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Prominent Jewish Aussie dies in freak accident

Ben Cowen (pictured), a Melbourne entrepreneur, community leader and the son of former famous governor-general Sir Zelman Cowen, tragically died on Sunday after suffering fatal injuries from a freak paragliding accident.





Died at the scene

The incident occurred in Fairhaven on the Victorian Surf Coast, where 50-year-old Ben Cowen had been holidaying with his wife and their 14-year-old son and twin 12-year-old daughters.

Many residents and holiday-makers witnessed the horrific scene, after Cowen’s paraglider was caught in strong winds close to the shoreline and smashed him into cliffs. Paramedics were unable to save Cowen who died at the scene from critical head and leg injuries.

Shocked friends and family members described Ben Cowen as a kind, optimistic and generous family man. His brother, Rabbi Shimon Cowen, said “he had a very bold spirit… he was an outdoorsman, who took his family camping, planning very elaborate trips.”

Cowen had a highly successful career as a lawyer, investment banker and business magnate. He founded the camping megastore chain Anaconda in 2003, and subsequently founded Edison Partners, an advisory firm.

Sir ZbHowever, he always lived in the shadow of his late father, Sir Zelman Cowen, one of the most famous Australian Jews who was knighted in 1976 and shortly afterwards become Australia’s second Jewish Governor-General. He died in 2011.

RIGHT: Sir Zelman Cowen

In addition to his professional and business pursuits, Ben Cowen made noteworthy contributions to the Jewish community. He was actively involved with the King David School, United Israel Appeal, and the Community Security Group.

President Anton Block and executive director Peter Wertheim of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry wrote to Rabbi Cowen, expressing their sincere condolences. “On behalf of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, our executive councillors, life members and staff, and personally, we write to convey our deepest sympathy to you on the tragic passing of your beloved brother, Ben… May the Almighty comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and may you be blessed with long life.”

Ben Cowen is survived by his wife, Lahra Carey, and daughters Alex and Charley, and his son Mitch.

Cowen’s late father, Sir Zelman Cowen – was often referred to as “the genius Governor-General” and so famous is his legacy in Australia, that media ran headlines last week such as: “Sir Zelman’s son dies in paragliding accident.”

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Sir Zd

This image is believed to be the last picture taken of the paragliding Ben Cowen before he was smashed into the cliffs at Fairhaven on Sunday


Who was Sir Zelman Cowen?

Sir Zelman Cowen, described as the healer of the Australian nation, sometimes spoke of his success in life as being down to good luck.

But, as tributes flowed for Sir Zelman, mourners at the former Australian governor-general’s state funeral in 2011 were told, it was not luck but pure genius.

Mourners at his funeral told how Sir Zelman had regularly referred to himself as “fortunate” to have had a life “beyond the scope of my dreams.”

Sir ZcBut Rabbi Dr John Levi said the man credited with restoring Australians’ faith in the office of governor-general, and thus in the Australian political system, did not succeed through good fortune.

LEFT: Then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks with Ben Cowen at his father’s 2011 state funeral

“As we all know, it was never luck,” Rabbi Levi said at the 2011 funeral. “It was pure genius, it was the ability to make friends, it was loyalty to the law and to the state, it was charm, it was profound dignity, it was solid hard work and it was always intellectual integrity.”

Sir Zelman died at the age of 92 at his Toorak home in Melbourne after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years. His wife, Lady Anna, his sisters, three of his children, Shimon, Kate and Ben, and many of his 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren attended the funeral, while his son Yousef was in Jerusalem at the time.

VIP attendees at the funeral of Sir Zelman included Governor-General Quentin Bryce, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu. Numerous other dignitaries such as federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott were there too; as were three former prime ministers: John Howard, Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser, all sitting in a row beside each other.

