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Jews Down Under are on the rise, but for how long?

Australian Jewry is growing fast: the group has increased by almost 10 percent in the last five years. The latest census puts the population of Ozzie Jews at just shy of 100,000, following persuasion by community leaders to identify their religion in a national census. Yet the continuity of this thriving Jewish community at the edge of the Diaspora is at risk.
Two recent sets of data shed a light on the bittersweet trends: Last week the the Australian Bureau of Statistics released 5-yearly census data, revealing that 97,335 Australians had ticked the box marked “Jewish” for religion – a quantum leap on the 2006 figures. The second is a landmark study of the Australian Jewish community, which suggests the mid-term outlook may not be so rosy.

The Sydney Opera House, an icon of Australia - which now has the ninth-largest Jewish community in the world.
Photo by AP

It’s somewhat surprising how much the Jewish community in Australia has grown, remarked Professor Andrew Markus, who spearheaded the Jewish study from his base at Monash University in Melbourne. But the unofficial number of Australian Jews, the vast majority of whom live in Melbourne and Sydney, is higher still, said Markus, who estimated the actual population could be 115,000. Some believe it could even number up to 125,000.

Australia is now the ninth-largest Jewish community in the world based on the Hebrew University demographer Sergio Della Pergola’s 2010 world Jewish population report. Australia, an island on the edge of the Diaspora comprising large sub-communities of immigrants from South Africa, the former Soviet Union and Israel, is also the largest Jewish community east of Israel.

Less proliferation and more PR?

But Peter Wertheim, executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said the spike in Jewish numbers could be the result of a successful publicity campaign rather than a baby boom or an influx of new immigrants. The Jewish community, he said, had launched a drive to encourage their population to answer the question on religion, the only census question that is not mandatory. “It is counter-intuitive to conclude that the Jewish population increased as dramatically over the last five years as the raw census figures might suggest, especially as there was no noticeable wave of Jewish immigration to Australia during that period,” he said.

If indeed more Jews identified themselves on the census, Markus said it would support his data, which found that 80-90 percent of respondents said their Jewishness was an important characteristic. “It’s not a brand people want to shun anymore,” he explained, “whereas 50 or so years ago people were very diffident about acknowledging it.” But regardless of what is behind the spike in statistics, or what the true figure is, Markus and his researchers from Sydney and Melbourne cited several factors to corroborate their warning of “significant risks” to Jewish continuity in the mid-term.

Spiraling cost of Jewish schools

First, the cost of Jewish school, which can amount to more than $15,000 per child per year, is exorbitant. Thirty percent of parents with children under 21 said that these spiraling costs have prevented them from sending a child to a Jewish school. Second, Australian Jewry is ageing faster than other communities because the period of the baby boomer generation coincided with mass immigration to Australia. The survey predicted that by 2020 the over-65 sector of the community would increase by 28 percent. Third, intermarriage is on the rise, with a 30 percent rate registered across the age groups in Melbourne in 2006; in Sydney, 45 percent of marriages between 25-29-year-olds involved a partner who is not Jewish, according to the survey.

Fourth, immigration has slowed

Before World War II, Australian Jewry was, according to veteran community leader Isi Leibler, “a decaying Anglo-Jewish outpost.” But the mass influx of post-war Holocaust survivors from Europe virtually doubled the size of the Jewish community, to more than 50,000 by 1961. Then came the waves of Jewish immigrants from South Africa and the former Soviet Union. Markus estimates that today’s Jewish community roughly comprises up to 15,000 immigrants from South Africa with a slightly smaller number from the former Soviet Union.

But his Gen08 survey, which was “one of the largest surveys conducted in the Diaspora,” he says, with about 6,000 Jews responding in 2008 and 2009, concluded that “there has been an upward trend of immigration from Israel in recent years” although it is “the unknown factor.” One of Markus's doctoral students, Ran Porat, an Israeli expat who is writing his thesis on the Israeli community in Australia, told Haaretz this week there are some 15,000 Israelis living Down Under.

“In the last 10 years the numbers have doubled,” Porat said, suggesting a confluence of economics, security and lifestyle reasons to explain the rise.
Markus said the mass influx of Israelis was also part of the globalization of the labor market. “I see it more an issue of Israel becoming a normal player in the international labor market. Their skills are in demand and to get into Australia you have to have skills,” he said.

Israelis are, according to Porat, a “separate group” that, along with immigrants from the former Soviet Union, are “the least connected to the Jewish community.” That may help explain why it has had its own Hebrew-language bi-monthly magazine, titled “E-ton,” for the last seven years. Hillaly Kimche, who arrived in Melbourne from Petah Tikva 17 years ago and co-founded the magazine, told Haaretz this week, says, “There is no other organization or group that connects all the Israelis in Australia.”

Australian Jewry represents just 0.5 percent of Australia’s population of 21.5 million, as opposed to the Muslim community, whose numbers rose nearly 40 percent in the last five years, to 476,291. Like the Jews, Islamic leaders believe that the actual figure is even higher, because many Muslims are also hesitant to disclose their religion on a census.

By Dan Goldberg