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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
The island-continent between the Indian and Pacific oceans. In more senses than one it has been a land of sunshine to the Jews. Nurtured and reared on British traditions, Australia has inherited the national characteristics of the mother-country. The spirit of democracy, so strong in Australia, has always manifested itself as a unified current that absorbs in itself all the varied elements of race and religion. Religious freedom accordingly has always been granted in full measure as soon as the colonies received legislative independence. Amid such conditions it was only natural that the Jews who settled there should find a cordial welcome and a hospitable home.
Australia offered its great undeveloped resources to all who were willing to develop them. Many Jews embraced the opportunity and prospered. Though the Jews of Australia have never aggregatedmuch more than 15,000 out of a population of three and a half millions, they have appreciably assisted in the development of the country, and many of them have gained distinction. A few have devoted themselves to agriculture; but the majority found here as elsewhere that manufacturing and trade offered inducements well suited to their capabilities. Industry has been largely developed by them; and in the raising of sheep and cattle they have been particularly prominent. In science, art, and literature Jews have been active participants; and in the government of the colonies they have had an honorable share.
Earliest Jewish Congregation.
As Australia itself has been developed in but little more than a hundred years, it is not surprising that the formation of the earliest Jewish community was not accomplished before the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Sydney, the capital of the mother-colony of New South Wales, contains the oldest Hebrew congregation. Its early history is recorded in "Sydney in 1848," which states that there were about twenty Jews in the colony in 1817, and that these were "little versed in the faith of their ancestors." Nevertheless, they were sufficiently attached to their religion to form themselves into a Jewish society for the purpose of attending to the interment of their dead. In 1820 the Jews obtained their own "bet ḥayyim" or burial-ground by applying to the Rev. Dr. Cowper, who allotted to them the right-hand corner of the Christian cemetery. The death of one Joel Joseph prompted the application; and he was the first Jew buried there. During the next ten years there was no great increase in membership; and the services of the society were not called for more than once a year. The account continues:
"In 1827 and 1828 the worldly condition of the Hebrews in the colony improved considerably, in consequence of the great influx of respectable merchants; and this, with other circumstances, has raised the Hebrews in the estimation of their fellowcolonists. About this period Mr. P. J. Cohen having offered the use of his house for the purpose, divine worship was performed for the first time in the colony according to the Hebrew form, and was continued regularly every Sabbath and holiday. From some difference of opinion then existing among the members of this faith, divine service was also performed occasionally in a room hired by Messrs. A. Elias and James Simmons. In this condition everything in connection with their religion remained until the arrival of Rev. Aaron Levi, in the year 1830. He had been a dayyan, and, duly accredited, he succeeded in instilling into the minds of the congregation a taste for the religion of their fathers. A Sefer Torah [scroll of the Law] was purchased by subscription, divine service was more regularly conducted, and from this time may be dated the establishment of the Jewish religion in Sydney. In 1832 they formed themselves into a proper congregation, and appointed J. B. Montefiore as the first president."
In the same year the first Jewish marriage was celebrated, the contracting parties being Moses Joseph and Miss Nathan. Three years later a Mr. Rose came from England and acted as the ḥazan, shoḥet, and mohel. He was succeeded by Jacob Isaacs. The condition of the Jews improved to such an extent that in 1844 they erected a handsome synagogue in York street, in which they continued to worship for more than thirty years.
Congregations and Synagogues.
Following upon the formation of the Sydney community, Jews began to assemble in Victoria, and congregations sprang up in the towns of Melbourne, St. Kilda, Geelong, Bendigo, and Ballarat (1853). The congregations of Geelong and Bendigo are now (1902) extremely small, in fact all but non-existent. In South Australia, Jews settled considerably later than in Victoria; and it was not till 1871 that they were numerous enough to erect a synagogue in the capital city of Adelaide. Somewhat later still, the Brisbane (Queensland) congregation took form. For more than twenty years (1865-1886) they continued to hold services in the Masonic Hall; and at the end of that period they were able to build a commodious synagogue in Margaret street, with a seating capacity of 400.
The youngest of the Australian communities is that of Perth, the capital of West Australia, the formation of which in 1892 was due to the great influx of people into the western colony after the discovery of gold in the nineties. The Jewish congregation grew rapidly; five years after the first "minyan" (the minimum of ten males over thirteen years of age necessary to form a congregation for divine service) gathered in the colony, a handsome synagogue was built and consecrated in Brisbane street. Each of the colonies, except South Australia, has witnessed the rise and decline of a congregation. In New South Wales there was at one time a flourishing community in Maitland. A synagogue was built there in 1879; but owing to adverse circumstances most of the Jews left for other parts, and now little more than sufficient to form a minyan remains. The same fate has befallen the congregation of Toowoomba in Queensland, where in 1879 the Jews built a beautiful house of worship on their own ground, and under such favorable conditions that within a few years the synagogue was entirely free from debt. It is now used only on the high holy days by the few living at Toowoomba. Rockhampton, also in Queensland, has suffered similarly.
Decline of Congregations.