Sir Za

A who’s who of Australian politics and Jewry attended Sir Zelman’s 2011 funeral 

On their way out of the shul service, an intrepid reporter encountered the three former prime ministers in quick succession and asked for their thoughts on Sir Zelman Here is what they said:

BOB HAWKE: ”When you think of the history, of the three great Jewish figures: Isaac Isaacs, General Monash and Zelman Cowen. All fantastic.”

JOHN HOWARD: ”I saw a lot of him when I was treasurer and he was governor-general. I tell you what, if a poor innocent junior minister or parliamentarian hadn’t done their homework, he’d give them a bit of a flick.”

MALCOLM FRASER: ”When I asked him [to be governor-general], he kept saying ‘why me?’. I said he was better than anyone else I could think of. It had to be someone who was not a personal friend, who was not involved in politics … who was distinguished, whose name was known and recognised.”

Fraser had appointed Sir Zelman as governor-general in 1977 following Sir John Kerr’s resignation from what was then a troubled post, given Sir John had divided the nation by using the powers of the office to sack prime minister Gough Whitlam.

Sir Zelman healed the nation by serving a distinguished and popular four-and-a-half-year term from December 1977 to July 1982.

“None of us who lived through those years could ever forget the dignity and the healing Sir Zelman brought to the office of governor-general,” Rabbi Levi said.

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Centenarian Rose Norwich zooms in on a life of achievement



They say that age is just a number, but when you turn 100 during a pandemic, there’s every reason to celebrate.

Riviera resident Rose Norwich marked her centennial birthday on 2 January, and while COVID-19 prevented any in-person celebration, the occasion was a special one indeed.

“People have been so kind,” Norwich told the SA Jewish Report. “I didn’t realise I was a such a novelty. Turning a hundred kind of creeps up on you.”

Although unable to see her four children, eight grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and other relatives, Norwich celebrated her birthday with friends and family in Zoom gatherings.

“My family all live in different places around the world, and we had three separate Zoom sessions: one for my children and grandchildren, another with my siblings, and the others with friends around the world. It was such fun and really wonderful.

“It was almost better, in a way, to have this. Most of them couldn’t have come here, regardless of COVID-19. If anything, this business has taught us a lesson that we need to stay together as families rather than be separated. At times of crisis, we need one another.”

Born in 1921 in Johannesburg, Norwich has notched up endless accomplishments. The second of five children, she completed a degree in architecture at 22, and went on to devote much of her life to Jewish communal organisations.

“I did my degree towards the end of the war, met my husband, and started a family,” she says. “My parents had both been integrally involved in community organisations, so it wasn’t new to me.

“I started at ORT Jet in the sixties. The organisation was going through a bad patch, and Richard Goldstone, Basil Wunsch, and I worked to resurrect it and see it grow. We changed what it did, made it interdenominational, and set up a system that would help all kinds of people achieve all kinds of different things.”

Norwich was subsequently invited to join the Union of Jewish Women, becoming the organisation’s president and joining the South African Jewish Board of Deputies as a result.

“They asked me if I would do an exhibition of South African Jewry for the Beit Hatfutsot Museum in Israel. It was a major project that I did over two years, collecting plenty of photos for use in the exhibition. They say that 60 000 people saw it in Israel, and I visited it with my late husband, Isadore.”

Another major project to which Norwich devoted herself was a master’s dissertation, which she took up at the age of 66, 44 years after completing her first degree.

“I met somebody overseas who showed me pictures of destroyed shuls,” she says. “I knew we had shuls in South Africa which had fallen apart owing to sheer neglect, so I did my dissertation on 43 of the early synagogues of Johannesburg and the Reef.

“It took me four years, trawling through archives and discovering places that had been forgotten. It was remarkable. There are copies of my dissertation at Hebrew University, Beit Hatfutsot, and I gave one to each of my children. I’m very proud of that accomplishment.”

The last surviving member of her immediate family, Norwich spends much of her time alone these days, but has devoted herself to penning her life story.

