Community in Australia - World Jewish Congress
Australia

The leading communal organization for the Australian Jewish community is the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), the Australian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress. Robert Goot, two-time past president of the ECAJ, is co-chairman of the WJC Policy Council and a member of the WJC Steering Committee.

WJC Affiliate
Executive Council of Australian Jewry

Executive Director: Peter Wertheim

Telephone
: 612-8353-8500
Fax:
612-9361-5888
Website:
http://www.ecaj.org.au/

Social Media:
Facebook: Executive Council of Australian Jewry - ECAJ
Instagram: @ecajoz
X: @ECAJewry
YouTube: ECAJ Australia

Daniel Aghion, ECAJ President & WJC Vice-President
History

In 1788, the First Fleet brought the first Jews to Australia. When Australia was first settled by the British, it served as a penal colony. At least eight Jewish men and women, and maybe as many as fifteen, were shipped in as prisoners. Most were accused of petty theft, such as 15-year-old Esther Abrahams, who was charged with stealing two lengths of black lace. Sentenced to seven years in Australia, she brought her infant daughter with her.

In the ensuing years, many more Jews came over as prisoners, middle-class free settlers, and then as part of the Gold Rush influx in the 1850s. By 1861, there were an estimated 3,000 Jews in the country, growing to 15,000 by the turn of the century.

By the 19th century, there was an established Jewish community, overwhelmingly made up of free settlers. This gave way to a greater concentration of Jews in Australia’s major cities, namely Melbourne and Sydney, as fear of assimilation caused the Australian Jewish community to consolidate their populations at the end of the century.

Following World War I, there was a second, greater wave of refugees from the pogroms in Russia and Poland that arrived in Australia in the 1890s.

In the 1930s, several thousand German and Austrian Jews fled to Australia to escape the rise of Nazism, and a further 2000 European refugees were deported from Britain on the infamous Dunera.

The late 1980s and ‘90s saw an influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union and consistent immigration from South Africa. Since Jews have been part of Australian society since its colonization and settlement, and many came from Britain and were therefore English-speaking, they quickly integrated and became part and parcel of Australian society without facing the antisemitism and roadblocks limiting Jews in many other countries. As a result, Australian Jews have consistently been involved in every facet of Australian life, holding important positions in the arts, education, philanthropy, politics, science, medicine, the legal system, and the military.

General Sir John Monash, a distinguished Lieutenant-General and Commander of the Australian Corps during World War I, is considered the most famous commander in Australian history. Sir Isaac Isaacs was the first Jewish Governor-General of Australia, serving from 1931 to 1936, and Sir Zelman Cowen held the position from 1977 to 1982. Josh Frydenberg is currently the Federal Minister for the Environment and Energy, and Mark Dreyfus was Attorney General in the previous government. Other noteworthy Jews currently holding high offices are Linda Dessau, Governor of Victoria, and Justice James Edelman, who sits on Australia’s highest court, the High Court of Australia.

The Years of the Holocaust

More restrictive Australian immigration policy, aimed at non-British immigrants, characterized the post-war WWI years leading up to the Shoah. The Australian Minister for Trade and Customs at the time, T.W. White, summed up Australia’s view towards Jews with the following statement at the July 1938 Evian Conference, where Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany were the focus: “As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration.”

When news of the Nazi’s discrimination towards Jews reached Australia, the Jewish community and other supporters vocalized their opposition, even holding public protests. At the time, Australian officials advised against direct criticism of Germany, with Prime Minister Joseph Lyons emphasizing that the government would not be issuing any formal petitions for the protests. Australia did, however, relax its immigration policies somewhat, admitting around 7,000 Jewish refugees, mainly from Germany and Austria, in the late 1930s.

In the postwar years, Australia’s Jewish community saw its largest influx—Holocaust survivors from Poland, Hungary, and other European countries—boiling in size from 23,000 in 1938 to 60,000 in 1961. Australia experienced an influx of Jewish immigration from Poland, Hungary, and other European countries early in the 20th century, resulting in an increase of 23,000 Jews in 1938 to 60,000 in 1961.

After the Holocaust, Australia admitted tens of thousands of survivors, and today, it has the highest percentage of Holocaust survivors of any Jewish community, outside of Israel, in the world.

