When big challenges arise, Jewish people want reassurance that our interests and freedoms will be protected. When societal attitudes shift, Jewish people need reassurance they will not be left out or left behind.
Through history there have certainly been great Jewish leaders. From ancient times, we have Moses, King David, Queen Esther and many others. We continue to benefit from the teachings of great rabbinic leaders like Rashi, Rav Kook and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And we cannot help but admire the courage of Golda Meir, Hannah Szenes and most recently, Volodymyr Zelensky.
But we do not have a Pope, a Defender of the Faith or a Dalai Lama to guide us. We do not vote on or declare a global Jewish president or a global head rabbi. However, there are times, when Jewish communities require leadership.
That is why our Victorian Jewish community has, for the past 85 years, trusted the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV), previously known as the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies.
While the JCCV has an elected president, that president is answerable to the community via the representative structure of the organisation. The JCCV president cannot autonomously declare a position on the community’s behalf.
She or he must take that position to the community, via public meetings, for debate and consensus.
We know that the community wants us to work to stamp out antisemitism. An effective way to do this is by educating leaders and key groups about the relevance and utility of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism.
In 2022, this definition was presented for discussion at an open JCCV plenum. Delegates from all the JCCV’s affiliate organisations were asked to vote to endorse the definition. All, apart from one, endorsed this definition. This leaves the JCCV safe in the knowledge that when we represent our community in meetings with state or local government, and ask them to adopt the IHRA definition, we do so with the community’s support.
Similarly, the JCCV will continue to support First Nations Australians by urging a “yes” vote in the coming Voice referendum. Why? Because we put it to the vote at a JCCV plenum and were told that is what our community wants.
It is not just on sweeping positions that the JCCV takes a leading role. This month, we again welcomed more than 20 senior community leaders to sit around the table at the JCCV Council of Presidents.
This council was far from an empty talk-fest. It presented a unique opportunity to bring diverse groups together. The JCCV can set up a table where the president of Kadimah sits opposite the president of Maccabi Victoria, and the vice-president of Caulfield Shule sits alongside the vice-president of Progressive Judaism Victoria. These groups have diverse interests and membership, but they are all here for one reason – to strengthen our Jewish community – and we need to do that together.
We also learn when we come together. Synagogue leaders share the innovative and varied ways in which they are attracting more people to shule. Multiple groups learn about the education programs run in our community around the First Nations Voice, and we learn that it might be wise to coordinate approaches and avoid duplication. We see NCJWA Victoria’s Gender Equity Pledge in action as more organisations appoint women to leadership positions, but learn that these female leaders would appreciate the chance to meet and network. We understand that so many community organisations rely on volunteers, but volunteers are hard to find and harder to retain.
Meetings, such as JCCV plenums and councils, give the JCCV unmatched reach and understanding of our Jewish community.
As we continue to grapple with ways to address antisemitism in schools, the JCCV has partnered with the Victorian Department of Education to develop Australia’s first antisemitism teacher training program. Created by a team of experts all working for JCCV affiliates, this program will be rolled out next month to all Victorian government school staff. The JCCV continues to engage with the Education Minister, with directors of Catholic education organisations and with individual principals to advocate for a safer and more respectful environment in schools for Jewish students and teachers. Similarly, when service providers, like the City of Glen Eira, want to ensure they are best serving their Jewish residents, they turn to the JCCV for professional development and ongoing education via the Jewish Immersion Program.
By finding common positions, connecting Jewish organisations and engaging with our community, we can resolve these challenges and collaborate on possible solutions. These discussions lead to responsive leadership and effective community planning.
Our community may not have a figurehead, a leader who wears robes or a director with a fancy title, but what we are lucky enough to have is vibrant and representative leadership. This will stand our Jewish community in good stead for another 85 years.
Naomi Levin is the chief operating officer of the JCCV.
The JCCV has launched its 2023 appeal.
To support its work: jccvgivingday.com.au