“My husband passed away 25 years ago,” she says. “I’ve been lonely, but I can’t sit around and do nothing. I may be a little more tired than I used to, but I can still see and hear. I need to keep busy.

“I’ve learned first-hand that when push comes to shove, you need other people in your life. You can’t do it alone. You have to put your foot in the water to get going, be open to all sorts of things, and go out there to see what’s what.”

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Habonim honours Anstey, a ‘superman without a cape’



The outgoing manhig (leader) of South African Habonim Dror, Errol Anstey, took his departure from the youth movement after 20 years of service in an online Zoom call with nearly 300 current and former members, friends, and family.

“I agreed to take the job for a year or two back in 2000, and never dreamt it would end up being 20 years of challenging but hugely satisfying work,” Anstey said in an emotional speech to his audience from around the world.

In the late 1990s, the movement had dropped in numbers, finances were in a mess, and the well-known Onrust campsite was in bad shape, former shaliach Ronen Segall recalled. “Errol was the obvious choice for someone with deep knowledge of the movement, its workings, and its campsite. In my eyes, Errol became Habonim’s true hero, a superman without a cape but full of capability.”

In a short space of time, Anstey led a significant turnaround for Habonim along with the team of shlichim and Habonim leadership. His fundraising, finance, and administration skills shone, and over his term as manhig an estimated R20 million has been raised and invested in the Onrust campsite to make it one of the most sought-after and valuable campsites in South Africa.

“This has enabled the movement not only to maintain the site to a high level, but the revenue has helped finance many of the movement’s activities,” Anstey proudly told his audience.

The traditional role of the manhig since the founding of SA Habonim Dror was always to be the “adult in the room” to act as a guide and mentor to the movement’s young leadership. Former mazkira klalit (general secretary) of Habonim from 2005, Micaela Browde, paid tribute to Anstey saying, “You were really a stalwart for us, you fought for us, you had our backs, you made sure we were supported, guided, and you did so with strength, humility, and humour.”

Anstey described some of the challenges during his stint including differences of opinion and sometimes open confrontation with mainstream Jewish community leadership when Habonim was critical of some of Israel’s actions. “It wasn’t easy to be a lone voice for progressive, liberal thinking as South Africa’s community became predominantly conservative,” he said with his usual frankness.

Another mazkir klali, Daniel Sussman from 2019, described Anstey’s catch phrase as “do everything, all the time, never sleep”. This succinctly summed up for him the endless number of projects and activities which Anstey led over the past two decades on behalf of Habonim.

Stanley Bergman, originally from Port Elizabeth and now in New York, the national treasurer for Habonim in 1968, paid tribute to Anstey’s enormous efforts to support several generations of Habonim members. He praised him for his ability to connect with graduates from the movement around the world and develop a donor community to support the Habonim Foundation which he initiated.

Anstey spoke of the erratic provision of Habonim shlichim from Israel over the years, and how he had additionally become a shaliach himself, which meant mentoring the leadership and members of the movement. He emphasised that he had “the privilege of working with the cream of South African Jewish youth” and said “there was nothing more fulfilling than working with inspired youth”. Their activism had motivated him to run successfully for public office in 2011 as a member of the Democratic Alliance.

During the Zoom session, many participants showered praise on Anstey’s term as manhig including Isaac Herzog, the chairperson of the Jewish Agency for Israel, who acknowledged the “outstanding contribution” that he had made to Habonim over so many years.

Former mazkir klali in the early 1980s, Stephen Pincus, expressed his appreciation for Anstey’s earlier roles as camp organiser at one of the largest Onrust camps ever, and later in spearheading the 50th anniversary celebrations of the movement.

“It was clear from those early years that Errol had that obvious aptitude for organisation along with a commitment to the movement,” he said. “Little did we know that we unleashed a formidable force which reverberated in the movement for more than 40 years.”