Community Facts

1. One of the most distinctive features of the Australian Jewish community is its strong network of well-attended day schools, giving it the highest rate of Jewish children in Jewish schools outside of Israel.

2. As Southern Hemisphere Jews, we celebrate Chanukah in the summer, Sukkot when it rains, and Pesach in the autumn.

3. The Australian semi-official national food, Vegemite, is Kosher-certified.

4. There is a Chabad called Rural and Regional Australia (RARA), which travels the outback in a fully-equipped campervan, visiting Jews in isolated locations and bringing Kosher food and supplies.

5. There have been Jewish people living in Australia since the 1700s.

Demography

Jewish life in Australia began in the First Fleet in 1788, with over a thousand more people of Jewish descent sent to Australia as convicts in the next 60 years. In addition, Jewish free settlers were arriving in Australia as early as the 1820s. By 1901, it was estimated that there were over 15,000 Jews in Australia.

As of the last Australian census in 2021, 99,956 people indicated that they are Jewish in Australia, but based on undercounting, due to some Holocaust survivors not indicating their religion and the ‘no religion’ option remaining at the top of the questions in the 2021 census, there are probably as many as 120,000 Jewish Australians today.

Of this, 46,645 are in Victoria, 40,249 in New South Wales, 5,669 in Western Australia, 4,815 in Queensland, 1,145 in South Australia, 886 in the Australian Capital Territory, 376 in Tasmania, and 163 in the Northern Territory. By region of birth, there were 55,860 Jews born in Australia, and the second most common birthplace of Australian Jews was sub-Saharan Africa (including South Africa), at 13,701.

Outside of Australia, a total of 7,711 Jews were born in southern and eastern Europe, 7,668 in North Africa and the Middle East, 6,296 in northwestern Europe, 4,179 in the Americas, 794 in southern and central Asia, 481 in southeast Asia, and 358 in northeast Asia.

Community Life

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), a democratically elected, cross-communal Jewish representative body that works as an umbrella organization for numerous Jewish bodies across Australia, acts as the representative organization for Australian Jewry. The ECAJ's presidency is the highest elected position of lay leadership in the Jewish community, and a skilled team of staff members with headquarters in Sydney handle the organization's activities, which include lobbying on behalf of Australian Jews. Currently, the organization’s main objectives include a focus on persecuted Jews, combating antisemitism, and supporting Israel. The ECAJ has also largely emphasized interfaith dialogue and enhanced broader Australian society as well.

There are numerous other Jewish communal representative organizations in Australia, mainly regional bodies linked to the ECAJ as constituents, affiliates, or observers. Notable examples include the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, the Queensland Jewish Board of Deputies, and the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies. The Zionist Federation of Australia is an organization devoted to fostering a connection to Israel among Australian Jews and comprises other organizations linked to the broader ECAJ.

Other Jewish communal organizations in Australia focus on a myriad of initiatives, including social care and community bonding. Jewish Care, a significant provider for disadvantaged or vulnerable members of the community, and Hakoah Sydney City East FC, a semi-professional soccer team created by members of Sydney's Jewish community, are two notable Jewish organizations that help the Jewish community in Australia.

Religious and Cultural Life

Australia’s Jewish community is uniquely cohesive; members from the many different congregations, whose children attend different schools, and who may maintain differing levels of observance all meet at communal functions, personal celebrations, and social events.

The Hobart Synagogue was consecrated in 1845; it was built on land donated by Judah Solomon, a former convict turned businessman, although services were previously held in homes and rented premises. It is the only known shul to have had seats set aside for convicts, many of whom were granted permission to refrain from work and attend Shabbat services. The congregation also provided free Shabbat meals for the prisoners.

Following World War II, the sixth Rebbe sent several emissaries to bolster Judaism in Australia. Lacking language and resources, they more than compensated with love, joy, and inspiration. Their work was boosted when Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid and Rebbetzin Devorah Groner moved to Australia in 1958 at the Rebbe’s behest. What was initially intended to be a three-year stint turned into a lifelong mission as they threw themselves into building and cultivating the Australian Jewish community.

At the time of his passing in 2008, Isi Leibler, a former president of Australian Jewry, said: “History will record that Rabbi Yitzchok Groner was beyond a doubt the greatest Australian Jewish leader of the past century.”

