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Jewish school saviour on Queen’s honour list

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About seven weeks ago, South African-born Mark Blankfield was walking to the doctor in Melbourne, when his phone rang.

“Hi Mark, I’m Fiona from the governor’s office,” said the voice on the other end. “You’ve been nominated for an award. We just want to know if it’s offered to you, will you accept it? I’ve sent you an email.”

When Blankfield arrived back home, he had an email with an official letterhead nominating him for the Medal of the Order of Australia in the general division. “I called my wife. I was shaking,” he says. “It took me by surprise.”

Blankfield credits his family, friends, and colleagues for his award, which was officially bestowed on the Queen’s 2022 Birthday Honours List, published on 13 June. He says the main nominator for this recognition was Bialik College, a Jewish school in Melbourne. “I’ve been on its board for about 36 years,” he says. “I also was involved with the United Israel Appeal. For 16 odd years, I chaired the communal part of the appeal. I had a lot of fun all the way through.”

Blankfield got involved with Bialik in 1985 after he and his wife, Hilary, researched a suitable Jewish school for their children. “Bialik had a very caring environment to it,” says Blankfield. “It had almost a consistency to what we were trying to achieve at home. We wanted that for our children, and what they saw at school wasn’t confusing for them. We had been at the school for about only three months when we got called to a mass meeting at a town hall to be told that the school was hopelessly insolvent, faced with closure, or amalgamating with the largest school.”

With neither of those options being palatable, Blankfield tossed and turned throughout the night. “I came up with a five-year prepayment plan, went to the college the next day, spoke to the business manager, saw what the accounts really looked like, and formed an action group. I had a lot of support.”

The benefit of Blankfield’s idea for parents was that they would be locked in at 1985 rates for five years. “When you put in a factor for interest, they got a genuine tax-deductible receipt, which gave them tax deductibility for that component,” he says. “The fees were aggregated over 60 equal payments to the bank. The bank offered this as a no-questions-asked loan if parents needed it.”

More than 66% of the parents took advantage of this. “We then went to the community and raised A$1.2 million (R13.3 million). Within 28 days, we turned around, and I was appointed to the board. The people who were on the action group joined me on the board. The rest is history. Today, Bialik is the number one Jewish school in Melbourne.”

Thereafter, Blankfield served as chairperson of Bialik’s Fee Relief committee until 2020. “It basically implemented the dream of the founders of the college that no Jewish child would be denied a Jewish education because of a parent’s inability to pay school fees.”

Blankfield says being in this role was the most fulfilling part of his time at Bialik. “I would attend graduation ceremonies and speech nights, watching children who were beneficiaries of this assistance walk away with awards.”

That said, the highlight of his life is his children and six grandchildren, and the person he was most influenced by was his late dad, who was on board the ill-fated South African Airways Rietbok plane that crashed into the sea off East London in 1967.

“At the time, he was just 47, and I was just 15,” says Blankfield. “He was the most wonderful man, a passionate family man, a caring person, who was driven to improve the lot of people who were less fortunate than us. He had an energy, work ethic, and morality that people could aspire to emulate. He started Bellavista School in South Africa, the first school catering for children with learning disabilities. This, during a time when children with learning disabilities were just pushed into the back of the classroom. I was at King David until I lost my dad, and then I went to Damelin, where I matriculated. While schools play a very important role in a child’s formation, parents’ responsibilities are abrogated by just writing out a cheque to pay school fees.”

Having been involved in tutoring in the townships and legal aid in South Africa, Blankfield emigrated with his wife to Melbourne after he fell in love with the city in 1970. “We entered the most wonderful Jewish community in the world,” he marvels. “You just can’t believe what the Australian Jewish community has. It’s rich, it’s diverse, it’s a caring community. Five years in, I was able to start putting back into this community which had been so warmly accepting of us.”

Having been a canvasser for the United Israel Appeal in South Africa, he joined its board in Australia before chairing the communal part of the campaign for several years. “I led a number of missions to Israel and redefined what the campaign was about in terms of making it non-elitist and open to all. We had opening functions, black-tie and gala dinners for 1 600 people. I had the most incredible professionals who were involved in these organisations. Without them, I could never have done it. It became so much fun because out of the group of friends my wife and I made here in Australia, a lot of them joined me on my journey. The past 42 years have just been a remarkable chapter of our lives.”

Having grown up in a traditional Jewish family who had Shabbat dinners, Blankfield observed shneim asar chodesh (12 months of mourning) when his dad passed away. “The rabbi who Barmitzvahed me took me under his wing. I got a tremendous amount of warmth, empathy, and solace from him, from the shul, and from saying kaddish. I always vowed that one day, I would have a traditional Jewish home. My children have all graduated from Bialik College, with two of them marrying Bialik graduates. We’ve got Jewish continuity in our family and this, to me, has been very important.”

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