Geographic Origins

Jews are descendants of a nomadic people who lived in the Middle East in ancient times, or adherents of the Jewish religion. Following famine on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, the tribes who were descendants of 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 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. Return of the territories has been the subject of ongoing peace negotiations.

History of Immigration and Settlement

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

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.

Possibly the first Jewish settler to Adelaide was John Levey who arrived in September 1836. He was followed Mr and Mrs Philip Lee, who landed at Glenelg on 20 November 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 did feature among them.

In the early days of the colony Jewish settlers met informally, though their presence was sufficiently recognised in 1843 to enable an area of West Terrace Cemetery to be set aside for Jewish burials. In 1846 it was recorded that the ‘descendants of Abraham’ assembled at the home of Mr Burnett Nathan in Currie Street. On 10 September 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 4 September 1850, the synagogue was consecrated. In 1870 Abraham Tobias Boas arrived to serve as rabbi, retiring in 1918 after 48 years of service. One of his successors stayed no more than five years and for many years there was no rabbi.

In 1860 there were 360 Jewish South Australians. By 1891 there were 840.

One of the characteristics of the early Jewish community in South Australia was the close interrelationship 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, served briefly as Premier of the State of South Australia in 1899, 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. South Australia also had the distinction of being home to Australia’s first Jewish surgeon, Daniel Baruh, who arrived in 1849.

Five Lord Mayors of the City of Adelaide have been Jewish, including Sir Lewis Cohen who served seven times as Mayor and initiated a campaign to grant the Lord Mayoralty to Adelaide in 1919. Consequently he served one term as Lord Mayor in the years 1921 - 1923. Three of the original 65 proprietors of the Church of England Collegiate School (1847), later St Peter’s College, were Jewish, while Philip Levi, another proprietor, and his brother Edmund were foundation members of the Adelaide Club. Jewish pastoralists also played considerable roles in South Australian life, including Gabriel Bennett the founder of pastoral company, Bennett and Fisher.

While the Jewish communities in other Australian capitals, except Tasmania, grew rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s through the acceptance of refugees of 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 marry 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. These cities offered greater employment opportunities and larger Jewish communities with better established aid schemes.

South Australia experienced waves of 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 Egyptian-Israeli relations. Hungarian Jews departed their homeland during the turmoil, under a communist government, that culminated in an unsuccessful revolt in 1956. South African Jews no doubt chose to emigrate because they found the 1948 electoral victory of the National Party, which enforced apartheid in their native land, intolerable.

Community Activities

Jewish cultural traditions, religious observance and organisations 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 the 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 God’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, Feast of Weeks or Pentecost; and Sukkot, 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, guided 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 which 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 Common Era) when they triumphed over persecution by the 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, barely, 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. The custom remembers the flight from Egypt when bread was cooked in haste and eaten, along with the bitter herbs. 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. These people undergo a recognised conversion to become Jews and are considered fully Jewish by the community.

From June to August 1999, an exhibition the ‘Tree of Life’ was curated by the Jewish Community of South Australia at the Migration Museum in Adelaide. Most of this exhibition has been recreated on the Adelaide Jewish Museum’s virtual website.


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.

For many years Massada College Adelaide Inc., founded in 1976, operated as an independent Jewish school, educating children from Reception to Year 7. The school closed in 2013. Co-existing with Massada College was the Victor Ades Memorial Kindergarten, founded in 1972. This was a kindergarten and day-care facility that catered for children aged 3-5 years. Presently Adelaide has no schools catering for Jewish children.

Nat Solomon’s Home for the Aged is administered by Southern Cross Care Inc., S.A. It provides 12 independent living units which can be utilised by the Jewish community.

Various organisations embrace all members of the Jewish community in South Australia. They aim to foster distinctly Jewish values. All of the following groups are affiliated with, or are branches of, national Jewish organisations.

The Australasian Union of Jewish Students is a fellowship of tertiary students strengthening Jewishness.

B’nai B’rith, Children of the Covenant, is a worldwide service organisation of both men and women with fellowship. It aims to strengthen its members’ identification with the moral and ethical values of their heritage.

Habonim Dror Adelaide is a Zionist youth group that 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 organisation 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 organisation providing counseling and practical help to all members of the Jewish community, especially new immigrants and the elderly.

The Jewish National Fund of S.A. is an environmental organisation 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.

The National Council of Jewish Women of S.A. 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.

South Australian Friends of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, aims to co-ordinate and promote activities in SA 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 organisation, 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.

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

The United Israel Appeal of S.A. 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 Organisation, 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 that involve the wider business community. The Australia/Israel Chamber of Commerce promotes trade and development of commerce links between Israel and Australia.

The Australian Jewish Genealogical Society, South Australian branch, provides assistance to those people, Jewish and non-Jewish, who wish to research their Jewish roots.

Organisations and Media

  • Adelaide Hebrew Congregation Inc. (Orthodox)
  • Australia/Israel Chamber of Commerce
  • Australian Jewish Genealogical Society S.A.
  • Australasian Union of Jewish Students S.A.
  • Beit Shalom Synagogue (Progressive)
  • B’nai B’rith
  • Habonim Dror Adelaide
  • Jewish Community Council of S.A.
  • Jewish Community Services Inc.
  • Jewish National Fund of S.A.
  • National Council of Jewish Women of S.A.
  • Nat Solomon’s Home for the Aged
  • Shalom Adelaide, monthly communal newsletter
  • S.A. Friends of the Hebrew University (Jerusalem)
  • South Australian Maccabi Inc.
  • State Zionist Council of South Australia
  • Women’s International Zionist Organisation
  • United Israel Appeal of S.A.
  • 5EBI-FM Radio Program, ‘The Jewish Half Hour’


In 1860, there were 360 Jewish South Australians. By 1891, there were 840 and in 1933 there were 528.

The 1981 census recorded 1,114 Jewish South Australians.

 In 1992 the Jewish Community Council of S.A. estimated that there were between 1,500 and 2,000 Jewish South Australians.

There were no records for Jewish people in the 1996 census.

The 2001 records 475 South Australians of Jewish descent.

The 2006 census recorded 182 Israeli-born South Australians and 96 from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, while 365 people said that they were of Jewish descent.

The 2011 census recorded 221 Israeli-born South Australians and 128 from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, while 407 people said that they were of Jewish descent.

The 2016 census recorded 236 Israeli-born South Australians and 118 from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, while 561 people said that they were of Jewish descent.

By Migration Museum

This article is part of the From Many Places project documenting the diverse cultural groups in South Australia. It is a project started by the Migration Museum in 1992 and continued in partnership today. 

Add media
Courtesy of/Photographer:Bit Scribbly Design

Migration Museum

Add story