June 20, 2011
Meet Australia’s Aborigine who is president of her Orthodox shul
Lisa Jackson Pulver is not your average Australian Jew.
Yes, she is one of this country’s 110,000 or so Members of the Tribe, but she is also a member of another tribe: an Aboriginal clan called the Wiradjuri.
Jackson Pulver says she’s not the only Aboriginal Jew in Australia.
“The first Jew came here on the First Fleet in 1788, and since then Jews have been marrying Aborigines because white women wouldn’t marry them,” Jackson Pulver said. “There’s a big mob of black Cohens out there, and they’ve got Jewish ancestry.”
But Jackson Pulver has a few other distinctions not shared by other “black Cohens.”
The first Aboriginal Australian to receive a doctorate in medicine from the University of Sydney, Jackson Pulver is now the director of the Muru Marri Indigenous Health Unit at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
Last week she was awarded the Order of Australia, one of the country’s top honors. The citation on her Order of Australia lauds her “contribution to medical education and her support for educational opportunities for Aboriginal Australians.”
And last year, Jackson Pulver was elected the president of her Orthodox synagogue in Newtown, Sydney.
Jackson Pulver, who completed her Orthodox conversion to Judaism in 2004, says Jews and Aborigines have much in common.
“There is a natural relationship between my Aboriginal spirituality and my Jewish religion,” said, Jackson Pulver, whose Hebrew name is Elisheva bat Sarah. “The things that bring us together are our history of dispossession, a deep sense of family, community and tribalism, and a deep sense of what’s wrong and what’s right.”
She said, “I keep a kosher home, and I make my own challah every Friday. And I attend to cultural and spiritual practices of my grandmothers’ [Aboriginal] cultures.”
Jackson Pulver, who also has Scottish and Welsh roots, is one of many Jews and Aborigines who have been building bridges between the two communities for years.
In 1938, William Cooper, an elder from the Yorta Yorta people—indigenous Australians who originally hailed from northeast Victoria—petitioned the German Consulate in Melbourne to stop the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Cooper recently was honored posthumously by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem.
In the 1960s, James Spigelman, the outgoing Jewish chief justice of New South Wales, led Freedom Rides to advocate for rights for Aboriginals, who at the time faced widespread inequalities and discrimination.
In the 1990s, Jewish lawyer Ron Castan won a landmark case that reversed the legal concept of no-man’s land, or terra nullius, which Australian governments had used to seize Aboriginal tribal lands.
And Mark Leibler, national chairman of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, was a former co-chair of Reconciliation Australia, which attempts to bridge gaps between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
Jackson Pulver is admired in both the Jewish and Aboriginal communities.
Of all her accomplishments, Jackson Pulver says she’s probably proudest of the Shalom Gamarada scholarship program, which raises money for indigenous students pursuing medical degrees. She founded the program in 2004 with Ilona Lee, then president of the Shalom Institute, a Jewish residential college at the University of New South Wales. Some 37 Aboriginal students have graduated through the scholarship program.
Aboriginal health is a massive problem in Australia, where life expectancy among the indigenous community of about 400,000 trails life expectancy among white Australians by about 20 years. Many of the country’s indigenous people still live in remote communities in the Australian Outback.
“We have had some wins,” Jackson Pulver said of the effort to improve indigenous people’s health. “Not as many babies are dying. And we now have about 150 Aboriginal doctors around Australia. Twenty years ago we had one.”