THE VISIT to Israel this week by Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr once again evoked memories of Australian soldiers who had served in the region, liberating Beersheba from Ottoman rule during the World War I and fighting the Nazis during the World War II. But the initial connection goes back beyond that, to the latter half of the 19th century when the first Jerusalem “schnorrer” traveled to the antipodes on a fund-raising mission. His arrival in Melbourne was duly recorded in the now defunct daily newspaper, The Argus.

In the first half of the 20th century, between the two world wars, devastating earthquakes in 1927 caused death and tremendous damage in Jerusalem and Tiberias. The earthquakes, and later the Arab riots in 1929, spurred a number of Jews to leave the Holy Land and to seek safer havens, one of which was Australia. In some cases, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these migrants have returned to Israel.

Australia was the first country to vote “Yes” in the November 1947 United Nations General Assembly meeting that resulted in the resolution on the partition of Palestine, which signified international approval for the establishment of a Jewish State. Australia established full diplomatic relations with Israel in January 1949, and Australian volunteers fought in the War of Independence and were among pioneer settlers in kibbutzim such as Kfar Hanassi, Nirim, Yizre’el and Gesher Haziv. Most of the early Australian kibbutzniks had been members of Habonim or Hashomer Hatza’ir and had been prepared for the change of lifestyle at Hebrew training farms, known as Hachshara, which operated in Australia from 1945 to 1967.

Members of Australian Zionist youth movements and pupils from Australian Jewish day schools come to Israel each year on volunteer programs and leadership courses, in addition to which many Australians study at Israeli universities and religious institutions. Australian Jewish athletes come to Israel to participate in the Maccabiah Games, and literally scores of Israeli cultural, educational, health, environmental and social welfare projects and institutions are supported by organizations of Australian friends and by Australian charitable foundations, most notably the Pratt Foundation, which inter alia established the Park of the Australian Soldier in Beersheba.

Many Australian soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice are buried in Commonwealth War graves cemeteries in Israel and Gaza.

On the subject of burial, under the auspices of the Israel Antiquities Authority some 100 people gathered last week at the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion to pay tribute to the memory of Sir Matthew Flinders Petrie, one of the founding fathers of Israeli archeology, who died in Jerusalem 70 years ago. His connection with Australia is that he happened to be the grandson of noted British explorer and navigator Matthew Flinders, who, toward the end of the 18th century and early in the 19th century, made exploratory voyages to Australia and was the first to circumnavigate the entire mainland and to give the island continent its name – Terra Australis.

Aside from all that, Australian trade delegations come to Israel several times a year and many business deal between Israeli and Australian companies have been midwifed by the bilateral Chambers of Commerce, which serve the interests of the business communities in both countries.

■ AMONG THE many Australian citizens who have homes in Israel as well as business interests in this country is billionaire Frank Lowy, one of the wealthiest people in Australia, who is often described in the media as an Australian-Israeli businessman even though he was born in Czechoslovakia. Lowy is a very good friend of former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who some years back got himself into a spot of legal trouble over allegations that he had been helpful to Lowy, who was a potential purchaser of Bank Leumi. In the final analysis, Lowy did not buy the bank and Olmert was let off the hook.

The incident did not intrude on their friendship, and last week, Olmert, the avid sports fan, who, with his wife, Aliza, is in London for the Olympics, was the guest of honor at a grand party on Lowy’s $110-million yacht, which is docked at Canary Wharf, adjacent to the new London Westfield Shopping Center, for the duration of the Olympics. Lowy is the chairman of Westfield, which has more than 120 luxury shopping centers in different parts of the world.

A few days earlier, he hosted a gala bash for the Australian Olympic team in the function room of the London Westfield Shopping Center. The event was attended by some 700 guests.

■ THE CHABAD connection between Israel and Australia is also very strong, and over the years many Kfar Chabad emissaries have visited Australia and some have married Australians and have settled permanently in Australia, or have lived there for a couple of years.

Conversely, Australian Chabadniks have settled in Israel or visit on a frequent basis.

Among the latter is Rabbi Dr. Laibl Wolf, the founder and director of the Melbourne-based Human Development Institute, who this coming Saturday night will be the guest speaker at Chabad of Rehavia, where he will address the topic of successful relationships.

According to Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg who heads Chabad of Rechavia, the idea behind the event is to strengthen existing marital relationships and to provide a platform for new ones.

