Of all the groups that have imprinted on life in Western Australia, few have become so thoroughly integrated into the fabric of the state as the Jewish community. Few too, have left such a profound and extended impact upon civic life here – an impact in huge disproportion to their numbers, which add up to just 8000, including ‘lapsed’ or non-practising Jews.
Jewish immigrants and their descendants left an indelible mark on virtually every avenue of life; from architecture and the arts to viticulture, from politics and local government to law, medicine, science and business. But their achievements have slipped by largely unnoticed, precisely because the Jewish community of WA is rather like bagels and lox: seamless yet integral. So much so that many consider the Jewish community in Perth to be the most integrated Jewish community in the whole of Australia, despite it being the Jewish arrived with the first English fleet in 1788, but didn’t make it out west at the start of the goldrush era.
They established the first formal Jewish congregation — the WA Congregation in 1887, and founded Fremantle’s iconic synagogue on the corner of South Terrace and Parry Street a few years later. Of a wider demographic shift, many members relocated to Perth and newer suburbs like Mt Lawley, so dwindling congregation merged with Perth’s congregation in 1908.
Today there are five synagogues scattered across Perth, but the Perth Hebrew Congregation is both the oldest – celebrating its 120th anniversary last year – and the largest. Since 1988, this orthodox congregation has been served by the ebullient and genial Rabbi David Freilich, the first Sydney-born Rabbi, who presides over a congregation that has become increasingly ethnically diverse in recent years, much like the rest of the state. In fact, had it not been for the large influx of newer immigrants to WA in recent years, notably South African Jewish immigrants, “the Perth Jewish community would have died out, because numbers were dropping. There’s no doubt they’ve brought a vibrancy to WA”, he states.
The pattern of integration and of giving back to the wider community was established by the earliest Jewish migrants to the State. It continued with the influx of those from the Pale of Settlement, the name given to the parts of Imperial Russia where Jews were forced to reside with little or no civic rights. Migration persisted into the 1940s with the arrival of European Jews fleeing the Holocaust and the ravages of war, and continues today with Jews arriving from all over the world, including the Caribbean, Asia and the Middle East.
“The Synagogue is like one big melting pot for all of these nationalities,” says Rabbi David. “They happen to have the Jewish religion, but like any other religion, people, of any other faith, come here and regard themselves as Australians. But Jewish people try and give as much of their talents as possible to the wider community in exchange for being accepted here”. Rabbi David, who was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia both for his service to the Jewish community and his indefatigable promotion of interfaith relations over the last 25 years, credits the patterns of infer-faith dialogue set up by Anglican, Catholic and church leaders in the earliest days of Perth with forging a largely harmonious state.
“Once in danger of dying out entirely, Perth’s Jewish population has grown into a small but vibrant community famed as the most integrated in all of Australia.”
– Bron Sibree
“The way in which the wider community accepts people from all walks of life, I think makes WA a special place, and it should be emulated by the rest of the world.”
– Rabbi David Freilich
“The Jewishness that I’m elated by, proud of and feel incredible privileged by, is about that wider human embrace.”
– Paula Silbert