The Rabbinical College of Australia and New Zealand was founded under the direction of Rabbi Zalman Serebryanski, one of the Russian-born Chassidim who formed the basis of the Chabad community in Australia, when Yeshivah College High School had a graduating class of six young men who were ready to pursue advanced, post-high school Judaic studies.

A year later, their ranks were bolstered when the Rebbe dispatched six senior North American rabbinical students to join them for a two-year term. At the Rebbe’s urging, the students visited the Jewish communities in Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane, New Zealand, and even Tasmania. The Rebbe continued to send cohorts of American students, a tradition that lives on today.

Today, the majority of Australian rabbis are alumni, as are hundreds of Judaically educated and inspired lay leaders. There are nearly 200 Chabad emissary couples serving Australian Jewry as teachers, congregational leaders, and other pastoral positions. There are currently Chabad centers located in six Australian states and the Australian Capital Territory.

There are currently an estimated 80 synagogues throughout Australia. Melbourne’s annual Chanukah in the Park event is annually attended by an estimated 10,000 people from across the spectrum of Jewish observance. And that’s just one example!

Kosher Food

Kosher Australia is Australia's most trusted Kosher certification agency; it was formed in 1994 from an amalgamation of Mizrachi Kashrut and Rabbi Mordechai Gutnick's Kashrut activities. Since then, their responsibilities have continued to expand with an ever-increasing number of businesses and services seeking a hashgacha (kosher certification).

Australia also exports live cattle to Israel to be halachically slaughtered and deemed kosher.

There is also a traveller’s guide to Kosher food in Victoria.

Jewish Education

The high cost of Jewish day schools, as opposed to government/state schools, has seen several state schools obtain a decent Jewish population, as indicated by the 27% increase in Jewish enrollment in government primary schools noted by the Jewish Community Appeal (JCA) in a 2011 report. Countless Jewish overnight camps and youth groups boast strong attendance as well.

There are various boards of education, such as the NSW Board of Jewish Education and the United Jewish Education Board, that attend to the Jewish educational needs of students in both state and non-government schools.

In terms of Jewish religious tertiary education, the Rabbinical College of Australia and New Zealand, or Yeshiva Gedolah, is the main rabbinical studies center for the Orthodox community and Australia in general.

Jewish higher education can also be found in several secular institutions, with full Jewish Studies departments offered at the University of Sydney and Monash University in Melbourne. There are also options for adult Jewish learning, with the Melton Adult Education Program working in conjunction with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to provide a variety of Jewish literacy programs.

Started in 1949 with only three students, Melbourne’s Yeshivah-Beth Rivkah schools have grown into vibrant educational hubs, eventually growing to serve hundreds of students each year with a strong dual Jewish and secular curriculum.

In addition to the day schools, the Yeshivah Center includes a state-of-the-art early childhood facility, a large Chabad shul, an outreach-focused kollel, mikvah, post-high school seminaries for women (Ohel Chana) and men (Yeshivah Gedolah), and Chabad Youth—the largest Jewish youth organization in the Southern Hemisphere.

Youth

Youth organizations are prevalent throughout the Australian Jewish community, with a focus on promoting Jewish values and contributing to the wider community. The Australasian Union of Jewish Students (AUJS) is a cross-communal organization that represents the interests of Jewish students in both Australia and New Zealand. Moreover, the strength of Zionism in Australia can be attributed, in part, to a focus on an Israeli identity within Jewish youth groups.

Betar Australia, part of a worldwide organization, offers a recreational atmosphere that emphasizes Jewish values and the importance of Zionism. Bnei Akiva focuses on instilling the importance of the Torah and Israel, especially the idea of making aliyah, through various Jewish-structured events and activities. The Chabad Youth organization focuses on child care, offering a variety of camps, activities, and events to foster Jewish values and a sense of pride in one’s Jewish identity.

Jewish Media

Australia has two Jewish weekly editions of the Australian Jewish News, circulated in the Melbourne and Sydney editions, and several other publications, including the Australia-Israel Review and the online service J-Wire, that cater to the Jewish community. Additionally, Australia’s ethnic radio stations – namely SBS Radio – feature several hours of programming of Jewish interest in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish each week.

Information for Visitors

Australia’s Jewish sites include various synagogues of all streams, notably the historic Great Synagogue of Sydney and the Hobart Synagogue. There are also new Jewish museums in both Sydney and Melbourne that contain notable collections of Jewish artifacts and Holocaust material, in addition to exhibits on Jewish-Australian history.

