Australia: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

by Suzanne Rutland

Since the beginning of British colonialization of New South Wales in 1788, when between eight and fifteen Jews were among the convicts who arrived with the First Fleet, several waves of immigration have brought the Jewish population up to its present size. The Anglo-Jews who arrived in the 1820s and began the Jewish communities that still exist in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and in the Tasmanian towns of Hobart and Launceston, were succeeded by a substantial number of European Jews who arrived at the time of the Gold Rushes of the 1850s. Though the high rate of assimilation in 1945 led demographer Joseph Gentilli to predict that the Jewish community would disappear by the twenty-first century, it actually quadrupled in size from 23,000 in 1933 to 110,000 by 2003 as a result of various waves of migration. More than five thousand “thirty-niners” arrived immediately before or at the outbreak of World War II. In 1940, a further two thousand refugee internees from Germany and Austria, together with two hundred former Italian Fascists and 250 German prisoners of war, were deported from England by the British government on the infamous boat, the Dunera, which had been built to accommodate only sixteen hundred passengers.

Between 1946 and 1954, seventeen thousand Jews, the majority of them Holocaust survivors, came from Europe and Shanghai. A further ten thousand arrived by 1961, a significant number of them coming after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956—a year in which some Egyptian Jews also arrived. Thus Australian Jewry doubled in size from a mere twenty-three thousand in 1933 to sixty thousand in 1965.

The next large wave of immigration, after 1976, brought immigrants from South Africa and the USSR, as well as some Israelis. According to figures from the 2001 census, the thriving community numbers around eighty-four thousand, though community leaders believe the actual number to be around one hundred and ten thousand.


From the beginning of Australian history there have been a number of prominent Jewish women who have made their mark as individuals in many varied fields. The first was Esther Abrahams, a Jewish “First Fleeter,” who was found guilty of stealing two lengths of black lace, for which she received a sentence of seven years’ transportation. She became the mistress and later (in 1814) the wife of Lt. George Johnston, an officer with the First Fleet, who rose to become Lieutenant Governor of the colony and was later tried for his participation in the Bligh rebellion. The Johnstons and their offspring became part of the colonial aristocracy. However, Esther Abrahams severed her links with Judaism; her children by Johnston were all baptized and she was married and buried as a Christian (Levi and Bergman, 23).

Until 1945 there was a considerable level of assimilation in Australian Jewry which was reflected in high intermarriage rates, but the intermarriage rates for women were always much lower, reflecting their greater commitment to Judaism. A product of this situation was a large number of Jewish spinsters. Jewish women were concerned with this phenomenon and were aware of the traditional responsibility of Jewish women in the home and education of children as a counter to assimilation. At the same time, they did contribute to the general population, although in smaller numbers than their male counterparts.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a number of well-known Jewish women played key roles not only in charitable endeavors, but also in the country’s educational system, the professions, business, music, literature and the arts. Jewish women’s involvement in these areas before World War II mirrored the high level of integration of Jewish men in Australian society.

In the field of education Jewish women made significant contributions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Gladys Marks (1883–1970), was the first woman lecturer in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney in the 1920s, and for a short time acting Professor of French. Fanny Cohen (1887–1975) became headmistress of a select state school, Fort Street Girls’ High School, and was also a member of the Senate of the University of Sydney, while Sophia “Zoe” Benjamin (1882–1962), “a true dwarf,” founded the kindergarten movement and the Sydney Kindergarten Teacher’s Training College. Leah Kloot (1886–1962) came to Australia after World War I, having married a Jewish ANZAC (Australia & New Zealand Army Corps); during the Depression she became involved in Mothers’ Clubs, becoming the first president of the Victorian Association of Mothers’ Clubs.

In politics and in the professions, especially law and medicine, there were a number of pioneering Jewish women. Dr. Constance Ellis (1872–1942) was the first woman to qualify as a doctor in Victoria, while a leading communal figure, Dr. Fanny Reading (1884–1974), was another early woman graduate in medicine from the University of Melbourne. Nerida Goodman (née Cohen, c. 1911) was the third woman to qualify as a barrister in New South Wales and Mahla Pearlman (b. 1937) was one of the first female judges in New South Wales, also becoming president of the New South Wales Law Association.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, a growing number of Jewish women have undertaken university studies and have played a role in academia. Professor Bettina Cass (b. 1940) served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sydney (1996–2001), and Sydney feminist and lecturer in the social sciences at the University of Technology, Sydney, Professor Eva Cox (née Hauser, b. 1938 in Vienna) has played a leading role in the Women’s Electoral Lobby.

Jewish women also contributed to Australian public life in a number of domains. In 1928, Julia Rapke (née Levi, 1886–1959), a teacher of public speaking, became one of the first female justices of the peace, as well as being vice-president of the National Council of Women of Victoria and president of the Victorian Women’s Citizen Movement. Margaret Davis was the first Jewish woman member of parliament, in the New South Wales Legislative Council (1967–1978). Sydney-based businesswoman Stella Cornelius (b. 1920) became well known for her work in peace and conflict resolution.

The most outstanding Jewish feminist was Ruby Rich-Schalit (1888–1988). Born in the country area of New South Wales as the fourth of six children, she narrates that her mother Ada told her that “she saw a snake slither from under a pile of wood beside the fire near which she was sitting. That precipitated my birth.” Shortly afterwards, her parents moved to Sydney, where she grew up with memories of the family entertaining on Friday nights. She later recalled: “We used to stand in a row, introduce ourselves in rhyme and then put on a little play in costume.” She studied piano both in Australia and with Arthur Schnabel in Berlin and Raoul Pugno in Paris, but though she performed in London for a BBC Empire Concert, her father would not permit her to play professionally.

