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Isi Davis - the Jews of Australia

posted 25 Sep 2018, 07:02 by Lodzer Shabbat-Bulletin   [ updated 25 Sep 2018, 17:38 ]

From Jews and Highlands of Scotland
To the Jews of Australia and South Pacific

By Isi Davis

While traveling and hiking in Australia two years ago, I gathered information on the history of the Jewish people, in the land of Australia. My son spent two months this last summer in Australia and took pictures of the synagogues herein.

Today, Australia's Jewish population stands at approximately 112,000 - the ninth largest Jewish community in the world. The majority of Jews in Australia reside in the major cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane

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.

Convicted of violent crimes some 1,000 Jews arrived in Australia among 146,000 convicts transported between 1788-1852, many were for petty crimes. In the first ship to arrive, the youngest Jew was only 8 years old. Some Jews just wanted to leave England, an opportunity for a new life.

Some of the first Jews
Among early Jewish convicts were Sarah Burdo, Rebecca Davidson, Henry Abrams, Daniel Daniels, Aaron Davis, Sarah Davis, David Jacobs, John Jacobs, Thomas Josephs, Isaac Lemon, Amelia Levy , Joseph Levy. Jacob Messiah Esther Abraham and Joseph Tuso. Of which, Daniels may have been a Hebrew scholar.

Joseph Levy’s Crime-stealing a copper kettle worth 8 shillings- was the first Jew to be buried in Australia, dying three months after arriving. Joseph Levy, 20, arrived in August 1820, married a non-Jew in 1832. His daughter Rebecca, married Maurice Solomon in 1853 and died in 1930, at 97. Her descendants and those of her brother are counted among today's Jewish community. Joseph died September 25, 1862. Within a month, strange noises were heard on Friday nights at the Victoria Inn, Berrima. On July 9, 1967, the Sydney Daily Telegraph wrote about the ghost, "Is the ghost looking for a minyan?"

He was followed by Simon Bocerah in July 1791, and by 1817, when 30-40 Jews were resident, the Hevra Kadisha (burial society) was founded in Woollahra.

Joseph Samuel, the man they couldn't hang, was convicted of murder, and sentenced to hang September 26, 1803. The first attempt, as did the second and third tries, ended in a broken rope. "It would seem there has been Divine Intervention," said the governor and granted a reprieve. The ropes were tested; each supported nearly 400 pounds without breaking.

Philip Joseph Cohen arrived in May 1828 to perform Jewish marriages, and brought a chumash, inscribed with centuries of his family's genealogy. Today it is in the Great Synagogue's Rosenblum Museum.

Among colorful personalities were:

Barnett Levey, the first free Jewish male to arrive in 1821, became a successful businessman, shipbroker, storekeeper and ship owner, encouraged migration of free settlers, and built the first theater in Sydney.

Israel Chapman, the colony's first police detective, was appointed in 1827. His adventures were featured in the Sydney Gazette and The Australian.

Edward Davis, 18, arrived in 1833 and became leader of a gang of Jewish bushrangers (robbers) north of Sydney. Captured in December 1840, he was hanged and buried in a corner of the Jewish Devonshire Street cemetery.

Isaac Nathan, called the "father of Australian music," arrived in 1841 with his own piano, having set to music Lord Byron's "Hebrew Melodies." Nathan, born in 1790, was the eldest child of Cantor Menahem Mona, who believed he was the illegitimate child of Stanislaus Poniatowski, the last Polish King.

The Sephardi Montefiore family went to the West Indies and to New South Wales (in 1828), headed by Joseph Barrow Montefiore. In Adelaide, graphic artist E.L. Montefiore established the first circulating public library and the Adelaide Art Galley in 1844.

In 1830, Rabbi Aaron Levy of the London Beth Din, arrived in Sydney, sent by London's chief rabbi to find the husband of an Englishwoman who required a get. Levy brought the first sefer Torah and prayer books.

In the early community, there were one woman to seven men, with frequent intermarriage. The leadership declared that children of a mixed marriage would be regarded as Jews, a tradition also followed among Caribbean Sephardim. However, Levy's arrival meant that, after 1833, this would cease; the mother must be Jewish for the children to be recognized.

Pictures of Early Jews of Australia

Rabbi Alexander Davis Head of Sydney Community 1862-1904

Esther Abrahams-First women prisoner

Esther Abrahams, age 16, was one of a dozen Jews among 800 British convicts who anchored in New South Wales on this date in 1788, as part of the first fleet of British prisoners sent to colonize Australia. Abrahams, convicted of stealing lace, had given birth to a daughter while in Newgate Prison. Headed towards the penal colony aboard the Lady Penhryn to serve a seven-year “transport,” she became involved with a marine lieutenant, George Johnston, with whom she ultimately had seven children. In 1808, Johnston led a coup and became governor of the colony for six months. By then the couple controlled a good deal of the trade in rum and were among Sydney’s most prosperous families. Historians estimate that 463 Jews came to Australia in the first four decades of British colonization, including 384 convicts, 52 free settlers and 27 children.