■ BACK TO the Olympics. Everyone loves a winner, but few people empathize with a loser – especially sportscasters. Most of the local sportscasters who reported on the results of Israeli contestants in the various events were very dismissive when the athletes failed to live up to expectations. Instead of feeling for them over shattered dreams, they were not only critical, but on Channel 10 in particular, news anchor Guy Zohar actually ridiculed them. Attitudes changed somewhat, but not completely, after judoka Arik Zeevi, who had hoped to bring home a medal from his Olympic Games swan song, was defeated in 43 seconds and was unable to control his tears.

Sport and Culture Minister Limor Livnat called him to commiserate and to tell him that he is still one of Israel’s greatest champions and that no one can take that away from him. President Shimon Peres, who had met Zeevi on several occasions, also called him and told him that these things happen in life and he should not allow this to dampen his spirit. The true test, Peres said, was not to give in to depression. “I learned this from my own experience,” he said.

It should be remembered that Peres suffered traumatic defeats in the contest for the Labor leadership, the race for prime minister and the first time he ran for president.

Despite the humiliation and the setbacks, he persevered and reached the pinnacle of his long career. Peres reminded Zeevi of the honor and glory that he had brought to Israel and told him that there was still a lot for him to do – namely to train youngsters to be champions.

He certainly could do that, as former basketball star Tal Brody has done, or he could follow the example of karate champion Danny Hakim, who migrated from Australia to Israel and established the Budokan Martial Arts and Leadership program, which brings young Jews from around the globe to Israel to participate in a five-month course of martial arts and Hebrew. The course is sponsored by the Jewish Agency and the Maccabi World Union. Before that, Hakim initiated seminars for Israeli and Palestinian youngsters to come together at the Wingate Institute and study martial arts together under the banner “Focus On Conquering Fear of The Other and Building Trust.” Zeevi could easily do something similar. On the religious program on Israel Radio in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning, one of the rabbis referring to all the publicity that Zeevi received with regard to the 43 second defeat, said that he had found three other Arik Zeevis who had lasted a longer distance – not as judokas but as Daf Yomi regulars and had completed the seven year study cycle.

■ MANY PEOPLE were confused last week as to whether August 2 was the date of Peres’s 89th birthday. Prior to becoming president, Peres listed his birthday as August 16. Then a year or two after assuming the presidency, he switched to August 2, which is the date that appears in most biographical material that has since been published. At one stage, when Peres was playing musical chairs with the dates, his office gave the excuse that he was marking his birthday in accordance with the Jewish calendar. That could be possible, because at the time Peres was celebrating his birthday in the Hebrew month of Av, and August 2, 1923, the year in which he was born, coincided with Av 20, 5683, whereas August 16 coincided with Elul 4.

Regardless of the true date of his birth, Peres was inundated with good wishes on his Facebook page on August 2, but this year he will be celebrating on August 16, and will do so in the former development town of Yeroham – which is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

Next year, on his 90th birthday, Peres may decide to once more celebrate on August 2, so as not to be upstaged by the centenary celebrations of the birth of Menachem Begin – who though born on August 16, traditionally celebrated his birthday on Shabbat Nahamu, the “Shabbat of comfort” that falls right after Tisha Be’av.

Begin was in fact born on Shabbat Nahamu, and during his years as prime minister, this was the date that he observed.

Some people are wondering whether the Knesset will give Peres a prolonged period of service as a 90th birthday gift. This would involve them amending the presidency law and reverting to the previous legislation mandating a five-year term, with an option to serve for two terms – namely a total of 10 years.

Since the days of Ezer Weizman, the law was changed to one seven-year term, with no option for renewal. The last president to serve two terms was Chaim Herzog.

■ EVERYONE LOVES to jump on the publicity bandwagon. On Monday, when Peres arrived in Athens, Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Florida), a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, issued the following statement in Washington: “Greece and Israel have been strengthening bilateral ties – on various levels – for many years now. This week’s trip will build upon an already strong relationship between both countries. It is in our interest to support our allies in this region and encourage further cooperation.”

Last week, Bilirakis formed the Congressional Hellenic-Israeli Alliance, a new caucus to focus on the flourishing relationship between the US, Greece, Israel and Cyprus. From his name, it can be deduced that Bilirakis is of Greek background. What was that famous quote from the story of the wooden horse? ■ LEADING WORLD researchers, educators and policy experts on autism gathered in Jerusalem last week to share their knowledge and experience in dealing with the increasing rates of Autism Spectrum Disorder around the globe.