Rich-Schalit became involved in the women’s movement in 1922, when she met Millicent Preston-Stanley and agreed to be her campaign secretary while Preston-Stanley was seeking election to parliament. The 1922 campaign failed, but Preston-Stanley later became the third woman to be elected to parliament in Australia and the first in New South Wales. Rich also became close to another leading Australian feminist, Jessie Street, whose (unsuccessful) election campaigns she coordinated. In 1926 Ruby became involved with the Racial Hygiene Association (later the Family Planning Association), which sought to educate women in sexual relations and the prevention of venereal disease. In the 1930s she visited Palestine, where she met her husband-to-be, Dr. Maurice Schalit, who had a son and daughter from his first marriage. His children and grandchildren became her family. She continued her interest in music and fought for the needs of underprivileged women throughout her long life, dying at the age of ninety-nine.

A number of individual Jewish women made their mark in business. Helena Rubinstein (1870–1965) began her outstanding cosmetics career in country Victoria, producing creams to protect women’s skin from the harsh Australian sun. Another Victorian, Poppy King (b. 1972), at first carved out a successful career in the cosmetic industry, but she went bankrupt in the early 1990s. The annual “Rich List” published in the Business Review Weekly lists the two hundred richest Australians, a quarter of whom are Jewish; at the end of the twentieth century, fifty percent of the top ten were Jewish, resulting in a highly disproportionate representation for a group which numbered less than 0.5 of the total population. For many years the only Jewish name mentioned from cities other than Melbourne and Sydney was that of the Breckler family, whose firm was established by a remarkable businesswoman, Fanny Breckler (née Masel, 1877–1946). Widowed in 1912, with four children still in her care, she established her first shoe store, The Dainty Walk, in Perth and later founded the shoe stores Betts and Betts and Cecil Brothers. Another successful Jewish businesswoman, Eve Mahlab (b. c. 1936), was named in 1982 as the Bulletin/Qantas businesswoman of the year.

A number of Jewish women made pioneering contributions in music. In New South Wales these included Mirrie Hill (née Solomon, 1892–1986). Married to a well-known composer, Alfred Hill, she herself composed more than 160 pieces. Esther Kahn (c. 1876–c. 1940) also composed works, particularly in the 1930s, but her work was not adequately recognized.

The art world, like that of music and culture in general, was greatly enriched by Jewish refugee artists, who not only developed galleries but became part of the art-buying public. One example is Holocaust survivor Judy Cassab (b. 1920), described as “Australia’s foremost artist.” Cassab’s story is one of struggle, determination and dedication to establish herself as a leading figure in a new land. Born in Vienna, she returned with her mother to her family’s native Hungary after her parents’ separation. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II she married John Kampfner. She spent the war years initially as an art student in Budapest and later, after the assumption of direct control by the Germans, disguised as a non-Jewish factory worker, separated from her husband in order to avoid deportation and death. Miraculously reunited after the war, both sole survivors of their respective families, the couple migrated to Australia in 1951. Initially, Cassab taught art to earn money to buy equipment while her husband, a chemical engineer, struggled to build his career. Following her initial exhibition in 1953, she developed a fine reputation, twice winning the prestigious Archibald Prize for portrait painting. In 1959 she visited Alice Springs in the Australian interior for the first time and was struck by its uniqueness and spirituality. She felt that this was the reason she had migrated to Australia: in the ancient, surreal landscape of Aboriginal outback, Cassab had found her subject and was able to break down cultural barriers in Australia.

Theatre and ballet also developed in post-war Australia, partly as a result of Jewish refugee actors, audiences and patrons. In 1939 Gertrude Bodenwieser (1890–1959), a Viennese refugee who had served since 1926 as Professor of Dance and Choreography at the Austrian State Academy of Music and Performance, introduced modern dance to the Sydney stage.

Jewish women who have made contributions in the literary field include journalist Zara Aronson (1864–1944), known for her work in Sydney and Melbourne; Nancy Keesing (b. 1923), who published a number of short story collections and novels, and became chair of the Australian Literature Board; poets Judith Rodriguez and Holocaust poet Lilly Brett. Yvonne Fein (b. 1953), a daughter of Holocaust survivors, published a well-received novel, April’s Fool, in 2001.

Children of immigrants have also chosen the medium of film to depict the Australian Jewish experience. Sandra Levy, who joined the ABCV in 1972, was appointed director of programs for the ABC in 2001. In 1984 she devised and produced a mini-series, “Palace of Dreams,” which was based on her family’s immigration experiences in Australia during the depression years. Monique Schwartz produced a film about Jewish experiences in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton and in 2001 released “Mammadrama,” a study of the Jewish mother in film.

Sport is a central aspect of Australian culture and Jewish women have also contributed in this domain. Naomi Wolinski (1881–1969) became well known in Australia as lawn bowls champion and administrator. Daughter of a Polish-born rabbi, Solomon Herman, who served as rabbi of the Ballarat congregation in Victoria, Naomi married Ury Wolinski in 1903, thereby uniting two rabbinic families, since Ury’s father, Abraham David Wolinski, was for many years rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Sydney. In 1930 Naomi and a number of fellow players established the NSW Women’s Bowling Association, in an attempt to create better opportunities for women’s participation in this sport. In 1933 she was elected president of the association, a position she filled for a record twenty-year period, during which the organization expanded rapidly. Many of the new clubs established in this period paid tribute to Naomi’s formative role in their establishment. She played an active role in the NSW Women’s Amateur Sports Council and the Australian Women’s Bowling Council, being elected the latter’s founding president in 1947.

The concept of combined Jewish interstate sports competitions—a central feature of Australian Jewish life—was introduced by a woman. In February 1924, in a letter to the Hebrew Standard, Hannah Hart (1894–1983) proposed such a competition as an extension of the increased interest in Jewish sport. The idea was supported enthusiastically in the columns of the Standard, and in January 1925 Sydney sent a cricket team to Melbourne. This was the beginning of regular interstate competitions, which gradually included all sports.

