The National Council of Jewish Women of Australia is the pre-eminent Jewish women's organization in Australia. Started in 1921 in Sydney as The Council of Jewish Women by Dr. Fanny Reading MBE, a General Medical Practitioner practising in Kings Cross, she based it upon the pillars of Judaism, 'Tikkun Olam': phylantropy, Jewish education,helping Jews locally and in (then) Palestine, serving the less fortunate in the community and social interaction.
As word spread to other fledgling Jewish communities around Australia, their women wanted to start similar groups and before long Council groups were being formed everywhere,- from Brisbane to Perth. Victoria's and Melbourne's Council of Jewish Women was formed in '27 and by 1928, a national body was formed,the NATIONAL COUNCIL OF JEWISH WOMEN OF AUSTRALIA.
My involvement with NCJW started in Melbourne in 1965, when I was a new mum at home with my baby son Gary.
Having been used to a scientific career as a biochemist (B.Sc., M.Sc. Melb.) involved in research at the Royal Children's Hospital until then, it was difficult to adjust to the routine of baby and housework on a day-to-day basis. I made a decision to look for voluntary work where I could take the baby along with me. By coincidence, a friend of mine, (the late) Sylvia Irlicht had been asked by her mother who was involved during Gertie Bartak's term as Vic.NCJW president, to start a young-marrieds group and she rang a few friends to come around to discuss the idea. I knew little about this organization, but it seemed to suit all my needs and my interests at the time.
Firstly, it provided opportunities for volunteering as they were running senior citizens' clubs for Jewish elderly newcomers to Australia. The clubs were run in the Jewish Welfare House in Punt Rd., South Yarra, at the time and the elderly had to come from as far away as Carlton and Brunswick, as well as from the Southern suburbs of St. Kilda and Caulfield. Transporting was done by volunteer drivers, so this gave me an opportunity to offer my services immediately, with baby in his basket on the backseat.
We were mainly fairly 'new Australians' in this new group which we dubbed "The Offshoots", as well as being young marrieds still trying to establish ourselves. We did not have much money to do much philantropy but we could volunteer to help the seniors who were busily fundraising. For example, we helped out at 'market fairs', i.e.collecting goods to sell once a year at Melbourne's Lower Town Hall. This was a huge undertaking held over 2 days, with women selling and also preparing traditional Jewish foods to sell and serve at lunchtime. Its organization took well over 6 months to fill the hall with sufficient goods to make the exercise a profitable affair and all of us had to do the rounds of factories and warehouses to collect the donated goods. Moneys raised had to cover the Council's running expenses as well as supporting various projects which NCJWA nationally adopted at their triennial conferences.
These projects were local Jewish and community-wide like the Red Cross Appeal,as well as in Israel,- giving traditional support for the Jewish National Fund (JNF),plus a centre for children with cerebral palsy in Tel Aviv (ILAN) and various other smaller institutions which beckoned to us from near and far.Eventually the Market Fair became more of a burden as cheap goods started to flood into the country from Asia and our type of fairs became redundant.
The 1960s were the years of 'women's liberation' and NCJW joined other women's groups in the fight for gender equality in all walks of life. We were affiliated with the National Council of Women of Victoria and Australia and internationally with the International Council of Jewish Women,(ICJW), which in turn was affiliated with the International Council of Women (ICW). Both ICJW and ICW are accredited as NGOs at UNESCO and the UN Commission on the Status of Women and many other UN Agencies. Our senior National leaders were right up there joining in the fight for improving the Status of Women and I as a young woman relished joining in with them.
Locally in the Jewish Community, we were affiliated with the Jewish Board of Deputies (now JCCV) and nationally with the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ).These were definitely still male dominated bastions of the rich and powerful in our community and we of the Women's Organizations were seen as just small-time fundraisers,- not qualified to be part of the decision-making hierachies.As I took on various leadership positions in our and other communal organizations, I made sure that neither I nor the women's leaders or our groups would be delegated to lesser roles within those bodies than the males' ones.
