Rabbi John Levi: A true icon of Australian Jewry

The rabbi is the latest in a series of Jews honored by Canberra.

Rabbi John Levi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi John Levi
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jews have had a presence in Australia since non-Aboriginal people arrived from England on 11 ships on January 26, 1788 – but it took 172 years for the Australian Jewish community to produce its first rabbi.
That statistic is but one of a plethora of details which make this vibrant community unique, including the random facts that Australia is the only nation other than Israel to have had a Jewish commander-in-chief of its armed forces – General Sir John Monash during World War I – and that Australia has been home to the highest percentage of Holocaust survivors of any Jewish community in the world per capita outside Israel, with 27,000 survivors finding refuge in that country.
The distinction of being the first Australian-born rabbi goes to John Levi, who was ordained in 1960 and joined a Progressive congregation – Melbourne’s Temple Beth Israel. There he served as senior rabbi from 1974 to 1997, when he was appointed Rabbi Emeritus.
Yet that is not the only point which sets Rabbi Levi apart, and indeed, led to his recently being awarded Australia’s highest civic honor – recognition as a Companion of the Order of Australia for “eminent service to Judaism through seminal roles with religious, community and historical organizations, the advancement of interfaith understanding, tolerance and collaboration, and education.”
Born in 1934, with Australian roots stretching back to the 1800s – including the first Jewish State Member of Parliament, Nathaniel Levi – Rabbi Levi has made a stellar contribution to intercultural and interfaith relations. Pioneering inter-religious dialogue, he played a seminal role in establishing the Australian Council of Christians and Jews, of which he is an honorary life member, and served as a vice-president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, on which he was the Australian representative for 20 years.
He has also been a vocal advocate of reconciliation with the Aboriginal people – an unresolved political and social issue dating back to the arrival of those 11 ships in 1788 – and he represented the Jewish community at the inaugural Australian Reconciliation Convention in 1997.
And there’s more. Rabbi Levi was one of the founders of Melbourne’s Progressive King David School and, an acknowledged authority on Australian Jewish history, has authored about 20 books, notably Australian Genesis, A Dictionary of Biography of the Jews of Australia and These are The Names: Jewish lives in Australia, 1788-1850. If that weren’t enough, he played a key role in founding congregations in the Australian cities of Hobart, Adelaide and Canberra, and even offshore in Hong Kong and Wellington, New Zealand.
The honors and recognition have flowed over the years, including his receipt of a Centenary Medal for service to Australian society and to the Jewish community; public acknowledgment as one of 150 citizens to have made a positive difference to the city of Melbourne; a Doctorate of Divinity from the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem; and an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Melbourne’s Monash University. A true icon of Australian Jewry, appropriately recognized by his country.
Rabbi Levi is one of 29 members of the Jewish community to have been recognized in the recently-announced Australia Day honors – a significant number from the medical field.
Professor Susan Davis and her team were recognized for Australia being the first nation in the world to offer testosterone treatment to women, having devised a ground-breaking medical procedure. Professor Alan Cass was honored for innovative medical work in the Aboriginal sector, developing systems which enable adults living in remote parts of the country to access medical treatment, thereby avoiding the need for dialysis. Ophthalmologist Henry Lew was recognized for his treating of eye disease, as well as his writing career, having authored eight books.
Larry Kornhauser was honored for service to eye health research, having contributed significantly to a research center at the Sydney Eye Hospital. Neil Samuel was recognized for his work in advancing the level of support available to those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Psychiatrist Dan Lubman was honored for service to medical education, research, treatment and policy in the field of addiction. Associate Professor Gregory Goodman was recognized for service to skin cancer research, medicine and education. And physiotherapist and long-distance athlete Ellis Janks received an award for organizing and participating in running and walking events for people with disabilities.
These are just a few examples of the significant number of Jewish Australians who are honored annually for contributing to civil society.■
The writer is CEO of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies in Sydney, Australia.