Australian Jews

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Australian Jews
יהדות אוסטרליה
Total population

(0.4% - 0.6% of the Australian population)

Derived from 2011 Australian Census and
Regions with significant populations
Melbourne, Sydney and other metropolitan areas
Judaism · Jewish secularism

Australian Jews, or Jewish Australians, are Jews who are Australian citizens or permanent residents of Australia. There are 97,335 Australians who identified as Jewish in the 2011 census,[1] but this number is expected to be much higher. There are several reasons, as the high non-response rate for large numbers of Haredi Jews or many non-practicing Jews who prefer not to disclose religion in the census are more common. By comparison, the Haaretz Israeli News estimated a Jewish-Australian population of 120,000-150,000[3] (not limited to adherents of Judaism) and around one million Australians (4.5%) have some Jewish ancestry.[4] Jewish citizens make up 0.5 percent of the Australian population.[5] The Jewish community of Australia is composed mostly of Ashkenazi Jews. Judaism is a minority religion in Australia.


The first Jews to come to Australia were eight English convicts transported to Botany Bay in 1788 aboard the First Fleet.[6] About 15,100 convicts were transported by the time transportation ceased in 1840 in New South Wales and 1853 in Tasmania. It is estimated that of those who arrived by 1845 about 800 were Jewish. Most of them came from London, were of working-class background and were male. Only 7% of Jewish convicts were female, compared with 15% for non-Jewish convicts. The average age of the Jewish convicts was 25, but ranged from 8 to elderly.[7]

At first, the Church of England was the established religion, and during the early years of transportation all convicts were required to attend Anglican services on Sundays. This included Irish Catholics as well as the Jews. Similarly, education in the new settlement was Anglican church controlled until the 1840s.[7]

The first move toward organisation in the community was the formation of a Chevra Kadisha (a Jewish burial society) in Sydney in 1817,[7] but the allocation of land for a Jewish cemetery was not approved until 1832.[8] In 1830 the first Jewish wedding in Australia was celebrated, the contracting parties being Moses Joseph and Rosetta Nathan.[9]

Jewish immigration came at a time of antisemitism. 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 Jewish immigrants.[7]


Streams and Movements of Judaism[edit]

Most Australian Jews have a strong Jewish identity, even if this does not necessarily express itself in religious expression. In a recent survey, 58% of Melbourne Jews recognize their Jewish identity as being 'very important,' against a mere 2% who feel that it is 'not important at all.'

The three main streams of Judaism are active today in Australia: Orthodox (Modern and ultra-orthodox), Conservative and Reform. Statistics are only available for the Melbourne community, but they are considered representative of other Jewish communities around the country. In Melbourne, 6% of Jews label themselves as 'strictly orthodox,' 33% as 'traditionally religious' and 15% are 'Liberal or Reform.' 43% consider themselves as 'Jewish but not religious,' whilst 1% are 'opposed to religion' altogether. Interestingly many of the Jews, who consider themselves 'Jewish but not religious,' still send their children to Orthodox Jewish Day Schools and are members of Orthodox synagogues, in their wish to preserve their Jewish identity.

As Dr. Suzanne Rutland explains, 'most Australian Jews can be best described as non-practicing orthodox.' This Anglo-Jewish community developed its own form of 'modern Orthodoxy' which remains predominant until today.

Hitler's ascent to power and the horrors of World War II also brought large numbers of refugees from central Europe and from the mid-1930s Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne became the basis of a Reform community because of its newly arrived German members. The Temple's German-born rabbi played an integral role in promoting the movement and, in 1938, when visiting Sydney, he established Temple Emanuel, which also attracted many German and other Central European Jews, who arrived in Sydney prior to the outbreak of the war.

The 1940s and 1950s witnessed the birth of ultra-Orthodox Judaism in Australia, with the rise of active Chabad Lubavitch communities in Sydney and Melbourne.[10]


The emphasis on Jewish education is one of the most striking characteristic of Australian Jewry.

In 1942, the first Jewish Day School and Kindergarten were formed in North Bondi in Sydney. Yet it was only just after the war years that in Melbourne, the first communal Jewish Day School, Mount Scopus College, was founded. In its inaugural year, the school had 120 students, and has today become one of the largest Jewish Day School in the Diaspora, with a peak of 2,800 students in the 1980s. The largest Jewish school in Australia today is Moriah College, in Sydney.

The Jewish Day School system offers an excellent academic, religious, Zionist, sporting and social experience. All in all, there are 19 Jewish Day Schools in Australia; in recent decades, the ultra-orthodox and Reform movements have established their own schools and community schools have also come on line. It is estimated that in Melbourne between 70% and 75% of all Jewish students attend a Jewish school. In Sydney, this figure is 62%. In 1996, over 10,000 Jewish students attended a Jewish school in Australia.

Jewish Day Schools in Australia are much more expensive than the government/state schools. Therefore, a number of state schools, especially in Sydney, have a large Jewish population. The Boards of Jewish Education attend to the Jewish educational needs of such students. As a result, several state schools offer Hebrew or Jewish Studies as elective courses. Further, the numerous education boards also attend to Jewish students in the smaller centers of Adelaide, Brisbane and Canberra.

