Book of Life Stories

Cultural information about the South Australian Jewish community

Cultural information about the South Australian Jewish community was prepared on behalf of the Jewish Community Council of South Australia for the Migration Museum. The 1st version was written by Dr R. Gouttman; subsequently updated by the archivists of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation and Beit Shalom Synagogue, 2002.

Geographic origins

Jews are descendants of a nomadic people who lived in the Middle East in ancient times, or followers of the Jewish religion. Following famine on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, tribes descended from the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, became the Hebrew slaves of Egyptian pharaohs. Moses led the tribes in an exodus from Egypt to return to settle the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. During war and crusades over the centuries, the Israelites were taken captive or driven off the land. They continued to form distinct communities in a Diaspora that spread throughout Europe and countries around the Mediterranean, and later more distant countries such as America.

Following the Second World War, the modern State of Israel was formed, bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Millions of Jews returned to resettle in Israel. Besides the territory agreed by the United Nations in 1948, Israel annexed the territories of the Golan Heights, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip following attack by neighbouring Arab countries. Israel continues to control these territories in the interests of national security. Return of the territories has been the subject of ongoing peace negotiations.

History of immigration and settlement

Jews came to South Australia from many countries including Britain, Eastern Europe, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Egypt, South Africa and Russia.

The involvement of Jews in South Australia pre-dates the settlement of the colony. Jacob Montefiore, a prominent London merchant, was one of the original colonisation commissioners appointed by King William IV in 1834.

Probably the first Jewish settlers to come to South Australia were Mr. and Mrs. Philip Lee, who landed at Glenelg on November 20, 1836. Mr. Lee worked as a clothier, then as a hotelkeeper and musician. Jewish immigrants to South Australia between 1836 and 1950 were predominantly British, though German Jews also came.

In the early days of the colony Jewish settlers met informally, though their presence and different customs were sufficiently recognised to enable an area of West Terrace Cemetery to be set aside for Jewish burials in 1843. In 1846 it was recorded that the \’descendants of Abraham\’ assembled at the home of Mr. Burnett Nathan in Currie Street. On September 10, 1848, at Mr. Emanuel Solomon\’s Temple Tavern in Gilles Arcade, the first official gathering \’for the purpose of forming members of the Jewish persuasion into a body\’ was held. Within two years a synagogue was built in Rundle Street. On September 4, 1850, the synagogue was consecrated.

One of the characteristics of the early Jewish community in South Australia was the close inter-relationship between its members, both in business and private life. The influence of the Montefiores and the number of their friends and relatives who were encouraged to settle in South Australia was also a distinctive feature.

Jews have made an enormous contribution to South Australian life, particularly in the areas of politics, philanthropy, commerce and entertainment. Prominent Jewish names to emerge in South Australia include Emanuel Solomon, emancipist and benefactor, who among other achievements, opened the colony\’s first theatre; Vaiben Louis Solomon, briefly Premier of the State of South Australia in 1899, who played a part in Australian federation and then served in federal parliament; and Hyam van der Sluice, later to be known nationwide as comic entertainer Roy Rene. Daniel Baruh, who arrived in 1849, was Australia\’s first Jewish surgeon. Eight Mayors/Lord Mayors of the City of Adelaide have been Jewish.

While the Jewish communities in other Australian capitals, except Tasmania, grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s with refugees from Nazi persecution, the South Australian Jewish community actually declined. In 1933 there were 528 Jewish South Australians. Many Jews tended to leave the state to marry, or married outside their faith because the Jewish community remained small in number. On the other hand, Melbourne and Sydney in particular were highly attractive to refugees. There were greater employment opportunities in these cities and larger Jewish communities with better organised aid schemes.

South Australia had waves of Jewish immigration. From the late 1940s onwards following the Second World War, English Jewish immigrants arrived on subsidised fares. During the 1950s many Jews from Egypt, Hungary and South Africa settled in South Australia. Jews came from Egypt as a result of President Nasser\’s instruction for them to leave in the wake of worsening Egypt-Israel relations. Hungarian Jews departed their homeland during the turmoil under a communist government that culminated in an unsuccessful revolt in 1956. South African Jews found the 1948 electoral victory of the National Party in South Africa intolerable as it enforced apartheid; they have been arriving in greater numbers since the 1980s following a deteriorating situation in South Africa. In the 1990s many Russian Jews left a political environment in which they had been discriminated against and forbidden to practise their religion.

