Australian Jewish community and culture

Religious life

By the late 1810s, there were about 20 people of Jewish origin living in Sydney. Mostly convicts, they generally did not observe Jewish religious customs. It was not until 1817 that the first expression of Jewish faith was evident in New South Wales. This was the formation of a burial society, Chevra Kadisha, to ensure that Sydney's Jews were buried according to Jewish rites. Former convict Joseph Marcus, who claimed to have had rabbinical college education, performed these rites until about 1825.

With the increasing migration of free Jews from England in the 1820s came the need for a place for regular worship. Weekly services were held at the George Street house of Phillip Joseph Cohen before the congregation used a warehouse in Bridge Street as Sydney's first synagogue. The Jewish community's place in Sydney was solidified when the stylish York Street Synagogue opened in 1844. In 1859, a group broke away from the York Street congregation and established a synagogue in Macquarie Street. The two congregations were united by the opening of the Great Synagogue, Elizabeth Street, in 1878. The Great Synagogue and several suburban and regional synagogues provide focal points for Jewish religious and community life in New South Wales.  


Synagogues for Sydney

As the numbers of Jewish immigrants in Sydney grew, the need for a place to hold regular services and to express religious identity was evident. Former convict Joseph Marcus, who had trained as a rabbi, is said to have conducted occasional services for Sydney’s Jews between 1817 and 1825. Phillip Joseph Cohen, who arrived as a free immigrant in 1828, held regular services in his house in George Street.

By 1833, a community known as the Sydney Hebrew Congregation was flourishing. The congregation initially met in a makeshift synagogue above Mr Rowell’s chemist shop in George Street, and established a set of laws to govern it. The published laws (below) appear to be the first item of Judaica printed in Australia.

The building located at 4 Bridge Street was the first building in Australia to be specially set aside for use as a synagogue. The Sydney Hebrew Congregation used it from about 1837 until the construction and consecration of the York Street Synagogue in 1844. The building was later a liquor warehouse, before becoming W. N. Beaumont & Company’s Federal Electrical and Engineering Works. It was demolished to make way for the office/residential complex that was constructed in 1915, and now known as Cliveden.


Hebrew Ladies' Bazaar, 1875

The Hebrew Ladies' Bazaar was a fundraising initiative established by the Jewish women of Sydney in 1875. Its aim was to raise money to contribute to the Great Synagogue building fund. As Sydney lacked a venue for such a large fair at this time, a pavilion was purpose-built on vacant land near near the General Post Office.

'Hebrew Ladies' Bazaar', Illustrated Sydney News, 12 January 1876, p. 1. Printed newspaper. DL F8/47
'Hebrew Ladies' Bazaar', Illustrated Sydney News, 12 January 1876, p. 1. Printed newspaper. DL F8/47

Several prominent women from Sydney's Jewish community organised the bazaar. Blanche Davis, whose husband Alexander Barnard Davis was to become the Great Synagogue's first senior minister, was committee president. Bessie Hoffnung, wife of the Sydney merchant Sigmund Hoffnung, was treasurer; while Jennie Cohen was the honorary secretary. 

Most of the goods sold at the bazaar were donated by Sydney businesses and by the general public. In addition, the 'Hebrew ladies' of Sydney produced many fine specimens of clothing, embroidery, jewellery and toys for sale. Other items, such as the bookmark reporduced below, were made specially and imported from England.

The Hebrew Ladies' Bazaar was open for only a week in December 1875, and was a great success. Over 10,000 people visited the bazaar. The entrance fees and sales of goods raised a profit of almost 5000 punds, an impressive kick-start for the building of the Great Synagogue.