Anstey told the audience that his two children, Saul and Talia, had followed in his footsteps, having attended 12 Onrust camps and later became his “eyes on the ground” regarding movement dynamics. He also noted that it was probably an unprecedented situation that they had actually left the movement before their father did.

Anstey warmly welcomed the new incoming manhig, Wayne Sussman, in his usual modest style saying how satisfying it was for him to hand over the mantle to “someone who will be better than me and will take Habonim to new heights”.

Sussman responded in the session with his usual passionate style, describing the six previous manhigim who preceded him as “giants on whose shoulders we stand”. He lamented the fact that the Habonim leadership was on a Zoom call and not at the annual Onrust camp, and how challenging it was going to be in 2021 without the lessons learned and experiences from machaneh.

“Our first task will be to assist the 2021 bogrim led by the new mazkir, Aaron Sher, to capture some of the magic which will be lost, but I’m confident we can do it,” said Sussman.

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JNF Blue Box enters the digital age



When is a Jewish National Fund (JNF) Blue Box not a blue box? Never. Even though the physical box now has a digital donation option, it’s still the age-old Blue Box.

This box has for decades symbolised the JNF and the commitment of Jewish people around the world to rebuild Israel.

And for decades, it has been filled to the brim with pennies, cents, nickels, dimes, lira, and francs – coins of every denomination dropped in, one could almost say, religiously every Friday evening before Shabbat candle lighting.

Now it’s no longer limited to physical coins and a metal box. The new Blue Box with a digital donation option via SnapScan will be launched in time for Channukah to keep the tradition of the Blue Box alive for the next 120 years.

The first real Blue Box was, oddly enough, Theodor Herzl’s hat. At the Fifth Zionist Congress in 1901, he used his hat to solicit donations from delegates as a means of purchasing land to establish a Jewish homeland.

Soon after, a Polish bank clerk proposed that a collection box bearing the words “National Fund” be placed in every Jewish home to raise money for land purchases. Production began in Vienna. The boxes were initially produced in a blue material and thus became known as Blue Boxes.

Over the past 120 years, funds collected via the Blue Box from around the world have assisted the JNF to realise its aim of developing land in Israel: building roads and water reservoirs, establishing parks, and preparing the soil for agriculture and settlement. Beyond fundraising, the Blue Box is also an important educational tool for spreading the Zionist message and renewing the historic bond between the Jewish people and EretzYisrael.

Stories about the Blue Box have become legendary. In the United States around Tu B’Shvat, teams of children brandishing JNF Blue Boxes would travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the New York City subway system. They would move from train car to train car with these ubiquitous boxes in hand, soliciting contributions from passengers and stopping only when they sensed or saw the approach of policemen.

In South Africa, members of the JNF would visit Jewish homes every Sunday to collect and then empty Blue Boxes, diligently counting the hundreds or thousands of coins inside them. In addition to being proudly displayed in almost every South African Jewish home, Blue Boxes were also present in schools, shuls, Jewish-owned businesses, medical waiting rooms, even hairdressing salons.

In times past when life wasn’t so frenetic and women could spend afternoons playing rummy and socialising, the money raised and won during the games was often dropped into the Blue Box, adding to the largesse and reputation of that particular hostess.

Today the iconic Blue Box (or pushke) remains the link between the Jewish people and the land, and to many, perhaps even to the majority of the Jewish world, it’s a symbol of Jewish continuity. They can also be quite valuable: a few antique Blue Boxes were auctioned by Sotheby’s recently, realising more than $3 000 (R46 006) each.

However, in the age of credit cards, cryptocurrency, and e-wallets, fundraising via a coin-based Blue Box risks becoming an anachronism.

So, the JNF has relaunched the Blue Box and linked it to the SnapScan mobile-payments app. A QR code will be found on all new Blue Boxes purchased from the JNF. People with old boxes can bring them in to have the QR code imprinted for no extra charge.

It’s modern technology indeed, but inextricably linked to a century-old tradition of keeping Israel alive in every Jewish heart.

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