The 60's and '70s were difficult times,- 1967 and the pre-emptive '6-day war' in Israel created much anxiety in our Jewish communities and then absolute pride in Israel's achievement in withstanding and averting an onslaught of all those massive Arab forces arraigned against her. Israel, a tiny nation surrounded by a quarter of a billion hostile Arabs in neighbouring states was and still is so vulnerable.
The fundraising for Israeli causes had to continue at a frenetic pace, with competitions organised between the women's groups to see who could raise more money as e.g. during Queen competitions for the JNF, when young woman would be crowned Queen for the year with a trip to Israel as a prize.
(The largest Zionist women's group WIZO, keenly competed with us to ensure that NCJWA Vic. would not be the winner! These were socially very tiring but also much fun for the younger members in the community!)
The 'cold war' between the West and communist Russia and its satellite countries in Eastern Europe meant that a million or more Jews were trapped there behind the 'iron curtain' snd who desperately wanted to get out. A 'Let my People Go'(to Israel) campaign was initiated by the Jewish students who started to publicly demonstrate in Melbourne and other capital cities. We, the women of NCJW and our sister organizations in Melbourne were the first adult communal bodies to support them with our own demonstration in the City Square.Passers-by sometimes abused us and I was even spat-upon,- but we started the adults' campaign begun by Isi Leibler which successfully terminated when the 'iron curtain' parted and the floodgates opened. The wonderful alyah of Soviet Jewry which poured into the land of Israel, helped in the development of the still struggling nation.
NCJWA fitted in perfectly with my personal needs and interests during all this time, because all my intersts were catered for under the one organizational umbrella. By the time my second child arrived on the scene in '68, our daughter Hedy, while still also working part time at the Pharmacy College and studying there for a while towards a pharmacy degree (which I did not finish, choosing instead to reenter my clinical-biochemistry profession in the area of endocrinological research at the Alfred Hospital and Monash Uni. until '75),- I was invited to be the Hon. Secretary for the newly installed National President, (the late) Mina Fink MBE.
Until then, NCJWA had only had 2 national leaders,- Dr. Fanny, as she was known, for the first 30 years and then as the NCJWA Life President, followed by her Hon. Sec., Vera Cohen MBE for 12 years,(then Life President) both in Sydney. Mina Fink was to be the first national leader in Melbourne and we had to set up an office with part-time secretary and a Board of Management. Until this time, the organization at the national level was run purely in a voluntary capacity. In the early days, there were plenty of intelligent women who had the time and the means to work voluntarily in the community, but by the time Mina Fink took over the leadership, she recognised that the younger generation of women were now more educated and wanted, as well as needed to work and the pool of skilled volunteers would eventually dry up.
In addition, until then, the communal leadership of both men and women was limited to the rich and powerful,- for women it meant that their husbands had to belong to that 'upper' class! Mina understood that the younger 'new woman' was an independent entity who would be a professional just like the male leadership and therefore she could not devote her full time to running a women's organizations as her predecessors might have done. Therefore, funds had to be retained from those raised for projects, to cater also for our own administration with professionals employed, social workers and others to fulfil our programs and agenda in the service of women and the community.
Mina's husband Leo had been a stalwart in the Jewish community during and after WW2. He was known as someone who had numerous 'cousins', obtaining permits to bring many Holocaust survivors from Europe, sponsoring them with the support of the Labour Party's Arthur Calwell at the time and then helping to resettle them in Melbourne. Dr. Reading was doing similar work in Sydney and Mina Fink was the doyen of the Jewish welfare services in Melbourne. The Fink family ran carpet mills in Victoria and set up similar factories in Israel to help industrialize the new State. Consequently they travelled extensively and Mina became involved with the International Council of Jewish Women as soon as it was re-established after WW2. She attended all their triennial conferences when she could, but when her husband became ill, she relinquished her right as National President to attend the 1972 Convention in Toronto Canada and instead sponsored me and the then Vice President, Ray Ginsburg of Sydney to represent NCJWA.