“Israel is the natural location for an event of this nature because the country has historically been a leader in groundbreaking neurological research. We saw it as imperative to expose some of the world’s top academics and public health advocates in this quickly developing field to the Israeli marketplace of ideas,” said Dr. Joshua Weinstein, CEO and founder of ICare4Autism, which organized the 2012 International Autism Conference.

Keynote addresses were delivered by the first UK Ambassador for Philanthropy Dame Stephanie Shirley, Dr. Shekhar Saxena of the World Health Organization, First Lady of Panama Marta Linares de Martinelli and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. Participants focused on three autism-related tracks: Policy and Awareness; Bio-Med Research and Practice; and Technology and Resources.

■ LONG BEFORE there was a Ministry for Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, veteran Israel Radio broadcaster Elihu Ben-Onn launched his late-night show “The Israel Connection,” which links people from around the world with Israel in general and Jerusalem in particular.

Ben-Onn, who lives in the capital, broadcasts from the Jerusalem studio in the predawn hours of Monday morning, beginning at 15 minutes past midnight and continuing until 3 a.m. He talks to Israelis who are living, working or studying abroad, former diplomats who served in Israel, people who studied or worked in Israel and people contemplating aliya – in fact anyone who has some kind of Israel connection.

This week’s program was special. Ben-Onn called it his bar mitzva program because it celebrated the 13th anniversary of the first time the program aired, on August 4, 1999.

Among the guests on the program was Shai Bazak, the consul-general in Boston, who is a former spokesman for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and previously worked as a journalist. Ben-Onn has known him since they both started out in media and reminded him of the days when he used to work as reporter for ITIM, the Israeli news agency.

Bazak told Ben-Onn that there are some 270,000 Israelis living in the New England area, and somewhere between 10,000 to 30,000 studying or teaching the Boston area.

He coul not provide exact figures, he explained, since not all were registered with the consulate. He said the Israeli population in Boston is close-knit and high quality, but fluctuates since so many Israelis come to study and return home after a few years.

Also on the program were two representatives of El Al’s Ambassadors Blue and White Advocates project, which is conducted in conjunction with the Foreign Ministry, the Jewish Agency and StandWithUs. The project was introduced by El Al CEO Elyezer Shkedy, a former commander in chief of the Israel Air Force, soon after he came into office nearly three years ago. Participating flight attendants and pilots become unofficial ambassadors for the country when they fly into New York, Los Angeles and Toronto, meeting there with university students and other groups.

When the project was first launched, volunteers were sought to sacrifice part of their layover time to visit Jewish community centers, federations and college campuses, to speak about the many facets of Israeli life that seldom find expression in the media – because most media outlets tend to focus primarily on politics. There was an avalanche of response, and of the many applicants, 60 were selected. They talk to their audiences about their private lives, families and neighborhoods, as well as differing Israeli lifestyles, including what it is like to be gay in Israel.

The El Al ambassadors provide a lesson not only for Americans and Canadians, but for those jaded Israelis who think that patriotism is dead or dying.

■ THE NEWS that Irina Nevzlin Kogan, 34, was last week unanimously elected active chairwoman of Beit Hatfutsot’s Board of Directors, hardly comes as a surprise. Her father is Leonid Nevzlin, who heads the International Board of Governors of Beit Hatfutsot, and through the Nadav Foundation that he established with two business partners, is the museum’s most generous benefactor.

Nevzlin Kogan, who has been president of the Nadav Foundation for the past five years, replaces Jacob Perry, former head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), who acted as chair for three years.

As the new chairwoman, Nevzlin Kogan will be responsible for planning, content development, outreach to Diaspora Jewry and any other activities related to the museum, which is now called the Museum of the Jewish People in place of the Museum of the Diaspora. The new title is in line with the vision of Leonid Nevzlin, and is yet another proof that the man who pays the piper calls the tune.

The new museum, which will house a 4,200 sq.m. core exhibition spread over three floors of the Nahum Goldmann building on the Tel Aviv University campus, will be the final phase of a comprehensive renewal project undertaken by Beit Hatfutsot in recent years with the support of the Israel government, the Nadav Foundation and partners around the world.

Perry congratulated Nevzlin Kogan and said she has all the attributes needed to fulfill this important role, plus a passion for Beit Hatfutsot’s mission – noting that in recent years she was closely involved in formulating plans for the new museum. “She has the knowledge, experience and natural capacity to lead this board and institution,” he said.