Gold Rush
The gold rush of the 1850s attracted more Jewish immigrants, so that 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."

Jews also served as elected officials. In the nineteenth century, prominent Jews included the mayor of Melbourne, premier of the state of South Australia, speaker of the House of Representatives, and 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 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 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 immigrant 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 allowed select Egyptian Jews to enter the country. In 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.

Historical Events by Year

18 January: First Fleet under Captain Phillip arrives at Botany Bay with 14+ Jewish convicts. The youngest of the prisoners was a baby born in England –mother Esther Abrahams. The next youngest was a 8 year old child.

8 Jewish convicts at short-lived settlement at Sorrento in Port Phillip Bay.

20 February: Hobart inaugurated as a penal colony with 8 Jewish convicts at establishment.

26 January, Governor Bligh deposed by Lt. Col. Johnson, whose common-law wife was Esther Abrahams of the First Fleet.

Jewish burial society formed in Sydney

Jewish free settlers arrive in Sydney.

Swan River (free-immigrant) Colony, Perth, promoted. Major visionary figure was Solomon Levey.

Earliest known Australian Ketuba for a Jewish marriage of 4 August, Sydney.

Organized Jewish community formed in Sydney

Establishment of the Province of South Australia, lead by the visionary Wakefield including such backers as Moses Montefiore.

John Batman as leader of a Tasmanian group with several Jewish members negotiated with Aboriginal leaders for the site of Melbourne. Batman's Treaty was denounced by the Crown as contrary to "terra nullius" principle.

The "Jewboy" bushranger Edward Davis active in Hunter Valley.

Organized Jewish community formed in Melbourne

The York Street Synagogue, built in Sydney. In use 1844-1877

Hobart synagogue built - still in use

The first ever Australian Jewish Newsletter published as the Sydney edition of the London Voice of Jacob. Short-lived.

Melbourne founded -- earliest communal activity; Solomon's Ford crosses Salt Water Creek (now the Maribyrnong River), upstream of the future Flemington.

First Jewish parliamentarian elected; over fifty Jews MPs served during the colonial period.

Adelaide's first Synagogue completed on the corner of Rundle Street and Synagogue Place.

Gold discoveries at several sites in New South Wales and Victoria promoted a great burst in free immigration, including a significant percentage of Jews.

Ballarat community founded.

East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation founded, after separating from the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation.

Dec 8: Eureka Stockade, Ballarat stormed by troops. Teddy Thonen, a German Jew was the first of 24 miners killed defending the stockade. Earlier Manastra Flatow was one of those arrested in connection with the burning of the Eureka Hotel.

Original Ballarat Synagogue dedicated. Of wooden construction.

Alexander Marks goes to Yokohama when the city is first opened to foreigners; birth of Australian trade with Japan. From 1879 to 1902 Marks was honourary consul general of Japan in Melbourne, one of the very first consular representatives of Japan.

New synagogue erected for the Ballarat congregation. (The oldest mainland synagogue still in use.)

Visit of Jerusalem emissary Rabbi Hayam Zevee Sneersohn to Australia. Successfully acquired funds to erect a housing cluster for visiting scholars near the Wall (Ha Kotel) in Jerusalem.

Accidental death of Isaac Nathan (1790-1864) "the Father of Australian Music".

New synagogue erected/dedicated in Albert Street for the East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation - now oldest in Melbourne and only synagogue in the CBD.

First Australian Beth Din established, headed by Rabbi Herman of Ballarat.

The Great Synagogue Sydney dedicated, to replace York Street Synagogue.

13 Nov. Perth Hebrew Congregation established. The Brisbane Street Synagogue was opened in 1897.

Chovevei Zion (Lovers' of Zion Society) active in Sydney, three years before the first Zionist Conference in Basle, Switzerland.

Synagogue constructed at Coolgardie, on the Western Australian goldfields.

Federation. First Australian Parliament includes four Jews, Isaac Isaacs, Vaiben Louis Solomon, Elias Solomon, Pharez Phillips, in the House of Representatives.

April 19: Kishinev pogrom. Protest (at the Czarist policies that promoted this pogram) meeting held at Sydney Town Hall by concerned citizens of all faiths. Speakers included Abraham Pearlman, storekeeper in Boggabri (NSW), born in Kishinev.

Isaac Isaacs Commonwealth Attorney General

Colonel, later Brigadier John Monash leads Australian troops of the 4th Infantry Brigade, at Gallipoli.

General Sir John Monash leads the Australian Corps through the victorious battles of the closing stages of the war.

British official, Sir Mathew Nathan, serves as Governor of Queensland. Early in his career, when a military officer, he was rejected as a military attachée in Vienna by the anti-semitic Austro-Hungarians.