The contribution of Jewish women to Australian development in the two largest centers has been highlighted by the research of Lysbeth Cohen (1926–1988) in New South Wales and Hilary Rubinstein (b. 1946) in Victoria. Lysbeth Cohen’s book, Beginning with Esther: Jewish Women in New South Wales is, to date, the only substantial study of the contribution of Jewish women in Australia.

Pomegranates, edited by Gael Hammer (b. 1936), an anthology of Australian Jewish writing, provides a brief biography of each contributor, a significant number of whom are women. Other books which help to provide insights into the lives of individual Jewish women include Community of Fate (1986), edited by the late John Foster, which features five Jewish women’s stories. From Strauss to Matilda, edited by Karl Bittman (1988), about Austrians in Australia, contains references to a number of significant Jewish women; while Neer Korn’s Shades of Belonging (1999) consists of interviews with various Sydney Jews, almost half of them women. Valuable autobiographies which explore conflicting issues of Jewish identity and belonging include those by Nancy Keesing, journalists Amirah Inglis (b. 1926) and Elizabeth Wynhousen (b. 1946) and Judy Cassab.


Assimilation was a key feature of Australian Jewish life until the 1930s. Jewish women were, at times, blamed for the high rate of intermarriage in Australia. One ex-colonial alleged in the London Jewish World that the majority of Australian Jewish girls, “while amiable, attractive and educated, do not know how to cook a potato, and hence can only start married life with a retinue of servants.” One way of combating the problem was to improve the status and increase the activities of Jewish women within the Jewish community in an effort to improve communal structure. Another was the creation of women’s organizations that would aim to educate their members in Jewish matters. There was an interaction between these two approaches, and it was often the leaders of the Jewish women’s organizations who became involved in the general community structure.

Before the 1920s Jewish women’s main contribution was either as helpmates to their husbands or in philanthropic endeavors. In the field of charity, some Jewish women quickly made their mark. One of the earliest Jewish charitable organizations created in Sydney was the Sydney Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent and Maternity Society, founded in 1844 to provide relief for distressed Jewish women. The second women’s organization to be registered formally in Australia, it continued to function until 1981. In Victoria a similar organization, the Hebrew Ladies’ Benevolent Society, was founded in 1857. By the end of the nineteenth century other Jewish charitable organizations run by women had been established. In Sydney these included the Jewish Girls’ Guild, founded to engage in non-sectarian work by the wife of Reverend Joseph Hirsch Landau, assistant minister of the Great Synagogue in Sydney and the Help-in-Need Society, established in 1898. The women who ran these societies were also active in the Montefiore Homes for the Aged established in Sydney in 1880 and in Melbourne in 1885, as well as participating in non-Jewish charities such as the Red Cross. During World War I, the editor of a Sydney-based paper, the Hebrew Standard, referred to “the many enthusiastic workers of the Jewish faith who identified with the Red Cross.” Ida Cohen (1867–1970) of Tamworth was officially recognized for her services to the Red Cross.

Julia Levy (1886–1959), who arrived in Australia in 1935 and married a businessman and parliamentarian, Lewis Wolfe Levy (d. 1914), was known as the “Grand Woman of Sydney Jewry.” When she died she was described in the Sun as “one of our greatest philanthropists in the history of the community.” Other outstanding Jewish women renowned for their philanthropic endeavors included London-born Isabel Solomon of Adelaide and Fanny Breckler (1877–1946) of Perth.

The most remarkable effort of Jewish women in Sydney in the nineteenth century was their assistance in the building of the Great Synagogue. A spectacular bazaar raised close to ?5,000, one fifth of the total cost of the building, which was opened in 1878.

Despite this contribution, women had no say in the synagogue’s management, though a number of unsuccessful attempts were made to allow women to vote at its annual meetings. The rejection of such motions was indicative of the conception of women’s role in the community. This was particularly remarkable in light of the fact that Australia was one of the first countries to give women the right to vote. But Jewish women do not appear to have played a significant role in the suffrage movement, possibly because of its close connections with the Christian Temperance movement.

After their initial input, women were not in evidence in any official capacity during the many years of growth and development of the Great Synagogue, the dominant institution of Sydney Jewry. A Women’s Auxiliary, of limited membership, was formed only in 1936. In 1941, under the leadership of Mrs Bertha Porush (b. 1904), this auxiliary was opened to all female members of the synagogue.

The specific example of the Great Synagogue reflected the general situation for women in Jewish communities throughout Australia. One exception was the Victorian Ladies Zionist League, Ha-Tikvah, which was established by Rose Altson in 1905, not as an auxiliary to a male counterpart but as an autonomous group. It operated for a number of years and in 1908 resisted attempts to amalgamate with its male counterpart, the Victorian Zionist League. However, it fell on “hard times” and petered out before World War I.

The first move to organize Jewish women in a more formal way came with the creation of the Council of Jewish Women (CJW). This organization was formed in Sydney in 1923 after Dr. Fanny Reading (1884–1974) was inspired by the words of visiting American Zionist emissary, Bella Pevsner. Its initial ideals, which continued to dominate Council philosophy, included loyalty to Judaism, support for Israel and service to all worthy causes—both Jewish and non-Jewish—in the fields of education and philanthropy, while endeavoring to further the interests and cater for the needs of women and children. Founded to educate and involve women in communal endeavors, the Council proved to be a vehicle through which Jewish women could express their views and make their influence felt in a largely male-dominated community. By the late 1920s interstate branches had been established and in 1929 the first interstate conference was held, leading to the creation of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).