Community activities

Jewish cultural traditions, religious observance and organizations are inextricably bound together. The focal point of Jewish life is the synagogue, a place of assembly, study and prayer. Hebrew is the language of the Jewish religion. Jews observe the Shabbat, Sabbath, a holy day of rest, from sundown on Friday until nightfall on Saturday. Besides attending the synagogue, on Shabbat, Jews have special meals and family gatherings at home. Orthodox Jews do not work, travel by vehicle, or carry money on Shabbat.

The Jewish calendar is a lunar one which stretches back over 5760 years. Tishri, the first month of the Jewish calendar, usually occurs in September or October. The High Holidays of the Jewish year, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are celebrated during this month.

Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world and G-d\’s dominion over it. According to Jewish tradition, on this day the faithful are judged for their deeds of the past year. Rosh Hashanah begins the Ten Days of Penitence, which end on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On this day Jews fast, reflect upon their actions of the past year, seek forgiveness and pledge themselves to improvement.

There are three Pilgrim Festivals in the Jewish calendar: Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost) and Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles). Before the Destruction of the Temple in CE 70 (70 AD) Jews made pilgrimages to Jerusalem with their produce at these times.

Pesach, which occurs in the northern hemisphere spring, celebrates the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, led by Moses. Jews observe Pesach at home with a Seder, a ceremonial dinner at which the story of the Exodus is retold.

Shavuot falls 50 days after the beginning of Pesach, during the northern hemisphere summer, and commemorates the giving of Torah (Jewish Law) to Moses on Mount Sinai. It also lasts eight days, ending in Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Giving of the Law). The Torah scroll includes the books of Bereishit (Genesis), Shemot (Exodus), Vayikra (Leviticus), Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy), which are the first five books of the Bible. It is read at synagogue services throughout the year.

Sukkot is a harvest festival that begins five days after Yom Kippur, in the northern hemisphere autumn. Small huts are often built, covered in tree branches or palm leaves, as a reminder of the 40 years the Israelites spent wandering in the wilderness, as recounted in the Torah.

The other significant Jewish festivals are Purim and Channukah (the Feast of Lights). Purim is a joyous festival that celebrates the rescue of the Jews of Persia from a plot to kill them, as recorded in the Book of Esther, while Channukah marks God\’s deliverance of the Jews in 165 BCE (Before the Common Era) when they triumphed over persecution by Greco-Syrians.

Other days particularly important to Jews are Holocaust Remembrance Day, which in the Jewish calendar is on 27 Nisan, in April/May, and Israel Independence Day, on 5 Iyar, in May.

Jewish tradition regards the teachings of the Torah as touching every aspect of life. Jews observe customs, as well as festivals, as a sign of their faith. For example, observant Jews only eat kosher food, particular foods that have been correctly prepared according to dietary laws. At the Passover seder, special foods such as unleavened bread and bitter herbs are eaten. During the eight days of Pesach, Jews do not eat any wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats except specially supervised matzah (or unleavened bread). When mixed with water these five species of grain form chametz, or leavened flour, if not immediately. The custom remembers the flight from Egypt when bread was cooked in haste, as do the bitter herbs eaten at this time.

Jewish custom also includes rituals for birth, religious maturity, marriage and death. There are two congregations in Adelaide, one orthodox and the other progressive; both conduct classes and discussion groups where the principles of Jewish observance are taught.

As well as those who are Jewish by birth, the community includes persons who have undergone an extended period of supervised study and practice of religious customs and undergone a recognised conversion to become Jews. They are also considered fully Jewish.


Two synagogues form the hub of Jewish life in Adelaide.

Adelaide Hebrew Congregation Inc. (the orthodox synagogue congregation) was founded in 1848. Based from 1850 to 1990 in the city of Adelaide, in 1990 the congregation moved to a new synagogue at Glenside. The congregation follows traditional Jewish practice.

The Adelaide Progressive Jewish Congregation Inc. (Beit Shalom synagogue) was founded in 1963, mainly by migrants from the United Kingdom who were familiar with progressive practice, and is based at Hackney.

Massada College Adelaide Inc., founded in 1976, educates children from Reception to Year 7. The Victor Ades Memorial Kindergarten, founded in 1972, is a kindergarten and day-care facility for children aged 3-5 years. The kindergarten and the college accept both Jewish and non-Jewish children.

The Mr. and Mrs. Nat Solomons Home for the Aged provides independent living unit and supported residential accommodation for the elderly.


A variety of organizations embrace all members of the SA Jewish community and aim to foster distinctly Jewish values. All of the following groups are affiliated with, or branches of, national Jewish organizations.

Australasian Union of Jewish Students (SA) is a fellowship of tertiary students strengthening Jewishness.