There is no doubt that Nevzlin Kogan is an organizational activist with extensive international connections. She has served as founding chairwoman of the Israeli Center for Better Childhood, vice chairwoman of the Governing Board of Jewish Funders Network and member of the Prime Minister’s Round Table, a forum that finds areas of collaboration for the private and nonprofit sectors in order to influence positive change in Israeli social policy.

Due to her new role, Nevzlin Kogan will relinquish her position as president of the Nadav Foundation. Nevzlin’s father became the savior of the museum eight years ago when then-prime minister Ariel Sharon sought his help in preventing its closure due to lack of funds.

■ ALTHOUGH SHE may be diminutive in height, philanthropist Lynn Schusterman is a giant of generosity. It is almost painful to think how many cultural, educational and social welfare projects and institutions might never have gotten off the ground without her vision and financial input.

Although she has been involved with several large scale projects, she does not lose sight of the fact that something small is often the nucleus of something big. Thus she was at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last week for the affixing of the mezuza on the new offices of the Haruv Institute there.

Established by the Schusterman Foundation in 2007, the Haruv Institute is Israel’s leading authority on child abuse and neglect.

Also present were: Sandy Cardin, CEO of the Schusterman Foundation; David Gappel, CEO of the foundation’s Israel operations; Dr. Yitzhak Kadman, chairman of the National Council for the Child; Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson, president of Hebrew University; and Prof. Asher Ben-Arieh, director of the Haruv Institute.

■ JUST AS professions once considered to be solely in the male domain have opened up to women – and in some cases such as law, have even more female than male practitioners – so too have men’s sports become more open to women. One of these sports is rugby, which enables athletic newcomers to Israel to quickly make friends in a scrimmage.

Shaharit Golding, in a message on the websites of various immigrant organizations, has invited new female immigrants to join the Israeli women’s rugby teams.

“I assume you have some knowledge of rugby, if you played, watched friends play or just watched TV when there was a game on,” she writes. “Rugby is an aggressive, strategic game, in which the player is required to use a great deal of her mental, physical and psychological strength.”

Now you probably think, ‘Oh no, that’s not for me.’ But that’s where you are WRONG! Rugby is a sport that you could be good at if you’re skinny, tiny, not-so-skinny, big, small, fast or slow! It’s also a sport where friendship and fun play a big part!” There are women’s rugby teams in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Anyone who wants to join should contact Golding at (052) 691- 4846.

■ NORMS HAVE changed in many ways over the past couple of decades.

Twenty years ago and more, a bridal gown, no matter how elaborate, was high necked, and had sleeves. A classic gown always had long sleeves.

If the bride happened to get pregnant before the wedding, every effort was made to hide the fact and to ensure that the marriage ceremony took place before the birth.

Not any more. Bridal gowns look more as if they belonged to Las Vegas showgirls than to brides and babies are frequently born long before Mom and Dad decide to enter into the institution of marriage. This is the case with several Israeli celebrities including Oscar winning Hollywood star Jerusalemborn Natalie Portman, who last Saturday night in Big Sur became Mrs. Benjamin Millespied in what has been reported by the Hollywood gossips as a Jewish wedding ceremony.

The event was held in a private home.

Portman met French born choreographer Millespied on the set of Black Swan, the film for which she won the Oscar. It was he who taught her the dance routines she needed to learn for the film. The working relationship soon developed into a romantic relationship, and when Portman received her Oscar, she was visibly in the family way. Their son, Aleph, was born in 2011 and when he was six months old his parents took him to France and then to Israel to meet his relatives and Mom and Dad’s various friends.

Now there’s been a wedding too - and Portman wore a traditional white gown. The wedding feast was a little different than usual. Portman is a vegan, and the menu was in accordance with what the bride could eat.

■ AMONG THE people who find it reprehensible that there should be so much public discussion over whether or not Israel should launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran, is Yehoram Gaon, who starred in Operation Thunderbolt, the highly acclaimed film about the Entebbe Rescue Operation. In his weekly radio show last Friday, Gaon fumed about all the loose lips visà- vis Iran and said: “Imagine if the pros and cons of the Entebbe Rescue Operation had been publicly discussed in the same way as Iran. We would never have been able to achieve what we did.”

greerfc@gmail.com

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