It may be half a world away, but magnificent Sydney, Australia, in New South Wales, is worth the schlep. There are pristine beaches, a vibrant harbor proffering cruises, museums featuring everything from fine art to live koalas, restaurants, Aboriginals playing didgeridoo by the water, galleries, boutique hotels, a world-famous opera house, bars, a good quirk quotient, surfers, and safety. It's no wonder that wandering Jews have discovered it and left their imprint on the city.

A visit to the Sydney Jewish Museum is a great way to score bagels, fish balls and veggie soup Down Under, and find out the story behind the more than 100,000 Jews who populate Australia today.

Teddy Davis became the leader of a group of escaped cons called "The Jewboy Gang"The first Jews to arrive were about 1,000 convicts, who landed on the Aussie shores between 1788 and 1852. Few of them were violent criminals; most were shoemakers, tailors, watchmakers, grooms, ostrich-feather manufacturers, silk-glove makers. They had surnames like Abraham, Levy, Jacobs. One of the Abrahams, named Esther, was fifteen years old, pregnant, and sentenced to a seven year "transportation" to the colonies for stealing some lace. Her baby was born in jail, and she has since been dubbed "The First Lady of New South Wales." Another convict, named Teddy Davis, alias George Wilkinson, was sentenced to seven years because he pilfered a wooden till. He escaped four times, and became the leader of a group of escaped cons called "The Jewboy Gang." They terrorized people for two years and, in Robin Hood fashion, robbed the rich to help the poor.

The first recorded act of Jewish observance in Australia was the formation of a chevra kadisha, a burial society, in 1817, to ritually prepare bodies for burial. By 1848, on bustling George Street in Sydney, seventy Jews were in charge of businesses out of a population of 600. They were surgeons, jewelers, auctioneers, tobacconists, and one even owned a Temple of Fashions. The street is recreated inside the museum.

When Australian soldiers went to fight in the two World Wars, many Jews were among them, and the lobby of the museum lionizes them for their sacrifice and bravery.

Charles Aronson, the Marketing and Development Director of the Institution, says his family story is an iconic WWII tale of persecution, escape, ingenuity, pain, luck and resourcefulness.

"My family came from Amsterdam," he explains. His parents were captured by the Nazis and shipped out by train. "The train crashed, the doors burst open, and my parents ran out. People were shot all around them. Over seven months, they walked to Madrid –sleeping in fields and eating farm crops. My father also had some jewelry hidden in his shoe. After the war, they went back to find one of their two surviving relatives in Amsterdam. And then they left, to get away from the memories, because so many had died."

There were few countries who would accept people like Aronson's parents. They thought the U.S. had too many people, Canada was too cold, South Africa had racial problems, New Zealand was too far away, and Australia seemed to be the best choice. In fact, Australia attracted the largest group of survivors of any country except Israel. Today, there are about 40,000 Jews in Sydney; most of them are of Ashkenazi descent, and they have the highest percentage of Hebrew day school attendance in the world.

The Jewish population has excelled at the highest levels of science, military, arts and politicsAronson says there are liberal and Orthodox communities in Sydney, but no Conservative congregation. Chabad also has a strong presence. The two biggest synagogues are the Great Synagogue (a Victorian World Heritage building) and the Central Synagogue, but there are also a lot of little synagogues. "I recently counted seventeen in an eight-mile radius," says Aronson proudly. There is major outreach on college campuses throughout New South Wales, provided by the Shalom Institute, an extensive adult education program, an old age home, five Jewish day schools, and Jewish welfare organizations. There are a few kosher cafes and restaurants in the affluent Eastern suburbs of Sydney.

The Sydney Jewish Museum has recreated the façades of old George Street during its heyday as a center of Jewish-owned commerce.
The Sydney Jewish Museum has recreated the façades of old George Street during its heyday as a center of Jewish-owned commerce.
"We have a very active and homogenous community," Aronson claims. "For consecrations and memorials, all the rabbis and populace get together."

The upper levels of the museum contain complex, moving exhibits and photos about the Holocaust. There are video clips of survivors telling their stories, and a special memorial dedicated to the children, where dripping water represents the sound of their tears.

Throughout the museum are testimonies about how welcoming and supportive Australia has been to its Jewish population, and how the latter has risen and excelled at the highest levels of science, military, arts and politics. In recent years, however, there have been incidents of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. As proponents of social justice and human rights, Jewish groups have condemned any generalized backlash against Australian Arabs and the vilification of Muslims.

Among Australian legislators, the Federal House of Representatives, the Federal Senate and the parliaments of the largest states have adopted resolutions condemning anti-Semitism. Officially, the support of Jews Down Under is unwavering.

Before leaving the museum, check out the gift shop. There are skullcaps emblazoned with 'roos and Aboriginal themes, and other unusual and place-specific Judaica. They are apt reminders of the creativity, intelligence and pluck that Jews have contributed to the fabric of Australian life.

There are skullcaps emblazoned with 'roos and Aboriginal themesBefore I left Sydney, I wanted to find out more about Chabad, and I contacted Rabbi Eli Feldman. He proudly told me that in 1968, the Lubavitcher Rebbe sent his parents, Rabbi Pinchus and Rebbetzin Pnina Feldman, to establish Chabad in Sydney. Since then, Chabad has grown and blossomed and there are now more than twenty Chabad centers and institutions in various parts of the city with a wide-range of spiritual, educational and humanitarian programs. They cater to Jews and non-Jews from all walks of life and currently service more than 40,000 people annually throughout Sydney and across the State of New South Wales. One of their most popular Aussie-flavored programs is "Our Big Kitchen" where groups of people come and cook and the food distributed to the needy.

The Sydney Jewish Museum gift shop features some uniquely Aussie souvenirs, including plush toy animals wearing yarmelkas.
The Sydney Jewish Museum gift shop features some uniquely Aussie souvenirs, including plush toy animals wearing yarmelkas.
Rabbi Feldman affirmed that there is a lot of collaboration between the Jewish groups in his city. "A sad but inspiring example of the collaboration was evident late last year when thousands of people attended the memorial service for the terror victims, including Chabad's representatives in Mumbai, which was held at the Yeshiva Centre-Chabad NSW Headquarters. That event was co-sponsored by every single major Jewish organization in Sydney!" he said.

"Chabad has changed the face of Sydney Jewry in the past forty years for the better," the rabbi reported. "Today, a majority of the rabbis in all synagogues across Sydney are from Chabad. The Kashrut Authority was established jointly between Chabad and the Sydney Beth Din, which itself now has numerous Chabad Rabbis. All aspects of Sydney Jewry have been impacted and continue to work hand in hand with Chabad."

This sounds like a model for cooperation among Jews in other cities, and beautiful Sydney, Australia is paving the way.