I arranged to take a round-the-world ticket via Israel, took our 2 children to visit their grandparents for the first time in Israel, then returned via Toronto while my husband who had followed me later, took them back to Australia. These were very dangerous times,- the Sabena airliner was hijacked and was parked at the Tel Aviv airport with tense negotiations to release the passengers taking place as my family was preparing to fly out from there.It was my first trip overseas alone and it was very stressful until I saw them all safely home.
However, I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience of the Convention. The international women whom I met for the first time were all very 'high-powered', elegant, well-to-do and very well-connected in their own communities. But since ICJW's affiliates were like NCJWA, involved in voluntary community services, those leaders were totally 'professional' volunteers! Unlike simple philantropists who could be rather snobbish about who-is-who socially, I found them totally without airs or graces and wholly committed to making a difference to women,whether for Jewish women within religious communities where they were disadvantaged,- or for Jews in Israel or to those who were disadvantaged or discriminated against as in the Soviet Union at the time. It was at that time that I became totally committed to the work and ideals of our organization,- because I recognized it as belonging to a million or so women and people who were 'of heart'spread throughout the world!
At that stage in Toronto, at our president's urging, we lobbied to bring the next Convention to Australia. This would be the first ever international gathering in the Australian Jewish community,- in fact there had not been any international gathering of note in Australia at all up to that point! I published an in-house newsletter promoting Australia as the next hosting Affiliate and it was accepted unanimously. Then followed 3 years of frenetic preparations for this event.
Mina Fink stepped down as National President and installed her favourite new recruit to the National Board,- Sylvia Gelman MBE AM whom she had invited to edit the Council Bulletin. (Sylvia was targeted by Mina to join her Board as soon as she heard that Mrs. Gelman was retiring from her position as Senior Mistress at Mount Scopus College). Mina was then free to take on the Convention Chairmanship and I,at age 36, was duly elected State President at the time because of the sudden resignation of the then president,(the late) Betty Zmmood.
By then I had also decided to take a break from the full-time and demanding responsibilities of my professional career at the Diabetic and Metabolic Unit at the Alfred Hospital, working on clinical research into thyroid function, particularly in pregnancy,- Dora Winnikoff's specialty. She was introduced to NCJWA by me and she strted the Lillith Group for Council in Melbourne.)
It was 1975 when we held that Convention which has gone down in the history of ICJW,- and I think of our Jewish community in Australia,- as the most successful event ever held up to (and since) then. With Mina's sister-in-law, (the late) Sadie Fink as fundraising Chairman,- we were able not only to cover our expenses, but also to have a tidy sum left over to put a deposit on our very first Council House,- in Westbury Street, St. Kilda.
The VIP guest list for the Opening Dinner in the Great Hall at the National Gallery of Victoria included everyonw from the then Governor General,Kerr, to the main Federal and State Ministers and Victorian Premier as well as our major Jewish leadership. The Gallery with the help of Zelda Rozenbaum, also set up an exhibition of Judaica in the ground floor gallery.
The modest Council House we purchased needed to be extended and we wanted to have it paid off as soon as possible. Getting Tax Deductability was of prime importance for our prospective donors to help us. I lobbied the Taxation Department,- and with the help of a bureaucrat on whose shoulders I cried about our 'little old ladies' who needed somewhere to meet, he called me into the taxation offices and passed on to me (furtively) a copy of a charitable Foundation deed and sent me away. Justice Judith Cohen then took it in hand for us and we established the NCJW Foundation, inviting Mina Fink MBE to be its Founder. With 3 otherTrustees in addition to Judith Cohen, eminent judges and academics as our founding Trustees, it took us another ten years, until with the help of the Foundation and Sadie Fink again, plus the wonderful Annia Castan of the Smorgon family, we were able to purchase NCJWA Vic.'s current premises in Caulfield.
