Australian Jewish community and culture

NSW war memorial

On 11 November 1923, the NSW Jewish Memorial Hall, in Darlinghurst, Sydney, was officially opened to much fanfare by Sir John Monash, then thought of by many as the greatest living Australian. The opening of the hall by Monash - the nation's most decorated solider and significant Jewish citizen - demonstrates the importance of this event to the Jewish community of NSW.

Designed by Sydney architect and Jew, Gordon Keesing, the hall was commonly known as the Maccabean Hall, honouring the 'fighting Maccabees' of ancient Hebrew fame. It was built as a memorial to the Australian Jewish soldiers and sailors who had served in the Great War of 1914 to 1918, and also stood as a symbol of the strength of commitment of Australian Jewry to king and country.

The hall had two main functions: it operated as a venue for all the social, educational and sporting activites of the Jewish community in Sydney, and provided a focal point for the newly arrived to encourage integration.

In his opening address, Sir John Monash confirmed the future role of the Memorial Hall:

'It has the aim of keeping the Jewish people together and preserving the creed, perpetuating the prevent the regrettable drift that is making many of our people cease from owing allegiance to the religion of their fathers...'

Since 1983, the NSW Jewish War Memorial Hall has been home to the Sydney Jewish Museum.


The New Jew

By the 1920s, Australian Jewry had developed a philosophy of non-distinctiveness in everything except religion. Many Jews feared the distinctiveness that European immigrants carried through their language, dress and culture but realised that survival of their community within an Anglo Australian society depended on new arrivals. The opening of the NSW Jewish War Memorial Hall (commonly known as the Maccabean Hall) and Club Rooms gave Sydney’s Jews a meeting place where new arrivals could begin their assimilation into the local community. It also provided a much needed venue for young people to mix and mingle while strengthening their cultural identity through language, social interaction and sport.

Jewish sporting associations were established across Australia in the first decades of the twentieth century with the social side of competitive sport playing an important part in the revitalisation of Jewish communities around the country. Annual interstate Jewish sporting carnivals began in the 1920s, and in 1950 the first Australian team competed at the 3rd Maccabi Games in Israel.

Of the sports represented at these carnivals, including tennis, athletics, gymnastics and swimming, only cricket excluded women. As well as participating in sport, women also carried out more traditional roles as spectators and providers of food and refreshments at dances and other fund-raising activities associated with sporting groups.