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Jewish people have lived in New South Wales since 1788, with at least eight Jewish convicts aboard the First Fleet, and several hundred others on subsequent transports. Jews, like Catholics, were not able to observe their religious beliefs until the early 1820s, as all denominations were forced to attend Church of England ceremonies until this time.
[media]The arrival of a significant number of Jewish free settlers to Sydney in the late 1820s prompted the organisation of Jewish communal and religious life. Sydney's Jewish Congregation was officially formed in 1831, with the first recorded meeting in rooms above 'Mr Rowell's shop in George Street'. This site continued to be used until 1837. The first minister, Reverend Michael Rose, arrived in Sydney in 1835. Thereafter, the congregation moved to a number of temporary premises throughout the city centre. It was not until 1844 that 'Jews had a permanent place of worship in Sydney, when a site was secured for a synagogue on York Street.
The gold rush of the 1850s brought many more Jewish settlers to Australia, with the population almost tripling in this decade. Most of these new settlers emigrated from Britain, which meant they recognised the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire as the supreme ecclesiastic authority. The 1850s also saw a split in the Sydney Congregation, which led to the establishment of a second synagogue in a former Baptist church on Macquarie Street (opposite Parliament House).
The division between the two congregations was healed under Rabbi Alexander Bernard Davis, who was the head of Sydney Jewry from 1862 to 1903. Davis sought to repair the schism between the two congregations by building a larger synagogue that would accommodate them both. A program of fund-raising was embarked upon, involving Jews and gentiles, to build a new place of worship for the Jewish Congregation. The present site of the Great Synagogue on Elizabeth Street was acquired for £2000 in 1871.
The foundation stone for the Great Synagogue was laid in 1875. It was completed in 1878 to a design by Thomas Rowe, although his original plans for the building were not completely carried through. When it was officially opened, the style of the Great Synagogue was described as Byzantine with some Gothic influences. It was the most dramatic building on Elizabeth Street, largely because of the ornate carved stonework on the façade, and particularly on the two domed towers on either side of the entrance. The interiors of the Great Synagogue were even more elaborate and eclectic than the sandstone façade, featuring moulded plaster, etched and stained glass, carved timber, mosaic and tessellated tile floors and extensive use of gold leaf.
The Great Synagogue was designed to accommodate up to 1,000 worshippers, about a third of Sydney's Jewish population in 1880. After this time, a significant proportion of Jewish people migrated to Sydney from Eastern Europe.
The Great Synagogue was Sydney's only synagogue until 1913. The establishment of other synagogues in Sydney in the early twentieth century, and more particularly after World War II, when a large influx of Jewish migrants arrived from Europe, demonstrates how the Jewish community has grown and dispersed. Today, the Great Synagogue remains the mother congregation of Australian Jewry, and is the most visited Jewish building in the country.
JS Levi and GFJ Bergman, Australian Genesis: Jewish Convicts and Settlers 1788–1850, Rigby Limited, Adelaide, 1974
Suzanne D Rutland, Edge of the Diaspora: Two Centuries of Jewish Settlement in Australia, Collins, Sydney, 1988