During my years as Chairman of the Offshoots, plus as National Hon. Sec., then as State President, I enlisted the help of all my (then young) friends and many have stayed on as members of NCJW with me. In addition, through the various programs we instituted, many of the professional women in the community joined our ranks and helped us in the areas of education, Soviet Jewry campaign (Danielle Charak, Nina Bassat, Susie Balint). On one occasion, we even had an eminent Dr.donning jeans and T-shirt to front up at a meeting of Left-wing lesbians who were debating Israel; we fought much Left wing anti-Zionist, which was really anti-Semitic bias (nothing has changed!) within the International Women's Movement by inviting them to visit Council to discuss the issues which concerned us;the UN International Women's Year declared Zionism is racism in Mexico City and we had to fight it wherever we could at the following international fora every 5 years afterwards. Our non-Jewish coleagues at NCWAV were very supportive as was our Government, but the Jewish community mostly ignored the "UN shmuen' as they used to call it! Eventually they all woke up to the reality that something needed to be done and then they got onto the bandwaggon to have this resolution rescinded!
I had to take over the State Presidency a second time when President (the late) Essie Wieselman,- previously our long-serving Community Services Chairman,- resigned to return to concentrate on her favourite area of CS. Susie Balint showed leadership talents as Chairman of our (renamed)Young Council Women's group and after granting her a Fanny Reading Scholarship for young leaders to attend National Conferences,- she accepted the State Presidency and so I was relieved for a couple of years from leadership duties. I was of course still fully involved in the area of National Status of Women, ICJW Executive member as Resolutions and By Laws Chair and in whatever capacity I was needed.
Privately I started a Health Foods business with my sister-in-law in Hampton. These were great times for us, with our teenage children helping out in the shop for pocket money at weekends,- but because Gloria also had a new baby by then who needed her attention, after 2 years we gave up that venture and I was elected National President at the 1985 Triennial Conference in Sydney, when Ray Ginsburg (AM) stepped down.
Immediately afterwards I was fortunate to be invited by the president of the China-Australia Friendship Society(at the suggestion of his friend Mina Fink!)to join in a 10-person mission to China as guests of the Chinese Government,-supposedly representing Victorian women,- but in fact I was the first Jewish-Zionist to be accepted by the Chinese Government,- quite soon after they emerged from the Cultural Revolution! We paid for ourselves to get there, but while in China we were hosted and feted everywhere by the Chinese officialdom. On our return, the Chinese Ambassador apparently received protests from the local Palestinian representative for accepting me,- a Zionist, as a representative of the women of Victoria! I was indeed the first Jewish representative accepted in China, much to the envy of our communal leadership who immediately arranged to follow suit with a delegation of Jewish businessmen organised by Isi Leibler and Jetset!
Thinking about other highlights of my presidency, I would put the sponsorship of an Israeli wheelchair basketball team to the international championships being held in Melbourne, in the late eighties as my most gratifying and successful experience. It was an undertaking which at first frightened me, but as soon as I formed an enthusiastic community taskforce, I knew we could do it. The team of disabled athletes were hosted and feted by our community through NCJWA and we not only raised sufficient money for hosting them, but also sent them home with an extra $50,000. for their Centre in Israel. (We had to host or refuse many similar requests for years afterwards!)
Another highlight I remember with fondness was the visit by the then ICJW President,(the late) Mme. Stella Rozan of Paris for our Triennial Conference in Melbourne in 1988. She was absolutely charming and again,as another first in our community, we arranged for the Victorian Governor not only to meet her, but also to host more than 100 of our VIP guests, delegates and partners to a cocktail party at Government House.
Stella Rozan( who passed away shortly after we visited her again 2009) became a dear friend of ours and whenever we visited Paris even decades later, she hosted us magnificently,- something that we were fortunate to enjoy all over the world wherever our ICJW friends lived and whenever we happened to visit them. We have made many dear friends during my years of involvemnt in ICJW affairs and I was honoured to be elected an Honorary Life Member of the Executive at the Convention in Montevideo in 2006.