For many Jews in Australia, Dr. Fanny Reading became a household name. Born in Minsk, Russia, and migrating to Australia in her early childhood in the 1890s, she grew up in Ballarat in the country area of Victoria. After gaining her Diploma of Music in 1914, she decided to study medicine and graduated in 1921. She had a flair for organization and has been described as “a dreamer of great dreams with the courage to implement them even in the face of strong opposition.” Her boundless enthusiasm, energy and idealism activated Jewish women in Sydney and throughout Australia for over half a century. Like her gentile feminist colleagues of the inter-war years, Fanny Reading set about mobilizing Jewish women at the grass-roots level. Her concern with social welfare was summed up in the message she wrote personally on every conference program:

And the best of all impressions to take back from this Conference to your states, your cities and your homes is, that the Council of Jewish Women stands above all things for the Law of Loving-kindness.

In 1955 Vera Cohen (1902–1994) took over the leadership from Dr. Reading and was awarded a three-month travelling fellowship to the United States. This was another progressive step, helping to reduce Australian Jewry’s isolation from the Jewish world.

In the late 1960s the NCJW experienced a significant change when its national office moved to Melbourne following the election of Mina Fink (1913–1990). Mina Fink arrived as a young bride from Bialystok, Poland, in the early 1930s and worked untiringly as her husband’s helpmate, assisting Jewish immigrants. After his death, she devoted her efforts to improving the status of women and acting as a bridge on feminist issues between her own prewar generation and that of her daughter, who represented the new attitudes of professional women in the 1970s. Melbourne-born Sylvia Gelman (b. 1919), who served as National President from 1973 to 1979. In 2003 she received the Australia Day Award. Gelman was succeeded first by New Zealand-born Ray Ginsburg (b. 1908), who served from 1979 to 1985, and then by Romanian-born child survivor of the Holocaust, Malvina Malinek (b. 1937), who was National President from 1985 to 1991. Sydney-born Lynn Davies (b. 1949) served from 1991 to 1997, with Melbourne-born Dr. Geulah Solomon (b. 1929) taking over in 1997. While these Council leaders worked to upgrade the status of Jewish women, radical feminism did not appeal to most Jewish women, who continued to consider home and family a priority.

Another key Jewish women’s organization, the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO), was founded initially in Sydney as Ivriah by Reike Cohen (1887–1964), a strong leader who was originally active in the NCJW. As Marilyn Lake has commented, “The history of Australian feminism was marked by a series of rivalries between strong women,” and the split between Cohen and Reading is evidence of this. In July 1934 Ethel Morris established the Melbourne branch of WIZO and in 1937 Ivriah was renamed WIZO, with Ruby Rich-Schalit being elected as the first federal president, a position which she retained for three years.

Since WIZO was better known in Europe than the NCJW, it attracted many key leaders from Europe, including personalities such as Sydney-based Hannah Kessler (1909–1982) and Melbourne-based Dr. Alice Benfrey (b. c. 1909). However, Ida Bension-Wynn (1896–1948) from Canada was the key personality in the development of WIZO. A prominent Zionist leader, Bension first visited Australia in July 1939, when she was responsible for creating a federal movement for WIZO. She returned for a second visit in 1939, after which she married Melbourne winemaker and veteran Zionist leader, Samuel Wynn. By the time of her early death in 1948 Australian WIZO had a four thousand-strong membership, making it one of the largest and most influential movements within the Jewish community.

Women’s Zionist activities were further diversified in September 1939 with the establishment of Ezra. An organization concerned primarily with improving maternity facilities in Palestine, it was a response to the appeals for help of Rose Slutzkin (1867–1945) who, with her daughter, came on a visit from The Land of IsraelErez Israel.

The post-war era saw the inception of other women’s organizations, including the women’s B’nai B’rith chapters, of which the Sydney chapter, established in 1945, was the first. Both the United Israel Appeal and, in New South Wales, the Jewish Communal Appeal created separate women’s divisions.

As well as establishing women’s organizations such as NCJW, WIZO, and Ezra, and, more recently, Emunah, the religious women’s Zionist organization, Jewish women have contributed to the development of the community in a number of other areas, including immigration, Youth Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.Aliyah, the establishment of convalescent and old age homes, public relations and sport. In many of these areas—particularly immigration and Zionism—women were innovative in their approach.

Immigration was one area where women were in the forefront of all endeavors, proving more perceptive than men even in recognizing the need to escape from Europe. In her recollection of their departure from Nazi Germany in 1938, Betty Lipton (b. c. 1908) commented:

A woman sometimes has a sixth feeling. I had read all the Stürmer magazines and so on because I wanted to be in the picture about what was happening. So I said to my husband, “You know, I think we will have to leave.” He said, “No, you won’t have a six-room apartment and two servants if we do that.” But I said, “OK, then I’ll have a one-room flat with you: but I want to be safe.” He wouldn’t believe me. He was terribly afraid to emigrate.

Eventually the family left Germany in time, thanks to Betty Lipton’s vision, and this story was mirrored in many other families. As Astrid Kirchhof has shown, the refugee women’s lives changed more than those of the men as a result of immigration, not only because they had to learn to cope without servants. Most worked together with their husbands to rebuild their lives. Often the men were unhelpful or even a burden. As one daughter remarked: “My father talked a lot, but my mother seemed to do all the work.”

Both the Council of Jewish Women and WIZO played a very active role in migrant reception. In 1928 the federal government introduced quota restrictions for European immigrants. While these were welcomed by the male leadership, Dr. Fanny Reading asked:

Who are we to say that we are pleased that certain immigration restrictions will be placed on the admittance of our brethren into our country? That we are glad that our task will be made lighter while our brethren languish for freedom and the right to live? (Council Bulletin, November 1928).

