By Daniel S. Mariaschin
Executive Vice President, B’nai B’rith International
This past August, I had the opportunity to travel to Australia and once again to connect with its vibrant, active Jewish community.
I was invited by the Gandel Foundation, in cooperation with Australia’s B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission (ADC), to deliver its annual oration in both Melbourne and Sydney. My topic: “The Evil of Modern Anti-Semitism and the Forces Behind It,” a subject very much on our minds, as we’ve seen over the past decade a tremendous rise in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity on a global scale.
I was warmly welcomed in both cities by leaders of the Jewish community, including our own B’nai B’rith leadership. Sincere thanks go to my colleague, Dvir Abramovich, chair of the ADC, who organized my entire visit. A special tip of the hat goes to Janice Huppert, James Altman and Anna Marks of B’nai B’rith Australia, who hosted events, and to Morris Tobias, the District 21 president, who, though on vacation at the time, kept in touch with me during the duration of my stay Down Under.
I’m especially grateful to the benefactors of the Gandel Foundation, John and Pauline Gandel, for both their hospitality and their devotion to the community and to the State of Israel. When we speak about international Jewish leadership, the Gandels are indeed among its pillars.
The Australian Jewish community numbers about 150,000. In Melbourne, we stayed in the St. Kilda neighborhood, the center of the city’s Jewish life, with synagogues, as well as kosher bakeries, cafes and butchers, all within walking distance. Sydney’s Jewish population is slightly larger than Melbourne’s and has the same intensity and variety of community activity.
In Melbourne, I addressed students at two Jewish day schools, Mt. Scopus Memorial College and Bialik College. I found a close identification with Israel among the young people I met. We also toured the Holocaust Museum and Research Center, accompanied by both the director and a Holocaust survivor. It is an impressive institution, highlighting not only the tragic events of the Shoah, but also the relatively large community of survivors who located in the city after the war.
Abramovich also arranged a series of meetings with a number of Australian political figures. The country has been a stalwart friend of Israel under a succession of governments. I was privileged to meet with two former prime ministers—Bob Hawke and John Howard—who both vocally supported free emigration for Soviet Jews and maintained excellent relations with Israel.
Indeed, in 2006, B’nai B’rith International presented Howard with its Presidential Gold Medallion at a ceremony at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
I was especially fortunate to have spent time with Michael Danby, a member of the national parliament, and with David Southwick, who sits in the Victoria (the state that includes Melbourne) parliament, and colleagues of theirs, with whom we discussed a wide range of issues. I also had the chance to tour the magnificent Victoria Parliament House, whose initial construction dates to the 1850s.
The ADC does tremendously important work fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination and works to advance interreligious relations. It enjoys tremendous respect both inside and outside the community, evident to me by the high level and varied meetings and programs in which I participated.
So, too, for our local B’nai B’rith, which is deeply involved in programs that touch so many, including seniors and Holocaust survivors. We’re proud that they are a vital part of our B’nai B’rith family.
Australia is a beautiful country that, perhaps, is reflected in the exceedingly warm hospitality we experienced and in the friendship of so many to Israel and the Jewish people. I was reminded once again, as well, of the Hebrew phrase Kol Yisrael Chaverim, “All of Israel are friends” as I went from meeting to meeting. Thousands of miles may separate us, but being Jewish and supporting Israel are a state of mind that transcends borders.
I left the country thinking of the young people at the day schools in Melbourne. When I asked how many had already been to Israel, most hands shot up. They are the future of Australian Jewry—and ours. We returned hopeful—and encouraged.