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Behind the Headlines the Jews of Australia

March 16, 1981
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To an American Jew visiting Australia, the vibrancy of Jewry on this island continent under one flag is astonishing. Australia’s polyglot population of 14 million with some 60 ethnic strains includes about 70,000 Jews whose roots go back to the 1830s when a thousand British Jews, many alleged to be convicts but mostly “free settlers,” come to this vastness “down under” then used as a penal colony under the Union Jack.

Today, about 35,000 mainly Eastern and Central European Jews live in Melbourne and 30,000 in Sydney. Much smaller communities are found in Canberra, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth, all widely separated geographically but linked by hard-working communal leaders anxious to preserve relationships and scoring considerable success with superior Jewish schools and youth programs, kosher hospitals and restaurants, religious and social centers, and a variety of media services. Welfare societies in the largest communities cooperate on a federal basis.

Melbourne has seven Jewish day schools with majorities of the area’s Jewish children in attendance. Its Mount Scopus High School, with some 2,500 students–1000 more than 15 years ago–is perhaps the world’s largest Jewish high school. Half the children of Soviet Jews, above the average among those immigrants in Australia, attend Melbourne’s Jewish schools.

Sam Lipski, the distinguished former correspondent in Washington for Australia’s leading newspaper and now director of Australian-Israel Publications as well as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Australia correspondent, estimates that between 80 and 85 percent of Melbourne’s Jewish children between 5 and 12 years of age attend Jewish schools and that Mount Scopus enrolls 55 to 60 percent of Jewish youth of high school age.


Melbourne has a Yiddish theater, a Yiddish radio program and an English weekly, a hospital with a kosher cuisine, six kosher restaurants. “The rise of Orthodoxy in Melbourne is phenomenal,” Lipski told this reporter. “Food shops, butcher shops, bakeries thrive. On Saturday afternoons between 300 and 400 attend the Lubavitchers’ yeshivah. This has happened in the last 20 years.”

Sydney has a 200-bed kosher hospital, an English-language weekly, a sports center, three old age homes and two kosher restaurants. Its school system is smaller than Melbourne’s and not as highly attended, but nevertheless a remarkable achievement. One-third of the Soviet children in Sydney are enrolled in the kindergarten and fewer in the grades. However, as in Melbourne, “the Jewish community is growing in religious outlook,” according to Victor Kleerekoper, editor of Sydney’s Jewish weekly.


Unlike their counterparts in some other capitals, virtually all of Canberra’s Jewish civil servants, academics and other professionals adhere to the Jewish community. Only four of Canberra’s businesses are Jewish-managed or owned. Most of the city’s 500 Jews in general population of 225,000 are associated with the Jewish center which is located on five acres of land presented to the community by Australia’s Government.

Canberra’s community was organized in 1949. It has a weekly radio program and a monthly publication, and a Liberal and an Orthodox congregation, both “under one roof” at the center but without a rabbi for either. Community president Ted Whitgob said the combined Orthodox-Liberal Sunday school is attended by almost all the city’s Jewish children. Many Israeli academics come to Canberra since it is the seat of the national university and Australia’s most important post-graduate institution.

Robert Phillips, vice president of Adelaide’s Jewish Board of Deputies, said that the Jewish community numbers about 2,000 in the general population of 800,000 in that city in south Australia. About 400 families belong to the Orthodox congregation and 120 to the Liberal. The Jewish day school, which is for all Jewish children, has about 50 in kindergarten and 30 in the elementary grades that is now in its fourth year.

“It is very viable and extremely good, “Phillips said. A home for the Jewish aged will be started in June. Many Jews visit Israel regularly and six families have made aliya. Adelaide, which has a magnificent cultural center for its general population, has “no real wealthy Jews” and, as of this time, no kosher restaurant.


An unusual achievement by Australian Jewry and a mark of its dedication to Jewry everywhere was its participation and support in forming the Asia Pacific Association last May in Hong Kong to help bring the small Pacific communities closer to the mainstream of Jewish life and help provide the children with Jewish education. Represented at the meeting were Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Taipei, the Philippines, India, Japan and South Korea.

Kirth Rathner, director of the United Jewish Educational Board in Melbourne, who had conducted educational work in some of these Pacific communities over the past seven years, was named the Association’s executive director. Isi Liebler of Melbourne is its president, and Joe Gersh, also of Melbourne, who visited the South Asian communities a year ago to prepare the ground for the Association, is its secretary.

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