Perhaps the shortest career was that of the Coolgardie community in Western Australia. In 1896 a number of Jews, attracted by the rich gold-fields, were in that city. They at once obtained a grant of land from the government, collected subscriptions, and forthwith proceeded to build a synagogue. Within three years, however, such a thinning-out had taken place that the remaining members were unable to pay the debt on the synagogue; and the building was sold by the creditors to a Masonic body and converted into a Masonic hall.
Jews in Public Life.
Jews have been mayors of nearly all the capital cities of Australia, as well as of many smaller towns. The title of justice of the peace, which is only conferred upon men highly respected by their fellowcitizens, has been gained by a very large number of Jews, as many as thirteen receiving that distinction at one time (1897) in New South Wales alone. The Hon. H. E. Cohen is on the bench in Sydney; and the appointment of chief justice was offered to, accepted and held by, Sir Julian Salomons. The agent-generalship of New South Wales, the premier colony, has been administered by twoJews, Sir Saul Samuel, Bart., K.C.M.G., one of the most prominent and successful Jews in Australian politics, and Sir Julian Salomons.
A goodly number of Jews have sat in the various parliaments; and, in proportion to the population, a large percentage have held ministerial portfolios. Indeed, the highest office attainable was held by a Jew, when, for a short time in 1899, V. L. Solomon was premier of South Australia. Sir Julius Vogel, whose history, however, belongs to New Zealand, was also premier for many years.
Distinguished in Politics.
The foremost among the Jews that have figured as pioneers in Australia is Jacob Montefiore, a cousin of Sir Moses Montefiore. South Australian history records him as one of the founders of the colony; and he was selected by the British government to act on the first board of commissioners, appointed in 1835 to conduct its affairs. His portrait hangs in its National Gallery, and his memory is perpetuated by Montefiore Hill, one of the leading thoroughfares of Adelaide. J. B. Montefiore's activity was not confined to South Australia. With his brother Joseph he gave an impetus to, and left his impress upon, the progress of New South Wales. Jacob owned one of the largest sheep-runs in the colony, and founded and for many years acted as director of the Bank of Australasia. The firm that the two brothers established in Sydney in its early days ranked among the first of the business houses of that city. The close connection of these brothers with the colony is further evidenced by the township of Montefiore, which stands at the junction of the Bell and Macquarie rivers in the Wellington valley. Joseph Montefiore was the first president of the first Jewish congregation formed in Sydney in 1832.
The Hon. V. L. Solomon of Adelaide is remembered for the useful work he achieved in exploring the vast northern territory of his colony, the interests of which he represented in Parliament. M. V. Lazarus of Bendigo, known as Bendigo Lazarus, also did much to open up new parts in the back country of Victoria. The coal industry of Victoria received a great impetus from the persistent advocacy of the Hon. Nathaniel Levi, who for many years urged the government of Victoria to develop it. The cultivation of beet-root for the production of sugar and spirits likewise owes its existence as an industry to Levi's ceaseless efforts. In his labors on behalf of this industry he published in 1870 a work of 250 pages on the value and adaptability of the sugar-beet. In western Australia the townships of Karridale and Boyanup owe their existence to the enterprise of M. C. Davies, a large lumber merchant.
Jew Establishes the First Theater.
It is noteworthy that in the theatrical history of Australia a Jew, Barnett Levy, stands as the pioneer. A record of that fact is found in the following entry in "Sydney in 1848," a work published in that year: "In the late twenties His Excellency Sir R. Bourke granted Barnett Levy a license for dramatic performances, with a restriction that he should confine himself to the representation of such pieces only as had been licensed in England by the Lord Chamberlain." Levy was at that time the owner of the original Royal Hotel in George street; and he fitted up the saloon of that establishment as a theater, where the first representations of the legitimate drama in the colony were given. The encouragement that this undertaking received induced the enterprising proprietor to enlarge his sphere of action. He built a theater called the Theater Royal, which was opened in 1833.
In the course of the half-century of communal life in Australia, four important Jewish journals appeared: "The Australian Israelite" was issued from 1870 to 1882 in Melbourne, and was edited by S. Joseph,a practised journalist, who also conducted "The Tamworth News"; "The Jewish Herald" of Melbourne has been published, first weekly and then fortnightly, from 1885 onward, under the joint editorship of Rev. E. Blaubaum and Maurice Benjamin; "The Australian Hebrew," conducted by Jacob Goldstein, appeared for only eighteen months in 1895-96; "The Hebrew Standard" was first published in 1897, under the directorship of Alfred Harris.
Journalism and Art.
In the domain of art two Jews, E. P. Fox and Abbey Alston, have done good work. Paintings by both these artists have been hung in the Melbourne National Gallery. In the Adelaide Gallery hangs a tribute to the memory of H. Abrahams for the services he rendered to the progress of art in Australia. Two Jews of Australian birth have attained to some distinction as writers—S. Alexander and Joseph Jacobs. During the South African war Jews contributed their quota to the Australian contingents to the number of 15. The numbers of Jews in the Australian colonies at the census of 1891 were as follows:
|New South Wales
The following estimate has recently been given of the Jewish population of Australasia for 1899: New South Wales, 8,140; Victoria, 5,820; South Australia, 1,110; Queensland, 930; Tasmania, 550; Western Australia, 850; New Zealand, 2,270. Total, 19,670.
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Australia'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​a/australia.html. 1901.