In addition to Jewish education at a school level, Australian Jewry opportunities for Jewish higher education. The University of Sydney and Monash University in Melbourne both offer full Jewish Studies departments, allowing students to study Jewish Civilization, Hebrew (Modern and Classical), Holocaust Studies, Yiddish and Zionism. Adult Jewish learning is also very popular in Australia, with the Melton Adult Education Program offering a variety of popular programs linked to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Multiculturalism as an ideology developed in Australia during the 1970s. During this period, Jewish cultural life expanded and was in some cases assisted by the government. There are numerous cultural and social organizations, Jewish radio shows and newspapers, and Jewish museums in both Melbourne and Sydney.[10]


There had been at least two short-lived efforts to establish reform congregations, the first as early as the 1890s. However, in 1930, under the leadership of Ada Phillips, a Liberal or Progressive congregation, Temple Beth Israel, was permanently established in Melbourne. In 1938 the long-serving senior rabbi, Rabbi Dr Herman Sanger, was instrumental in establishing another synagogue, Temple Emanuel in Sydney. He also played a part in founding a number of other liberal synagogues in other cities in both Australia and New Zealand. The first Australian-born rabbi, Rabbi Dr John Levi, served the Australian liberal movement.[11]

In 2012, the first humanistic Jewish congregation, known as Kehilat Kolenu, was established in Melbourne with links to the cultural Jewish youth movement Habonim Dror. Later in 2012, a similar congregation was established in Sydney, known as Ayelet HaShachar. The services are loosely based on the Humanistic Jewish movement in the United States and the musical-prayer group Nava Tehila in Israel.


Significant Jewish population centres[edit]


Melbourne Ports has the largest Jewish community of any electorate in Australia.[12] Bialik College is a Jewish day school in Melbourne, as well as Yeshivah College, King David School, Adass Israel School in Elsternwick and Mount Scopus Memorial College. 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.[13]


A poster of Menachem Mendel Schneerson at the entrance of a Chabad house in Bondi Beach in Sydney's Eastern Suburbs.

Sydney’s Jewish community is considered one of the most thriving and dynamic in the diaspora. There are an estimated 50,000 Jews in New South Wales out of an Australian Jewish population of 120,000.

Jews can be found throughout 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 many of the service organisations are located. Most of the remainder live on the upper north shore, predominantly in the suburbs situated between Chatswood and St Ives. Smaller but active pockets reside in such areas as Maroubra, Coogee, Leichhardt, Newtown and Marrickville.

One of the strengths of the Sydney community is the significant contribution by overseas immigrants, to the extent that over two-thirds of the Sydney Jewish population originates from South Africa, Hungary, the former Soviet Union and Israel.[14]


The Carmel School is a Jewish day school in Perth. Today's Jewish Perth is a growing and vibrant community that is diverse and inclusive. The community numbers over 7,000 and there are a number of different religious congregations catering to the diverse interests, beliefs and traditions of this active community.

The oldest congregation, established over 110 years ago, is the Perth Hebrew Congregation, led by Rabbi David Freilich. The Perth Hebrew Congregation, also referred to simply as the Perth Synagogue, has more membership than all the other synagogues combined in Perth and thus caters for the vast majority of the Jewish population. They have erected an eruv making travel to and from the shul easier for the large number of orthodox families.[15]


In Adelaide there have had been many Jews involved in the history of the city, with many successful civic leaders and people in the arts.[16]

Assimilation and population changes[edit]

The same social and cultural characteristics of Australia that facilitated the extraordinary economic, political, and social success of the Australian Jewish community have also been attributed to contributing to widespread assimilation.[17] From 2008 to 2012, more than 400 Australian Jews moved to Israel and most of them have done compulsory military service.[18] There was an almost 50 percent increase in immigration from Australia to Israel between 2009 and 2010.[19] There was a 45 percent increase in percentage of immigration in 2010, the highest of the English speaking countries; 240 Australians moved to Israel, up from 165 in 2009.[20] Prior to 1933, the intermarriage rate in the Australian Jewish community was approximately 30%. This high percentage potentially threatened the future of the community. However, the arrival of Jewish refugees prior to and following World War II, changed the pattern of assimilation.

Demographic research indicates that the intermarriage rate dropped immediately after the war and that by 1971, almost 90% of Jewish men and over 90% of Jewish women were married to Jewish partners.

The 1996 census showed that the intermarriage rate for all Australian Jewry was 15%. Once again, the smaller Jewish communities appear to have a higher rate of intermarriage, with Melbourne's rate far lower than that of Sydney. Similar research, conducted in 1999 by Sydney's Jewish Communal Appeal, concluded that one third of that generation have a non-Jewish partner.

Along with intermarriage comes the physical relocation of many Jews, who prefer to leave the densely populated Jewish areas and the reservoir of potential Jewish life partners. In the rural areas of New South Wales for example, where only 5% of the State's Jewry reside, intermarriage rises to 84%. Even in the larger towns, assimilation and intermarriage vary from area to area.

Of the two most recent waves of immigration to Australia between 1986 and 1991, Jews from the Former Soviet Union seem to have a considerably high intermarriage rate, in contrast to the South African Jewish immigrants, for whom intermarriage is almost entirely unknown.[10]

Distribution of Jewish Australians[edit]

According to the[21] the 10 local government areas as of 2011 with the largest Jewish communities, based by percentage of total population, were:


The vast majority of Jews speak English; indeed three-quarters (75.1%) speak no other language and of the remainder, 16.9% speak English ‘Very well’ and 5.0% speak it ‘Well’. Nevertheless, many Jews do not speak English at home (26,242 people) and of these, the most common non-English language spoken in Jewish homes was Russian, spoken by an estimated 9,964 people. However, Hebrew is likely to become the most common non-English language spoken at home in the future (if this is not already the case) with an estimated 9,543 Jewish people speaking it at home. The number of Hebrew speakers increased by 23.6% from 2006 to 2011 and the number of French speakers increased by 12.7%. Yet non-English languages are becoming rarer overall; excluding Hebrew, the number of non-English speakers decreased by 8.3% since 2006, most likely due to the passing of older Holocaust survivors and other [[Jewish refugees]] from Nazi-occupied Europe.

Language spoken at home, estimated number of Jewish people:[2]