Women met the refugees before the war and survivors after the war at the boats and planes and assisted them in integrating into society. In the fight against government quotas, Jewish women joined with liberal feminists such as Camilla Wedgewood (1901–1955) and Jessie Street (1889–1970), both of whom were strong supporters of more liberal migration policies, as well as of the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. The links established between Jewish and non-Jewish feminists in the 1920s and 1940s led them to work together on many issues of equality. There were, for example, close connections between Jessie Street and Jewish women leaders such as Dr. Fanny Reading and Ruby Rich. Nerida Cohen assisted Jessie Street in her battle for equal pay for women, while Ida Wynn established a close relationship with Greta Hort (1903–1967), philosopher and principal of Women’s College of Melbourne University.

Jewish women were also concerned with the care of the sick and the need to provide convalescent facilities for Jewish people. In Sydney the NCJW was closely associated with the development of the Wolper Jewish Hospital, which was one of the first mainstream organizations to have a female president, Lynn Davies. Similarly, the Maurice Zeffert Old Age Home in Perth started as a Council project under the initiative of Edna Luber-Smith.

Another area where the initiative came from the dynamic leadership of a woman was Youth Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.Aliyah, founded in Germany in 1933 and introduced into Australia in 1938 by Friedl Levi (d. 1994), who was associated with the movement from its inception. For five years she traveled in Germany on fund-raising tours for the movement, while also assisting children to escape. In 1938, on one such tour, she was imprisoned by the Nazis, whereupon she and her husband, Dr. H. G. Levi, a lawyer, decided to migrate to Australia.

Public relations is another area to which women have contributed. In 1952 journalist Caroline Isaacson was appointed Director of the Public Relations Bureau of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies. Evelyn Rothfield played an active role in this area, especially as publicity officer of the Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Antisemitism in the 1940s and 1950s and through her work with the NCJW.

As part of her work as publicity officer, she wrote two detailed pamphlets to assist understanding for the Jewish struggle for statehood: “Whither Palestine” (1947) and “Israel Reborn,” distributed immediately after the declaration of the state of Israel. She also wrote plays and short stories, including The Snake Pit, the story of a Holocaust survivor, which was performed by the La Mama Theatre. As part of her work she participated in a regular weekly radio broadcast entitled “Axis Lies and Our Replies.” She used her knowledge of languages in her work at the Department of Information, monitoring broadcasts from overseas. In 1998 (together with her husband) she was awarded the OAM for her work in promoting peace and human rights, nationally and internationally. She celebrated her ninety-third birthday by publishing a collection of short stories, Down The Years, by herself and her husband Norman.

The Australian Jewish press, with its crucial role within the community, has had a number of women editors, including two editors of the Australian Jewish Times/News: Eve Symon (1928–1982) (1965–1980), and Susan Bures (b. 1946) (1983–1996). After Eve Symon’s retirement from the Times she became chairperson of the Public Relations Committee of the NSW Board of Deputies and shortly before her death was elected vice-president.

A number of Jewish women have utilized leadership skills which they developed in NCJW or WIZO in broader communal organizations such as the Boards of Deputies in the various states and the State Zionist Councils. They include Dr. Fanny Reading, Dr. Lotte Fink, chairperson of the Committee for Overseas Jewry for the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, and Josie Lacey (b. 1935). Sydney’s Hannah Kessler became a vocal spokesperson on all issues and chaired the Education Sub-committee of the Zionist Federation of Australia and New Zealand (ZFA). In Melbourne, Zosia Mercer became president of the State Zionist Council of Victoria.

Between 1985 and 2000, even more significant developments occurred. Eve Mahlab, who was involved in the Welfare Society in Melbourne, was appointed to head the 1986 welfare appeal. Janet Simons (1944–1997) came through the ranks of the United Israel Appeal (UIA) Women’s Division to become vice-president of UIA. In Perth, Tirza Cohen served as president of the Council of Western Australian Jewry, while Ruth Holzman was president of the ACT Council. In 1987 Ann Zablud (b. 1920) was elected chairperson of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies and in 1995 she became the first woman to head a federal organization, the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA). In 1995 Diane Shteinman (b. 1936) was elected president of the community’s roof body, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ). Her Melbourne successor was lawyer Nina Bassat, the second woman and the first Holocaust survivor to hold this key position. As individuals, these women have made important contributions. Women have also been very prominent in what W.D. Rubinstein describes as the “secondary level of Jewish leadership” with most administrative posts of the Boards of Deputies, State Zionist Councils, ECAJ and ZFA being filled by women. However, this is largely because community posts tend to be less well paid and have lower status than top positions in the corporate sector.


The successful introduction of Progressive Judaism into Australia in the 1930s resulted from the efforts of a Melbourne widow, Ada Phillips (1862–1967), who came from a long-established Victorian Jewish family, the Crawcours. In 1928 she attended a Progressive service in London and, impressed with their approach, decided to establish the movement in Melbourne. She was supported by her two daughters, Isabella, a physician, and Millie, who became the first honorary secretary. From the beginning, women were accepted as equals in all facets of congregational life, including membership of the Board of Management.

Reform Judaism, at least in theory, offers full equality to women in both religious and lay leadership. The first female Liberal rabbi, American-born Karen Soria (b. 1952), was appointed assistant minister at Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne in 1981. Thereafter, two female rabbis were appointed in Sydney while a number of female rabbis were active in Jewish communal life in Melbourne. Of these, two are Australian-born: Aviva Kipen (b. 1952) of Melbourne and Jackie Ninio (b. 1967), originally from Adelaide who served at Sydney’s Temple Emanuel. Also very active in interfaith activities, Rabbi Kipen served as secretary of the Leaders of Faith Communities Forum in Victoria as well as being program director of its religious celebration of Australia’s Centenary of Federation.

In Orthodox Judaism the situation is much more complex. However, there have been important developments to increase opportunities for Orthodox Jewish women within the religious framework. Most important of these is the establishment of Women’s PrayerTefillah Groups and opportunities for women’s Jewish learning. In addition, the difficult issues of the get (divorce), halizah and marriage, have been canvassed through petitions at both the national and international level, largely organized by the NCJW, with both Dr. Geulah Solomon of Melbourne and Josie Lacey of Sydney playing key roles.

