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 Europeans to arrive in NSW and so have “never been considered to be aliens to quite the same extent as elsewhere”.
Most of NSW’s 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.
Some of the more noteworthy Jewish convicts and early free settlers included:
John Harris – He became the first Australian policeman in 1789
Esther Abrahams – She married Lt. Governor George Johnstone and was the first lady of the colony
Edward Davis – He was known as the “Jewboy bushranger” of Maitland and was hanged in 1840.
Barnett Levey – He came to Australia as a free settler and built the Theatre Royal (the first Australian theatre) in 1832.
By 1820 a few hundred Jewish people, mostly men, were living in New South Wales. Jewish life did not really start until 1817 with the formation of a Jewish Burial society in Sydney. The first purpose-built synagogue in Australia was opened in York St, Sydney in 1844.
In the 1840s, Jewish congregations were established in Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne and Adelaide. Victorian Jewry expanded rapidly as a result of the gold rushes and increased from 200 in 1848 to 3000 people in 1861.
When Queensland became a separate colony, a number of Jewish families left Sydney for Brisbane, where a synagogue was consecrated in 1886. The first Jewish community in Western Australia was formed in 1887 in Fremantle, then a synagogue was opened in Perth in 1897.
During the 19th century a high proportion of Jews lived in country areas. In NSW there were communities in Goulburn, Maitland and Grafton, and later in Broken Hill. These communities were too isolated from the mainstream Jewish centres to survive, and today the only reminders of their existence are the Jewish gravestones in country cemeteries and disused synagogues. (This need for geographical concentration is very relevant to Jewish identity, as in order to lead a Jewish life it is necessary to live in a community and close to a synagogue and other Jewish facilities.)
Most of the early free settlers were Anglo-Jewish, middle-class immigrants who transposed the English patterns of Jewish practice to Australia. Synagogues were modelled on the Anglican Church, with great stress on decorum and formality. In 1878 the Great Synagogue in Sydney was consecrated, and its imposing structure remains an historic feature of the Sydney landscape.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Jews were participating in every facet of civic, economic and social life of NSW. Sir Saul Samuels was the Colonial Secretary of NSW during the 1860’s and later Agent-General in London. In 1886 Sir Julian Salamons was appointed Chief Justice of New South Wales, but declined to be sworn in “because of the hostility of the then current members of the bench.” In 1917 the Legislative Assembly had to close on Yom Kippur because both the Speaker and Deputy Speaker were Jewish – this at a time when Jews in New South Wales made up only 0.4 per cent of the population..