Council of Jewish Women (CJW) founded in Sydney by Dr Fanny Reading. Later became the NSW branch of the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia, NCJWA.

First interstate Jewish cricket match was the fore-runner of interstate Jewish Sporting Carnivals that have been staged mostly annually since.

1st April. Inaugural meeting of those interested in Liberal Judaism in Melbourne. Liberal community established.

23 Jan Sir Isaac Isaacs sworn in as the first Australian born Governor General.

Dr Jacob Jona elected President of Hawthorn Football Club, which position he held to 1949. Dr Jona was the first, but other Jewish presidents of VFL Clubs in the 1930's were Dr D. Berman of North Melbourne; Reuben Sackville of St Kilda, Ewart Joseph of Fitzroy.

8 October: Death of Sir John Monash. An estimated 250,000 mourners attended his state funeral.

Years of the Great Depression. Modest scale migration of Jewish refugees, about 9000 in total. Australian Jewish Welfare Society plays major role in refugee migration, settlement.

Sir Isaac Isaacs lays foundation stone for Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, the first Liberal/Progressive Synagogue built in Australia.

July: Evian Conference on Jewish Refugees. Australian representative, White says Australia would not undertake "any scheme of large-scale foreign migration", but Sydney Morning Herald editorial condemns White's speech.

9 November Kristallnacht in Berlin. Australian reverberations. Rabbi Sanger, of Temple Beth Israel, Melbourne, aids the establishment of Temple Emanuel, the first Liberal congregation in Sydney

December 6th, Melbourne. The Australian Aborigines League attempts to present a resolution ‘condemning the persecution of Jews and Christians in Germany’ to the German Consul-General.
Aboriginal delegation lead by William Cooper.

December: Australian Government announces that it will admit 15,000 'non-Aryan' refugees over next three years.

Australian Jewish Historical Society founded in Sydney.

Hakoah (Soccer) Club established in Sydney.

September: World War II commences. Jewish immigration ceases.

Isaac Steinberg of the Freeland League visits Australia (in 1939). Proposal for settling Jewish refugees in the Kimberley region of Western Australia is a public issue.

Last of 8,586 Jewish refugees enter Australia under AJWS sponsorship 1938-40.

7th September 1940 Duneera arrives Sydney, carrying Jewish refugees from Axis countries, incarcerated as enemy aliens.

Struma incident where this ship crammed with 750 Jewish refugees who could not be landed at Palestine, was towed into the Black Sea where it sank, with just one survivor. A critical event in Australian Jewish history as British apologists, notably Sir Isaac Isaacs, lost all community credibility.

Julius Stone, Professor of Jurisprudence and International Law at the University of Sydney, published Stand Up and Be Counted, an open letter to Sir Isaacs Isaacs, who in his extreme old age had sought to lead a bizarre crusade against Zionism.

B’nai B’rith Sydney Lodge inaugurated; followed by Melbourne Lodge in 1945.

Arthur Calwell becomes Minister for Immigration in the Chiefly government. Commences program of mass immigration, which continues under the Menzies governments.

Total of 17,768 Jewish refugees enter Australia under auspices of the AJWS. Very small numbers in comparison with overall migration level.

May 15: Israel comes into being. Is immediately recognized on de facto basis by the United States. Shortly afterwards the new state was recognized on a de jure basis by Australia. [ The US does not recognize Israel on de jure basis until January 31, 1949.]

July. Israeli Consulate-general established in Sydney. This was "the first diplomatic mission of Israel for 2000 years".

During these years arrival in Australia of some of the 850,000 Jews expelled from Arab countries and Iraq broadens the Community.

Mt Scopus War Memorial College established in St. Kilda Road, near central Melbourne, with 143 students.

July 27 New Zealand (finally) recognized the State of Israel.

Jewish Tourist Sites

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.

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.

Its foundation stone 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 that 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 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.                                            

Transported convicts Judah Solomon and his brother Joseph arrived in Tasmania from England in 1820. Like many of their fellow prisoners, the Solomon brothers were larger-than-life characters. According to congregational histories, they earned their one-way tickets to the Southern Hemisphere after being convicted of hiring miscreants to steal goods that had already been stolen. Ever the entrepreneurs, the Solomon brothers convinced members of their Jewish community back home in Sheerness, England, to invest in a more savory endeavor: a general store in Hobart, which had the support of British colonial authorities, and which they would operate themselves. The store prospered, leading to other enterprises in Hobart and elsewhere on the island. Judah was pardoned, acquired a mistress, and built a mansion.

The Great Synagogue Sydney

Inside Sydney Synagogue


Jewish Synagogues

Hobart Synagogue

 Outback Synagogue

Sassoon Yehuda Synagogue

Ballarat Synagogue

Pictures of the South Pacific

Thanks Isi