An interesting example of Orthodox feminism is the establishment of the first Women’s PrayerTefillah Group in Sydney in 1989, of which Gael Hammer was a founding member. Melbourne-born, Hammer (née Sage) had been deeply influenced by an incident she experienced as a university student during the 1956 Suez crisis. At the time her father was active in the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, led by Rabbi Dr. Izaak Rapaport, who in the course of a SabbathShabbat service made an appeal for financial support. He announced that during times of crisis, if Israel was in trouble, funds could be collected from all possible sources including women, and he invited the women present to come up to the reader’s desk and make a donation. Gael Hammer recalled:

There were only six women in shul that SabbathShabbat. Three of us, including myself, came downstairs and were called up. I stood beside an open Manuscript scroll of the Pentateuch used in public worship.Sefer Torah and donated three guineas. I was twenty years old and at university at the time. I did not say the berakhot, but I did kiss the Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah with a Four-cornered prayer shawl with fringes (zizit) at each corner.tallit. That was the beginning of my Jewish feminist career.

Since its initial meeting in 1989, the Sydney WTG meets monthly with Shelley Einfeld (b. 1965) serving as cantor. While the group is very small in size, it has attracted support from leading young feminist professionals in Sydney.

In Melbourne a women’s Prayertefillah group also formed in the late 1980s, but soon faded away. Then, in 1996, a new congregation striving for full equality was formed. In order to create many levels of resonance, its founders chose the name HaMakom, both as one of God’s names and also for its meaning—“the place.” Its mission statement stresses that it “is a community which defines itself by its commitment to operating within a The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhic framework. One of its central ideas is to facilitate the practice of and participation in Judaism for and by women in as many meaningful ways as is halakhically possible.” The congregation, which operates through a process that is, as far as possible, based on inclusivity, consensus and a lack of hierarchical formality, prays in a private home and has no rabbi, paid membership or executive leadership. On an ordinary SabbathShabbat it attracts more than one hundred and fifty worshippers. The members pray together, but separate for the Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah readings to enable women to read from the Torah. HaMakom also introduced the passing of the Torah scroll to the women. In 1999 the Gandel Besen synagogue in Melbourne followed suit, creating an enormous outcry among the Orthodox leadership, but thereafter a number of synagogues introduced the practice.

The emergence of HaMakom reinforced the activities of the women’s Prayertefillah group in Sydney and contributed to the development of a similar group in Melbourne. One of the founders of HaMakom, Melanie Landau (b. c. 1972) , started a Women’s Circle at the Jewish Museum which influenced a group of Orthodox university students. In 1999, they held a Sunday morning forum which established the Orthodox Women’s Network (OWN), with the aim of holding regular discussions of ways to incorporate women more actively into all the major life cycle events. From these monthly learning sessions the Women’s Tefillah Group emerged. In 2000 a separate Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah reading was held for women on Lit. "rejoicing of the Torah." Holiday held on the final day of Sukkot to celebrate the completing (and recommencing) of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah (Pentateuch), which is divided into portions one of which is read every Sabbath throughout the year.Simhat Torah and in 2001 the WTG also read the Lit. "scroll." Designation of the five scrolls of the Bible (Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther). The Scroll of Esther is read on Purim from a parchment scroll.Megillah on Holiday held on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (on the 15th day in Jerusalem) to commemorate the deliverance of the Jewish people in the Persian empire from a plot to eradicate them.Purim. With the development of women’s participation in prayer, with girls celebrating their Lit. "daughter of the commandment." A girl who has reached legal-religious maturity and is now obligated to fulfill the commandmentsbat mitzvah through the group, some reading from the Torah, women saying Lit. (Aramaic) "holy." Doxology, mostly in Aramaic, recited at the close of sections of the prayer service. The mourner's Kaddish is recited at prescribed times by one who has lost an immediate family member. The prayer traditionally requires the presence of ten adult males.kaddish, and an increased role for women in the wedding ceremony. Established Melbourne rabbinic opinion has gradually become more open on these issues.

The development of women’s Prayertefillah groups in Australia was assisted by the encouragement of Alice Shalvi, founding chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network, who toured several cities in 1994 as guest of NCJW and the Australian Jewish Congress, and the support of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), whose founder, Blu Greenberg, visited Sydney as scholar-in-residence at Shalom College in 1996. Australian women leaders attended JOFA conferences in New York. In February 2001 the delegation comprised five women.

Women in the hasidic world have also been seeking a more active role, particularly within Habad, the strongest hasidic sect in Australia. In Melbourne, under the leadership of Miriam Cowen (b. 1953), they developed their own learning programs and the same has occurred in Sydney. Music has also been an important vehicle through which Habad women have been able to express themselves.


Jewish women have played a disproportionately significant role in the development of Jewish education and culture. In Jewish schools, most of the Jewish Studies and Hebrew teachers are female although previously, leadership and management were male. This changed radically in the 1990s, with women taking on significant leadership roles: the majority of Jewish schools in Melbourne had a female principal during that decade, and in 2001 three of the schools in the city were headed by female principals. Miriam Munz (b. 1950) was the head of Jewish Studies at Mount Scopus College, the largest Jewish day school in Melbourne, before going on to become the first female principal at Yavneh College. At university level, a large proportion of lecturers are Jewish women, and between 1992 and 2001 three of four presidents of the Australian Association of Jewish Studies were female.

Women were also at the cutting edge of the development of the Melton Adult Education program in both Sydney and Melbourne, with women also constituting a higher proportion of the student body. This was a vital new development which has expanded rapidly under the leadership of Jerusalem Fellow Peta Pellach (b. 1954) and Susie Klein (b. 1936) in Sydney, and Sandy Benjamin (b. 1949), Brenda Kahan (b. 1941) and Rabbi Aviva Kipen (b. 1952) in Melbourne.

