Jewish links to Melbourne predate the city's official foundation. In 1835 John Batman wrote in his journal 'another mount ... this I have named Mount Solomon after Mr J. Solomon of Launceston'. Joseph Solomon, an emancipist, was a member of a company founded to explore the neighbourhood of Port Phillip and provided significant financial backing for the project. Melbourne's first brick building, on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth streets was inhabited by a 'brash Jewish merchant', Michael Cashmore. By 1841 the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation had established its first synagogue. From 1841 to 1850 the Jewish population increased from 57 to 200, most of them active in the city's commercial life, particularly the clothing trade.
The gold rush transformed the Jewish community as it did all other aspects of Melbourne life. By 1861 there were nearly 3000 Jews. Asher Hart, a leading member of the community, was particularly active as an opponent of the charging of a licence fee for digging, a major factor in the Eureka Stockade events. The main influx of Jews after 1850 was from Britain, and many required financial support from the existing community, resulting in the growth of Jewish philanthropic societies to assist the many impoverished immigrants and settlers. As many were male and unmarried, the problem of intermarriage became a matter of concern, and remains a major community issue.
Following the gold rush the Melbourne Jewish community grew in numbers and developed its institutional structures, including synagogues, rabbis, a religious legal body (Beth Din), philanthropic societies and, in 1871, the weekly Australian Israelite newspaper. Most Jews lived in Central Melbourne, but as the city grew some of the more prosperous moved to the suburbs, particularly St Kilda. Jews also became involved in public life. In 1860 Nathaniel Levi was elected as MLA for Maryborough; subsequently others, including Edward Cohen, Mayor of the City of Melbourne in 1862, were elected to the Victorian Parliament. The second half of the 19th century also saw the initiation of Jewish education. The Melbourne Hebrew School was a Jewish day school established in 1855 under the auspices of the Melbourne Hebrew Congregation, providing general and also Hebrew studies until 1895.
The domination of the Melbourne Jewish community by Jews from English-speaking backgrounds began to erode as migrants arrived from Poland in the 1920s and from Germany in the 1930s. Many settled and conducted businesses in Carlton, including the butcher shop from which the Smorgon business enterprises emerged. Polish Jews brought with them the culture and institutional structures of Polish Jewry, with an emphasis on the Yiddish language, Yiddish theatre and the socialist politics of the Bund. Much of it centred on the Kadimah Centre in Carlton, established in 1911. The Zionist movement, with its focus on Jewish nationalism and settlement in Palestine, also took root in Melbourne. The German Jews, middle-class and professional, brought with them Reform Judaism, originally a reaction to Jewish religious Orthodoxy, founding their own congregation in 1930.
The clash between the conservative Anglo-Jews and the growing attraction of Jews to Zionism was personified by Sir Isaac Isaacs, a former Victorian Attorney-General, Chief Justice of the High Court and the first Australian-born Governor-General, who vehemently opposed the Zionist cause. In contrast, Sir John Monash, born in West Melbourne, a descendant of German Jews and arguably Australia's most eminent soldier, became the first president of the Australian Zionist Federation. Isaacs and Monash have been the most prominent Jews in Melbourne's public life but many have been active in Melbourne's business and commercial life, in the arts, academia and culture, the professions, the judiciary and theatre. Most notable is Sir Zelman Cowen, University Vice-Chancellor and later Governor-General of Australia.
After World War II numerous survivors of the Holocaust built a new life in Melbourne, many originating from Hungary, Poland and Germany. This survivor community, much of it Yiddish-speaking, focused its energies on the building of a Holocaust Museum and Research Centre. Most recently the Melbourne Jewish community has been augmented by arrivals from South Africa and the former Soviet Union. By 2001 there were some 50 000 Jews in Melbourne, but this figure is probably an underestimate. While most Melbourne Jews are Ashkenazi, originating in Russia, Poland and Western Europe, there is now also a Sephardi community tracing its roots to Iraq, Egypt, Iberia and North Africa.
The demographic centre of Jewish life is now in the City of Glen Eira, where nearly half of Melbourne's Jews live. The community's umbrella body, the Jewish Community Council of Victoria, has representatives from synagogue groups, Zionist organisations, youth movements, philanthropic groups, cultural organisations and political movements. Some of these organisations are housed in a communal building in Caulfield, which also includes a Jewish communal library.
The major achievement of the Melbourne Jewish community has been the development of an articulated system of Jewish primary and secondary independent schools, enrolling a large percentage of Jewish children of school age. The schools broadly reflect the make-up of the Melbourne Jewish community, from the observant religious to the Yiddish-speaking secularist. The largest school, Mt Scopus College, is nominally Orthodox in religion, but many students come from non-observant homes. The schools have been particularly successful in terms of the secular education of their students, many of whom proceed to professional education in Melbourne's universities. Census data show the educational qualification level of the Jewish community to be disproportionately high.
In terms of religious affiliation the Melbourne community is diverse. Only 6 to 8% belong to the very visible strictly Orthodox groups. A large number (1 in 3) describe themselves as traditionally religious and 15% are affiliated to Reform Judaism. Many describe themselves as 'Jewish but not religious'. The vitality of the Melbourne Jewish community is reflected in its one remaining newspaper, the Australian Jewish News, with its many references to social and cultural functions, theatre performances, book launches, art shows and public lectures. The community's concerns centre on the issue of intermarriage and assimilation, both significant and seen as endangering its future.