My National Presidency finished in 1991,- and I was fortiunate to step down on a 'high'! I received the honour of an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) thanks to my coleagues nominating me while still in Brisbane on the Queen's Birthday weekend. That Conference in Brisbane,had as the Guest Speaker at the Closing Dinner none other than the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Quentin Bryce, who is now the Governor General of Australia. I instituted the "Woman of Achievement Award" to be presented to any woman of note and the first recipient was Justice Elizabeth Evatt ( daughter of, for us,that famous Doc. Evatt who as Foreign Minister at the time of the vote at the UN helped to ensure Israel's independence.)Elizabeth Evatt headed at this time the Government Inquiry into Multiculturalism and Family Law and we had put in a submission which was contrary to the one proposed by the ECAJ,-re not granting a civil divorce conditional upon the woman receiving first the Gett (Jewish divorce). (The late) Dr. Geulah Solomon OAM, then our Status of Women Chairperson was adamnant that we need to solve the problems of the agunot ( chained women) within Jewish Law, otherwise some women may be doubly disadvantaged through recalcitrant husbands!In addition, we did not think that it was wise to set a precedent to allow religious laws to interfere with civil laws!
In general,I was fortunate to have a group of highly skilled and intelligent women on the National Board during my term in office,. Apart from Geulah Solomon, Rysia Rozen (now National president) was the secretary, while a young Susie Ivany( IPP Vic.)was my National Hon. Secretary. I invited a businesswoman to be our Nat. Hon. Treasurer, Bina Best, who with Sylvia Gelman, Danielle Charak, Nina Bassat in Victoria, plus the then much younger and very active leaderships in the other Sections, we were the 'movers and shakers' in the Australian Jewish Community and beyond. Sylvia had also been the NCW Vic. president (followed much later also by Rysia) and was even invited onto the Board of the YWCA (Young Christian Women Association); Geulah, a former Women's Studies lecturer at University helped to prepare many NCJWA submissions to Government Inquiries, then went on to take State and later the National presidencies of NCJWA. Nina Bassat, a lawyer, later went on to become the President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. Danielle Charak chair of our Jewish Education committee, was and still is an eminent educator and Yiddish lecturer.But it was the support and encouragement of our senior mentors, particularly the indomitable Vera Cohen MBE and the dedicated Sydney team who were dedicated followers of Dr. Fanny and devoted to Council that made my leadership term such a pleasure. Ray Ginsburg AM, at age 102 is still interested in NCJWA's news to this day. Longevity seems to be the bonus benefit for NCJWA leadership and involvement!
After stepping down from the Presidency, I became involved at the communal level. The JCCV was in financial and leadership difficulties. I was able to deflect some dire financial problems, was elected as Vice President and was in line for the Presidency, but Ernie stepped in and drew the line at my taking on such an onerous task among all the male hierarchy!Instead I enjoyed our Council friendships while assisting the following leaders of NCJWA, particularly during Geulah Solomon's Presidency.
Now as a Life Governor of NCJWA,- an honour I originally instituted for our long-serving national leaders in order to retain their interest and experience to mentor future leaders,- I am happy to step back and enjoy 'reaping what I have sowed'. Like a parent, I have learnt to let the new generations make their own mistakes, while still keeping loose theoretical 'reins' which I sometimes have to rein-in when called upon to do so.
Everyone seems to call on Malvina from far and wide when danger looms to help out!I have broad shoulders on which to cry, while problem solving is my forte.Vera Cohen taught me the 'power of one' available to us oldies. While well in her eighties, she had no trouble convening an 'extraordinary general meeting' of NCJWA NSW members to save the 'Dr. Fanny Reading Council House' in Sydney from a proposed merger with Jewish Welfare that the then Section leadership was contemplating. Several hundred members turned up and she won the vote and saved Dr. Fanny's legacy for NCJW.
This caused the leaders to do some lateral thinking and it was up to Zara Young OAM to work with a builder to develop shops under the hall in the prime position on Queen Street Woollahra.
I hope never to have to resort to such drastic actions in the future, but if I had to,- I hope I would still have the energy to do so!