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"Women are people too": Interview with Ilona Lee AM, CJWN Australia
Ilona Lee AM is the Australian member of the Steering Committee of the Commonwealth Jewish Women’s Network (CJWN), a network of exceptional women who connect and support female leadership across Commonwealth Jewish communities and celebrate their contributions. Launched earlier this year by the Commonwealth Jewish Council (CJC), it recognises that Jewish women possess a range of skills, experience and willingness to contribute.
Ilona Lee spoke to IJAANZ about her role , the goals of the newly- formed CJWN and the challenges facing Jewish women in Australia and globally.
What are the major challenges facing Jewish women in the Commonwealth today, and to maintaining their Jewishness?
IL: Because the standard of living in the countries of the Commonwealth vary so much, it is very difficult to generalise. I think the issues in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa would be similar but quite different to issues in India, Africa and Uganda. Speaking for Australian Jewish women, I think the issues include balancing work, family, Jewish life and living generally is an issue for us all. For many, the cost of maintaining a Jewish life such as sending children to Jewish Day Schools, keeping kosher and being a member of a synagogue is also an issue. For young people, the rate of intermarriage is growing as the community is so integrated into general society.
There are a growing number of ‘women-to-women initiatives’ in which Jewish women around the world are engaged. Please tell us more about these initiatives.
IL: Several sub-groups have been formed, of which I chair the social action group. We have taken gender-based violence as our initiative and are currently working on a project leading up to “Mitzva” day. As you can imagine, it is difficult to find projects that resonate with all communities of the Commonwealth.
How do many small communities survive as Jewish communities or service their own needs?
IL: It is easier for those that are centred around a synagogue or a community worker. Each community has to work out its best modus operandi – some are more successful than others.
What do the “women of the faith communities” address?
IL: Some communities practise the religion in ways that are different to others, so the phrase demonstrates those differences.
Judaism enshrines perhaps the most ancient assertion of the principle of Human Rights, that each human being is created in God’s image – b’tzelem Elohim. How does CJWN address human rights issues?
IL: As I say, it is early days yet. In our group, we will be using slogans like “Women are people too”, but these are still being developed.
How is the diversity of the Jewish Diaspora represented?
IL: The group is extremely diverse and that diversity in itself, has problems. Simple things like time differences, lack of technology, how overburdened some community workers are, all present challenges. But we are trying.
The Alibaug Jewish community's fascinating story
“The sea lends reason to believe in infinite possibilities. The feeling that once you set sail, anything might happen. That adventure, be it fuelled by discovery of the new or a tryst with an alien culture on familiar lands, is inevitable.
“As I looked out into the never-ending expanse of blue Arabian waters, thoughts like these took hold in my mind. “The ships from Israel first arrived here, in Nagaon, 2200 years ago,” stated Hannock Daniel Paskar, interrupting my thoughts. A Bene Israeli native of Alibaug, the 30-something sports a simple white formal shirt, a black pant with a sleeveless black leather jacket on his slender frame, speaks Marathi and Hebrew fluently and holds a dual citizenship for India and Israel,” writes Homegrown’s Devyani Nighoskar. Read more…
Bnei Menashe uphold tradition in farthest reaches
Like many Jews around the world, the Bnei Menashe community of north-eastern India gathered to celebrate Sukkot this year. In their festival prayers, the Bnei Menashe offered a special plea—to fulfil their dream to make Aliyah to Israel during the coming year.
“Even in the farthest reaches of north-eastern India, the Bnei Menashe have continued to uphold the ancient tradition of building Sukkot in honour of the festival,” said Michael Freund, chairperson of Shavei Israel, which has realised that dream for more than 4,000 Bnei Menashe.
The Bnei Menashe, or Children of Manasseh, claim descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who were sent into exile by the Assyrian Empire more than 2,700 years ago. Their ancestors wandered through Central Asia and the Far East for centuries, before settling along the borders of Burma and Bangladesh.
Throughout their sojourn in exile, the Bene Menashe continued to practice Judaism just as their ancestors did, always nourishing the dream of one day returning to the land of their ancestors. Read more…
Explore the synagogues of the Bene Ephraim
In recent years, two Bene Ephraim synagogues have been built in central Andhra Pradesh in south-east India. One is a small building dating to 1991 in the village of Kotta Reddy Palem, near Chebrole in Guntur district.
The second slightly larger and more recent structure, dedicated in 2005, stands on 1 Synagogue Street in the town of Machillitatnam, This building is an unassuming structure, with simple building materials that include walls of rudimentary structural blocks. neatly veneered in white plaster and a corrugated roof with cement. Another corrugated roof supported by thin painted blue steel columns forms a small front porch to the synagogue. This space is used for ceremonial and social purposes.
The Bene Ephraim, or Children of Ephraim, are one of India’s distinct communities of Jews. A group of approximately 50 families live in towns and villages in Andhra Pradesh. They are also referred to as the ‘Telugu Jews’ because they speak the local state language of Telugu.
“Their Judaism focuses on God’s sheer power and commitment to His people. The Sabbath services are original, beautiful and moving, much of them dedicated to song…For a community to have reached Judaism in striving to be just to itself in its own, uniquely Indian circumstances, is by all accounts extraordinary. For other Jews it is even exemplary,” writes Jason L. Francisco, Associate Professor – Film & Media at Emory University in Atlanta.
"I gave up India and China gave me up."
In “Kings of Shanghai”, (Little, Brown Book Group, 2020), Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jonathan Kaufman traces the remarkable power, wealth and influence of two rival dynasties – the Sassoons and the Kadoories – stretching from Baghdad to their business origins in India, to Hong Kong to Shanghai to London.
Kaufman enters the lives and minds of these ambitious men and women to forge a tale of opium smuggling, family rivalry, political intrigue and survival in this epic multi-generational story. Read more…
Excerpt: “Landing in Bombay, David Sassoon joined the British Empire at the height of its political and economic power. Almost one-third of the world was under British control, including parts of India, Australia, Malaysia, Syria, and Egypt. The British had crushed Napoleon in Europe and commanded the world’s largest navy. Power and money flowed through London, the world’s largest city…For decades, the British East India Company had held a state-sanctioned monopoly on trade within India and Asia. In 1832—the year David arrived in Bombay—the British government ended that monopoly, opening trade throughout Asia to private companies and individuals. A new laissez-faire era had begun.” Read more…
– Kaufman, Jonathan (2020-06-01T22:58:59). Kings of Shanghai. Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.
Bilingual books strengthen Jewish identity
The need to preserve and strengthen our unique Indian Jewish identity has assumed great importance. Rabbi Shmuel Ben-Shalom (Divekar) of Jerusalem has meticulously prepared and published many bilingual Hebrew and Marathi publications, as well as the combined traditional Sephardi Halachot and Bene Israel minhagim. There are also plans to publish a trilingual Hebrew, English and Marathi version of the first volume of The Customs of Indian Jewry.
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Want to check out our older magazine issues?
- Issue #1 (2021)