First Nations and Jewish Australians working together

Many Jewish Australians have worked alongside First Nations Australians on a broad range of initiatives.

A number of notable Jews have supported First Nations Australians in their fight for justice and recognition, including the eminent Ron Castan QC, who represented Aboriginal leader Eddie Mabo in the celebrated Mabo case in the High Court; community leader Mark Leibler, who has played a prominent role in the Reconciliation movement and Constitutional Recognition process; former Federal Court Judge Marcus Einfeld, who spoke up for the Aboriginal call for justice; and James Spigelman, former Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court, who first came into public recognition in the 1960s when he joined First Nations leaders, including Charles Perkins, on the so-called Freedom Ride through regional areas, highlighting the conditions in which First Nations communities were living. The tour was modelled on the Freedom Rides of civil rights campaigners in the American south.

The First Nations community has also stood up for the Jewish community, most notably in 1938, when Aboriginal leader William Cooper led a protest march to the German Consulate in Melbourne and attempted to present a petition objecting to Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass, which marked the onset of the Holocaust on November 9-10. The Jewish community remains deeply moved by the principled gesture by Cooper, leader of the Australian Aborigines League and a Yorta Yorta Elder, and subsequently honoured him and his family, both in Australia and Israel. In addition, various Jewish organisations have well-developed relations with First Nations Australian communities, including Jewish day schools, B’nai B’rith, Courage to Care, the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, JNF Australia and StandUp.

In 2010 the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies published a book which documented joint initiatives of the Jewish and First Nations communities. Hand in Hand; Indigenous and Jewish People Working Together was co-authored by academics Dr Anne Sarzin and her daughter Dr Lisa Sarzin, who interviewed 80 First Nations and Jewish Australians about their collaborative ventures. 

Below are some of the initiatives documented in the book:

Rona Tranby Trust
Established in 1991 from a bequest in the will of Thomas Rona, who, with his wife Eva, was a member of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and social justice activist. Inspired by the Australian Institute of Holocaust Studies’ Twelfth Hour oral history project, this is a joint initiative between the Rona Estate, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and the Tranby National Indigenous Adult Education and Training centre in Glebe. The Trust supports the recording and preservation of First Nations oral history and has awarded grants for a range of oral-history projects across Australia. A notable Rona Tranby Trust initiative was the Australian Light Horse Project, which supported 13 descendants of First Nations World War I Light Horse soldiers in researching their ancestors’ stories and travelling to Israel to take part in the World War I Anzac Centenary Commemoration Service at Beersheva in 2017.

Shalom Gamarada
Established in 2005 as a Jewish community initiative, the Shalom Gamarada program awards scholarships to First Nations students studying at the University of NSW to reside at Shalom College – a Jewish residential college on the campus. The scholarships give the students a room, three meals a day, academic support, pastoral care and access to the UNSW gym and team sports. Starting with one scholarship in 2005, the program had 29 scholarship recipients in 2019, with 41 previous recipients having graduated – 23 of them as doctors. The scholarships enable many students who would not otherwise afford the residential fees to acquire qualifications. The funds come from members of the Jewish and wider Australian communities.

Derech Eretz
Established in 2005, Derech Eretz is a program that takes Jewish young adults, including university students, on two 10-day trips each year to two First Nations communities, Toomelah and Boggabilla, located on the NSW-Queensland border. They run school holiday programs for First Nations children, with the activities including sport, arts and crafts, swimming and youth leadership workshops. Derech Eretz has facilitated Derech Eretz  trips every January and July since 2005 with over 230 volunteers, many of whom have returned to the communities several times as alumni. A productive and trusting relationship has developed between the Jewish and local (First Nations) communities, allowing for leadership and other life skills to be instilled into both the First Nations community and Jewish volunteers. The trigger for the program was a meeting in Lismore between NSW Jewish Board of Deputies CEO Vic Alhadeff and Southern Cross University Indigenous Studies Professor Judy Atkinson, who informed Alhadeff of the extremely challenging conditions confronting the First Nations youth of Toomelah and Boggabilla. Returning to Sydney, Alhadeff subsequently met with Shalom Institute leaders and students at UNSW looking to get involved in a human-rights project; he introduced them to Professor Atkinson and Derech Eretz was the result.

Julian Leeser MP, Pastor Ray Minniecon
Jenny Symonds, Uncle Kevin Tory

In December 2019 the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies was delighted to host a special Shabbat service and dinner at The Great Synagogue for leaders of the of the First Nations. Guests included NSW Shadow Treasurer Walt Secord MLC, Julian Leeser MP, Chairperson of the Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council Yvonne Weldon, former NSW Governer Dame Marie Bashir AD CVO, Pastor Raymond Minniecon, Aunty Millie Ingram and Australian South Sea Islanders Port Jackson President Emelda Davis.

Guests were given a pre-service talk by Rabbi Benjamin Elton that explained Jewish customs relating to Shabbat and then enjoyed blessings and dinner in the dining hall.

Lesli Berger, Emelda Davis, Danny Togo.

The NSW Jewish Board of Deputies is a strong supporter of reconciliation with First Nations Australians. While president of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, Peter Wertheim delivered an address in 1997 during the height of the controversy over the Federal Government’s Wik legislation to a capacity audience. His remarks invoked Jewish history and appealed to Australians not to repeat the mistakes of the past by committing the crime of silence in the light of the overwhelming evidence of genocide suffered by the First Nations community. Wertheim established the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies Social Justice Committee, with a strong emphasis on First Nations social justice issues. Long-time community stalwart Jeremy Jones, also a supporter of reconciliation, was instrumental with leaders of other faith communities in establishing the Week of Prayer in 1993, which developed into the annual Reconciliation Week, May 27 to June 2.

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies statement – Reconciliation Week 2020.

All these efforts and many others are indicative of the Jewish community’s respect for and acknowledgement of Indigenous Australians as Australia’s first peoples, our appreciation of the importance of Indigenous culture and history, our commitment to the reconciliation process and our shared commitment to combatting racism and all forms of bigotry.