Relations with Israel

Israel and Australia have maintained diplomatic relations since the Australian government of Ben Chifley recognized Israel on January 28, 1949. The Liberal-Country Party Coalition supported Israel during and after the 1967 Six-Day War. This is manifest in the economic cooperation between the two countries in relation to “work-travel visas” for workers in each respective country.

Australia has a warm and close relationship with Israel, which is strongly supported by its active Jewish community. The relationship has a strong historical dimension, dating back to the First World War, when Australian forces fought in the Sinai-Palestine campaign alongside their Allied counterparts against the Ottomans, including the iconic charge of the Australian Light Horse's during the Battle of Beersheba. Australia was the first country to vote in favor of the 1947 UN partition resolution, which ultimately led to the creation of Israel as a nation-state. Australia established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1949 and, in the same year, presided over the vote admitting Israel to the United Nations.

Australia is committed to a two-state solution in which Israel and a future Palestinian state coexist in peace and security within internationally recognized borders.

Australia is strongly opposed to the unfair targeting of Israel by the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. However, we make clear our concerns about Israeli actions that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution and continue to urge Israel and other actors to respect international law.

Australia continues to broaden its bilateral cooperation with Israel. In recent years, there has been significantly increased engagement across a range of sectors, including innovation, security, and defense.

Since 2017, Australia and Israel have expanded cooperation on national security, defense, and cyber security. Defense officials began annual strategic talks in 2018 and, in early 2019, Australia appointed a resident defense attaché to the Embassy in Tel Aviv. Leveraging Australia and Israel's respective areas of expertise, cooperation on national security continues to develop, including on aviation security, with Home Affairs as the lead Australian agency. In January 2019, following a series of reciprocal visits and dialogue, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on cyber security cooperation.

Australia’s bilateral economic relationship with Israel continues to grow. In 2021, Israel was Australia's 46th largest two-way trading partner and 54th largest export market. In 2021, two-way goods and services trade amounted to approximately $1.34 billion, of which Australian exports were worth $325 million and imports from Israel were worth $1.02 billion. In 2020, Australian investment in Israel totaled nearly $1.6 billion, and Israeli investment in Australia was $585 million, mostly centered in the innovation sector. Major merchandise exports to Israel include live animals, beef, plastic products, pearls, gems, and aluminum. As of November 2022, 19 Israeli companies were listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX), making Israel the third-largest source of foreign company listings.

Since the Israel-Hamas War:

On the Houthis:

Australia condemned the Houthi interference with navigational rights and freedoms in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula, particularly the Red Sea. The numerous attacks originating from Houthi-controlled territories in Yemen, including the December 3 attacks against three commercial vessels in the Southern Red Sea connected to 14 nations, threaten international commerce and maritime security. The Houthi-led seizure of the Galaxy Leader on November 19 and the detention of its 25-member international crew, who remain unjustly detained, are appalling. Such behavior also threatens the movement of food, fuel, humanitarian assistance, and other essential commodities to destinations and populations all over the world. The undersigned further encourage all states to refrain from facilitation or encouragement of the Houthis. There is no justification for these attacks, which affect many countries beyond the flags these ships sail under. We again call on the Houthis to release the Galaxy Leader crew and ship immediately and to cease additional attacks on commercial vessels in the region's vital waterways.

On UNRWA:

As of March 15, 2024, Australia will lift its temporary pause on funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), following steps to strengthen the integrity of UNRWA operations. The decision to pause an additional $6 million in funding was taken after serious allegations were made, resulting in UNRWA's dismissal of staff alleged to have been involved in the Hamas terrorist attacks of October 7. The nature of the allegations warranted an immediate and appropriate response. The Australian Government has been working with a group of donor countries and with UNRWA on the shared objective of ensuring the integrity of UNRWA's operations, rebuilding confidence, and ensuring aid flows to Gazans in desperate need.

Israeli Embassy

6 Turrana Street

Yarralumla, Canberra, ACT 2600

Telephone: +61 2 6215 4500

Fax: +61 2 6215 4555

Israel Trade Commission in Australia

PO BOX 2626, Bondi Junction, 1355

Telephone: +61 2 9388 0382

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