B\’nai B\’rith (which means Children of the Covenant) is a worldwide service organization of both men and women with a fellowship and anti-defamation role. It aims to strengthen its members\’ identification with the moral and ethical values of their heritage.

Jewish Adelaide Zionist Youth (JAZY) is a Zionist youth group which provides youth activities and camps; opportunities exist for school-leavers to spend time in Israel to develop leadership skills.

The Jewish Community Council of South Australia is an umbrella organization which handles public relations, security issues and co-ordinates communal events. It is affiliated with the Executive Council of Australian Jewry.

Jewish Community Services Inc. is a welfare organization providing counselling and practical help to all members of the Jewish community, especially new immigrants and the elderly.

The Jewish National Fund of SA is an environmental organization supporting projects for land care, tree planting and water conservation in Israel. The J.N.F. in Israel celebrated its centenary in 2001 making it the oldest environmental body in the world.

National Council of Jewish Women of SA encourages women of all ages to serve both the Jewish and wider communities, their country and the State of Israel for the advancement of social justice and educational enlightenment; it is also affiliated with the National Council of Women.

S.A. Friends of the Hebrew University (Jerusalem) aims to co-ordinate and promote activities in S.A. to benefit the University in Jerusalem and to provide a platform for the Jewish community to consider broad philosophical issues.

South Australian Maccabi Inc. is a sports organization, affiliated with Maccabi Australia Inc. and the Maccabi World Union. Teams from South Australia attend annual Australian interstate sports carnivals for teenagers (Junior Carnival) and adults (Senior Carnival). Elite sportspersons are selected to compete in the Australian team to The Maccabiah Games (known as the \”Jewish Olympics\”) held in Israel every four years.

State Zionist Council of S.A. co-ordinates the activities of the various Zionist groups and arranges communal celebrations for Israel Independence Day.

United Israel Appeal of SA raises funds to support Jewish immigration to Israel. It also provides aid to all women and children in Israel whether Israeli, Arab or immigrant, through its workshops and health centres.

W.I.Z.O. (S.A.), the Women\’s International Zionist Organization (SA branch) aims to provide for the welfare of infants, children, youth and the elderly in Israel, both Arab and Israeli, to advance the status of women in Israel and to strengthen the bond between world Jewry and Israel.

There are also groups which involve the wider business community. The Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce promotes trade and development of commerce links between Israel and Australia.


‘Shalom Adelaide’ is a monthly communal newsletter.
‘The Jewish Half Hour’ is a weekly radio program that has been broadcast for over twenty years, on 5EBI-FM every Sunday at 11 am.


In 1860, there were 360 Jewish South Australians. By 1891, there were 840. In 1933, 528. In 1981, the national census recorded 1,114. The Jewish Community Council of SA estimates that there are between 1,500 and 2,000 Jewish South Australians.


Blakeney M. Australia and the Jewish Refugees 1933-1948, Croom Helm, Australia, 1985.
Brasch R. Australian Jews Today, Cassell Australia Limited, Sydney, 1977.
Carlton P.A. The Worship of God in a Strange Land: The Jewish Community in South Australia since 1836, M.A. Thesis, University of Adelaide, 1985.
Hyams B. Surviving – A History of the Institutions and Organizations of the Adelaide Jewish Community, The Jewish Community Council of South Australia, Adelaide, 1998.
Jupp J., ed. The Australian People, An Encyclopaedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1988.
Kwiet K. Be Patient and Reasonable: The Internment of German Jewish Refugees in Australia, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 31, no. 61-77, 1985.
Levi J.S. and Bergman G.F.J. Australian Genesis: Jewish Convicts and Settlers 1788-1850, Rigby, Adelaide, 1974.
Munz H. Jews in South Australia 1836-1936: An Historical Outline, Thornquest Press, Adelaide, 1936.
Price C.A. Jewish Settlers in Australia, Australian National University Social Sciences Monograph, 1964.
Rosenberg L. Rev. Abraham Tobias Boas – A Pioneer Jewish Minister 1842-1923. Spiritual Leader of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation 1870-1923, Australian Jewish Historical Society, Sydney, 1970.
Rubinstein, H. Chosen: the Jews in Australia, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1987.
Rubinstein, W.D. The Jews in Australia, AE Press, Melbourne, 1986.
Rubinstein W.D., ed. The Jews in the Sixth Continent, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1987.
Rubinstein W.D. and H.L. The Jews in Australia: a Thematic History, 2 vols, William Heinemann Australia, Melbourne, 1991.
Rutland S.D. The Edge of the Diaspora: Two Centuries of Jewish Settlement in Australia, Collins, Sydney, 1988.

Comments are closed.