When the American colonies revolted in 1776, England lost its biggest prison – convicts were routinely shipped to the thirteen colonies to make room in the perpetually crowded British jails. As a result, England annexed the island of Australia in 1788 as a new prison colony. While Australia had been known to Europeans since its discovery in the sixteenth century, the English were the first to settle there on a permanent basis, aside from the native Aboriginal population.
Among the 1,500 first prisoners - called the First Fleet - were 16 Jews. By 1817, new arrivals and freed prisoners organized a community and cemetery. More people came from England and Germany and they formed synagogues and community institutions in Sydney and Melbourne. Sydney's Great Synagogue was built in 1878. Before that the congregation met in houses and shops until the first synagogue was built in 1844. Other synagogues were formed in Hobart (1845), Launceston (1846), Melbourne (1847) and Adelaide (1850).
The 1850s gold rush attracted even more Jews who settled in rural locations, although many came to the cities by the end of the century.
According to the site, Australia "remains to this day the only country in the world, other than Israel, whose founding members included Jews. As a result, Jews were treated as equal citizens from the outset." They fully participated in economic, political and cultural life, and the 19th century saw its members serve as Melbourne's mayor, South Australia's premier, House of Representatives' speaker, and Parliament's speaker.
Most are Ashkenazi, but there was a small Sephardic community in the 19th century that disbanded in 1873, but has been revitalized in the 20th century. Waves of immigrants in the late 19th-early 20th centuries included Russian and Polish pogrom refugees, another wave following World War I and then when Hitler came to power in 1933.
Today, some 120,000 Jews live among a total population of more than 20 million. It is the largest community in the East Asian Pacific region. While 80 percent of the community lives almost equally split between Melbourne and Sydney, there are other communities elsewhere. The country boasts 81 synagogues and 18 day schools (more than 50 percent of Jewish students attend Jewish schools), several newspapers and periodicals, Jewish museums and libraries, cultural centers and clubs, kosher restaurants.
Of course, there are several branches of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Australia in Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and elsewhere.
For more information, visit The Great Synagogue and The Melbourne Hebrew Congregation