Another area where Jewish women have been active is in the founding and running of Jewish genealogical and historical societies. The Australian Jewish Genealogical Society was founded in Sydney by Holocaust child survivor, Sophie Caplan (b. 1935), who served as its president for over a decade. In Melbourne Beverley Davis served for many years as the honorary secretary of the Australian Jewish Historical Society; in Sydney Louise Rosenberg (b. 1914) was honorary secretary and then honorary historian, while the position of honorary treasurer was filled by Phoebe Davis (1898–1986), followed by Miriam Solomon (b. 1925). Helen Bersten (b. 1942) served as honorary archivist from 1978. Dr. Suzanne Rutland (b. 1946) was elected as the first female president in 1995.

Australian Jewry also saw a flowering of museum culture, with women playing a key role at both the professional and voluntary levels. At the Jewish Museum of Australia, whose director was Dr. Helen Light (b. 1948), ninety percent of the almost four hundred active volunteers were women. The Museum was awarded a Cultural Awareness Initiative Award by the Victorian government, specifically honoring the volunteers’ work. Similarly, the Sydney Jewish Museum is dependent on volunteers, particularly Holocaust survivors, and again the majority are female.


Despite significant advances over the last few decades, Jewish women in Australia do not enjoy full equality with their male counterparts. As Marilyn Lake has commented:

Decades of feminist activism have won women equal rights to participate in social, economic and political life in Australia, but equality has meant participating on men’s terms which assume workers, [sic] citizens are autonomous, mobile and free from domestic responsibility.

Since most Jewish women today take their domestic responsibilities seriously, full equality is definitely elusive. Women still bear the major responsibility for home and family, their traditional areas in Judaism. In addition, community leadership is based on people who are wealthy. Power rests with those with money, who are mainly men. Efforts to increase women’s abilities to take over leadership roles could be seen in the establishment of the Sydney organization, WomenPower, as a training ground for women. Perhaps only the next generation of women will come fully into their own in Jewish communal leadership.


Primary Sources

Australian Jewish Chronicle.

Australian Jewish Herald.

Australian Jewish News.

Australian Jewish Times.

Council Bulletin.

Council of Jewish Women, New South Wales, Minutes, 1923–1960.

Groden, Joy. A History of WIZO in New South Wales. Typescript, archives of Australian Federation of WIZO, Beth WIZO, Sydney, 1–14.

Hebrew Standard of Australasia.

Light, Helen. Submission for the National Communitylink Awards, 2000.

Ivriah, 1935–1939.

Sydney Jewish News.

Melbourne Women’s Tefilla Group’s summary sheet of developments over the two years of its activities from 1999 for its second Sunday Morning Forum, 22 July 2001.

Program, “A Sense of Place: Victoria’s Multi-Faith Religious Celebration.” Leaders of Faith Communities Forum: Victoria, 2001.


Bittman, Karl, ed. Strauss to Matilda: Viennese in Australia 1938–1988. Sydney: 1988.

Covers contribution of Austrian Jewish refugees including dancer Madame Gertrude Bodenwieser, Eva Wagner, who contributed to the development of Musica Viva, the first chamber music society which has become a key institution in the musical life of Australia, as did Edith Dubsky who worked for the society in Adelaide.

Cohen, Lysbeth. Beginning with Esther: Jewish Women in New South Wales from 1788, Sydney: 1987.

The main collection of short biographies of significant Jewish women in all areas of life in New South Wales. At present it is the only study of this kind for Australian Jewry.

Freilich, Max. Zion in our Time: Memoirs of an Australian Zionist Sydney: 1967.

Includes information about the various WIZO leaders such as Ruby Rich, Ida Wynn and Hannah Kessler.

Grove-Pollak, F., ed. The Saga of a Movement: WIZO 1920–1970. Department of Organization and Education of WIZO: 1970.

Levi, John, and George Bergman. Australian Genesis: Jewish Convicts and Settlers, Adelaide: 1974.

Hammer, Gael, ed. Pomegranates: A Century of Jewish Australian writing. Sydney: 1988.

A collection of Australian Jewish writing, including the key female writers such as Nancy Keesing, Majorie Pizer, Lilly Brett and Fay Zwicky.

Lake, Marilyn. Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism. Sydney: 1999.

Includes reference to Jewish feminists such as Ruby Rich and Nerida Cohen.

Newton, Marlo L. Making A Difference: A History of the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia. Melbourne: 2000.

History of the NCJW, including each of the Council’s branches across Australia. One of the few books to discuss feminist issues within the Jewish community.

Rubinstein, Hilary L. The Jews of Australia: A Thematic History, 1788–1945, and Rubinstein, William David. 1945–1990, Melbourne: 1991.

Rubinstein, Hilary L. The Jews in Victoria, 1835–1985, with an appendix by William David Rubinstein. Sydney: 1986; Rubinstein, William David. The Jews in Australia, Melbourne: 1986.

Rubinstein, Hilary L. Chosen: A History of the Jews in Australia, Sydney: 1987.

Two-volume history by husband and wife team on Australian Jewry, with brief outline of key Jewish women and issues relating to women.

Rutland, Suzanne D. The Jews in Australia. Melbourne: 2005.

Although Jews represent only a tiny proportion of the national population, they have made outstanding contributions and influenced Australian society immeasurably. This book explores how the Australian Jewish community differs from others around the world. It traces the community's history from its convict origins in 1788 through Australia's contemporary vibrant Jewish culture, and highlights its social and cultural impact. As well as looking at the emergence of a specific faith tradition, the book also explores how Jews, as the country's first ethnic group, have been assimilated into multicultural Australia.

