During the 19th century there were denominational Jewish schools in both Melbourne and Sydney, but with the introduction of free, secular education in the 1870s and 1880s, these schools closed.
It was only with the arrival of Jewish refugees in the late 1930s and of Holocaust survivors in the immediate post-war period that Jewish schools were re-established. Moriah College in Sydney the first Jewish day school, was established in 1942, at the height of the Shoah. With close to 1,800 students today, Moriah is the largest of the 17 Jewish schools in Australia.
Currently, there are Jewish Schools in Melbourne (8), Sydney (6), Perth, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The Jewish school in Adelaide recently closed because of the dwindling Jewish population there. Although Jewish school enrollment rates are among the highest in the world, participation is declining largely due to rising school fees.24 In 2011, the percentage was 64.4 in Victoria, 52.3 in New South Wales and 30.6 elsewhere.
These high percentages are due to the post-war migration, particularly from Poland, and reinforced by South African migration. Increased government multiculturalism subsidies have also played a part.25 But the high academic results Jewish schools achieve is perhaps the most convincing factor. Today, as the demographic data has demonstrated, some parents are choosing to only send their children to a Jewish high school, because they cannot fund a full 13 years of a Jewish day school education.
A declared aim of Australian Jewry is that no child should be denied a Jewish education because of affordability. Nevertheless, Jewish schools are beyond the financial means of some families.26 The government does provide some financial assistance to private schools. The Australian Council of Jewish Schools was formed to interface with the government. This has resulted in a more effective Jewish representation to the government, but has not resolved the financial challenges. In addition, the schools themselves provide subsidies for Jewish families in the lower socio-economic brackets.
Apart from the financial issues, Jewish schools are also facing an intergenerational challenge. Until recently, the Holocaust was a major component in maintaining Jewish identity.27 For many Jewish people, the establishment and maintenance of Jewish schools in the post-war era was consciously connected with Holocaust memory: the construction of a thriving, new Jewish generation in Australia was considered compensation for the loss of so many family members in Europe.28 Sixty years on, Australian Jewry is facing a turning point. The Holocaust generation is gradually passing away and school children are members of the third and even fourth generation. The belief in maintaining Jewish identity as a response to the Holocaust is no longer a sine qua non. The Australian Jewish community is facing a transitional, generational challenge with an increase in assimilation into the general community and a decrease in the percentage of Jewish children enrolled in Jewish day schools in both Melbourne and Sydney.
A recent study by Gross and Rutland found that that there is an incongruity between what the adult community defines as the central components of Jewish and religious identity, which are more particularistic, and the perspectives of Jewish youth, which are more universalistic. Due to these intergenerational changes, Hebrew teaching and learning is problematic and, while the students express a love of Israel, they are more critical and see such criticism as positive. Gross and Rutland have argued that a constructivist approach to Jewish education is required, combined with local teacher education programs and more effective professional development.29
In addition to the day schools, the Zionist youth movements are also still active in Australia. The Reform Zionist youth movement, Netzer, and Hineini, a Modern Orthodox Zionist youth movement, have emerged in Australia. There are a number of different Israel experience programs offered for both high school students, as well as the post-school Birthright programs, resulting in a very high proportion of young Jewish Australians having visited Israel, often more than once.
The GEN08 study found that Jewish day schools on their own do not inculcate a strong Jewish identity in adults. Rather, a combination of strong family background, day school education, youth movement involvement, and visits to Israel are the best predictors for ongoing Jewish commitment into adulthood.30