspora
by Suzanne Rutland
Brandl & Schlesinger, 1997

With One Voice (A History of the Board from 1945 to 1995)
by Suzanne Rutland & Sophie Caplan
Australian Jewish Historical Society, 1998

Pages of History
by Suzanne Rutland
Australian Jewish Press Pty Ltd, 1995

Australian Genesis
by G. F. J. Bergman & J. S. Levi
Rigby, 1974
(New Edition forthcoming from
Melbourne University Press in July 2001)

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