Sawer, Marian, and Marian Simms. A Woman’s Place: Women and Politics in Australia. Sydney: 1984.

Jewish women and politics.

Biography and Autobiography

Foster, John, ed. Community of Fate: Memoirs of German Jews in Melbourne Sydney: 1986.

Five of the fourteen contributions are written by women. They give insight into the refugee experience from a female perspective.

Inglis, Amirah: An Un-Australian Childhood. Victoria: 1983.

An autobiography which provides a moving insight into the immigrant experience in Melbourne in the 1930s and 1940s from a secular, atheist family which became part of the Jewish Communist movement in postwar Australia.

Keesing, Nancy. Riding the Elephant. Sydney: 1988.

Korn, Neer, ed. Shades of Belonging: Conversations with Australian Jews. Sydney: 1999.

Brief outlines of the lives of Australian Jews from the aftermath of the war to the postwar generation and developments since the 1960s, with over half to the interviewees being women. These include some key female Jewish figures such as Diane Shteinman, who served as president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the community’s national roof body; Eva Fischl, president of the main Jewish welfare organization in New South Wales, Jewish Care; and Peta Jones Pellach, a leading Jewish educator.

Mitchell, Susan. The Matriarchs: Twelve Australian Women Talk about Their Lives. Victoria: 1987.

Includes a chapter on Stella Cornelius, a businesswoman and campaigner for peace.

Wetherell, David, and Charlotte Carr-Gregg. Camilla: C. H. Wedgewood, 1901–1955: A Life. Kensington: 1990.

A biography of Camilla Wedgewood, daughter of renowned Jewish supporter Josiah Wedgewood, who became principal of Women’s College at the University of Sydney. She followed her father’s lead of becoming a supporter of the European Jewish refugees in Australia as well as a campaigner for Palestine.

Who’s Who in WIZO, 1966–1970, Tel Aviv: 1970.

Wynhausen, Elizabeth. Manly Girls. Victoria: 1989.

Autobiography of the child of Dutch survivors who became a journalist, dealing with the themes of Dutch Jewish experiences during the Holocaust, descendants and memory and growing up as an immigrant, female and a Jew in postwar Australia.

Wynn, A. The Fortunes of Samuel Wynn: Winemaker, Humanist, Zionist. Melbourne: Australia, 1968.

Provides insights into WIZO leader Ida Wynn, Samuel Wynn’s second wife.

Chapters in Books

Andgel, Anne. “The Welfare Ladies Auxiliary.” In Fifty Years of Caring: The History of the Australian Jewish Welfare Society, 1936–1986. Sydney: 1988.

Rutland, Suzanne D. “The changing role of women in Australian Jewry’s communal structure,” In Jews in the Sixth Continent, edited by William David Rubinstein, 101–126. Sydney: 1987.

Rutland, Suzanne D. “The Jewish Connection.” In Jessie Street: Documents and Essays, edited by Heather Radi. Sydney: 1990.


Andgel, Anne. “The Laws of Loving Kindness: A Tribute to Dr. Fanny Reading, Founder of the National Council of Jewish Women of Australian in 1923.” AJHSJ 19:2 (June 1998): 199–257.

Bergman, G. F. J. “Esther Johnson, The Lieutenant-Governor’s Wife: The Amazing Story of a Jewish Convict Girl,” AJHSJ 6 (1966): 90–122.

Carr-Gregg, Charlotte, and Pam Maclean. “‘A mouse nibbling at a mountain’: The problem of Australian refugee policy and the work of Camilla Wedgewood.” The Australian Journal of Politics and History 31:1 (1985): 49–60.

Cohen, Lysbeth. “Not Merely Housewives.” AJHSJ, 9:1 (June 1981): 8–24.

Cohen, Marise Lawrence. “Caroline Chisholm and Jewish Immigration.” AJHSJ 2:2 (1944): 67–77.

Goldflam, Lita, and Shush Masel. “The Ladies of the Perth Hebrew Congregation.” AJHSJ, Perth Hebrew Congregation Centenary Issue, 9:5 (1992): 800–807.

Hyams, Bernard. “Women in Early Australian Zionism,” AJHSJ 15:3 (November 2000): 441–449.

Keesing, Nancy. “The Story of Miriam and Adolphus Hertzberg: An Interesting Sidelight.” AJHSJ 2:7 (1974): 524–529.

Keysor, A. A. ‘The Sydney Hebrew Ladies’ Bazaar, 1875.” AJHSJ 2:9 (1953): 469–485.

Kirchhof, Astrid. “From Germany and Austria to Australian: Experiences of Jewish Women Refugees in the 1930s.” AJHSJ 15:1 (June 2000): 237–251.

Marks, Hilda V. “The Jewish Girls’ Guild: Fiftieth Year.” AJHSJ 2:3: 125–7.

Ochert, Morris. “Dr. Fanny Reading v. Smith’s Weekly.AJHSJ 13:2 (June 1996) 308–342.

Ochert, Morris. “My Mother’s Folk in Russia, China, Australia, Canada and the USA.” AJHSJ 14:3 (November 1998): 406–416.

Porush, I. “Retrospect of a Century-Old Charity.” AJHSJ 2:2 (77–9).

Rosenberg, Louise. “A Rich Heritage: Colleen Rich and Her Family Circle in Australia Since 1853.” AJHSJ 12:4 (June 1995): 782–804.

Rosenberg, Louise. “A Jewish Pioneer Woman: Gwen Green.” AJHSJ, 15:2 (June 2000), 216–221.


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Esther Abrahams was a Jewish "first fleeter." She became the mistress and later the wife of Lt. George Jonston, an officer with the First Fleet who rose to the position of Lieutenant Governor of Australia.

Institution: Australian Jewish Historical Society.

How to cite this page

Rutland, Suzanne. "Australia: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 20, 2021) <>.


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