National Council of Jewish Women of Australia was founded in Sydney in 1923 by Dr Fanny Reading MBE, becoming a national organisation in 1929. Since then, thousands of Jewish women (and men) have worked selflessly towards achieving a more equitable society for women and girls, and for the community as a whole.
In 1923 Jewish women did not have a voice.
Today the women of NCJW NSW have a voice. NCJW NSW celebrated its Centenary on 8 July 2023. Some organisations fail to live up to the expectations of their founders. This is clearly not the case with NCJW NSW. We are so very pleased to say that the founder of NCJW NSW, Dr Fanny Reading MBE, has left a centenary legacy that has inspired the next generations of Jewish women.
“The best of all impressions to take back from this Conference to your states, your cities, and your homes, is that the Council of Jewish Women stands above all things, for the law of Loving-Kindness. With love and kindest greetings, Fanny Reading” (First Jewish Women’s Conference, May 1929)
Fanny Rubinovich (1884-1974) was born near Minsk in Russia. Shortly after, the family emigrated to Australia, first settling in Ballarat, Victoria, then relocating to Melbourne in the early 1900s. In 1918 Fanny’s family anglicised their surname to Reading. Fanny studied music at Melbourne University. She graduated in 1914, later returning to university to study for a medical degree (1916-1921).
In the early twentieth century, Jewish women’s networks were working within the emancipated Western world as the consequences of dire socioeconomic conditions in Eastern Europe from the beginning of the twentieth century to the outbreak of World War 1. These economic woes were caused in no small part by the Industrial Revolution. This led to millions of Jews seeking to leave the Russian Empire. Many of these were women and children and Australia was one of the sought-after destinations. Many of these women, poverty stricken, with no education, and with no means of support found themselves in dire need of help. Internationally NCJW recognised this and began assisting young Jewish women immigrants as they disembarked after their long journeys. Founder of National Council of Jewish Women in America, Hannah Greenebaum Solomon was a role model for Fanny Reading, using the model of Chicago Women’s club to inspire its members intellectually and demand their time and energy to get involved and help with social causes. Henrietta Szold, the American-born Jewish Zionist leader and founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, was also inspirational in Fanny’s steadfast commitment to supporting Israel.
Fanny was impressed, as she says in her own words, “by great women imbued with the ideals of service” and her intent was, through NCJWA nationally, to inspire Australian Jewish women to support Israel, the Jewish Community, and the general community. She believed in empowering and improving the lives of women and children. Fanny’s medical practice was in the bohemian area of Kings Cross, known for its illegal trading of alcohol and brothels. Dr. Fanny cared for prostitutes, street kids, and victims of domestic violence. “No one wants to know that there is so much heartbreak, suffering and…degradation in the Cross. I must live and work here” (Dr Fanny Reading). This was atypical for the time as roles for women were mainly in the private sphere; daughter of, mother of, wife of, lover of.
Fanny was born into a “man’s world”, yet she strongly believed in social change and became a powerful role model to Jewish women, showing they could make a difference. At a time when Zionism was not universally accepted in the Jewish community, Dr. Fanny included the Zionist ideal in Council’s aims from its inception and was a delegate at the XIV Zionist Congress in Vienna in 1925. Dr. Fanny lobbied at the highest government level, before, during, and after World War II, to open doors for Jewish refugees to enter Australia.
She also lobbied the British Government “that the gates of Palestine be opened for unrestricted Jewish immigration as an urgent necessity for the saving of Jewish lives” (NCJWA National Conference Resolution, 1943).
Dr. Fanny Reading was named a “Woman of Distinction” by Justice Herron of the Supreme Court for the principled stand she took on behalf of the Australian Jewish Community in a libel action against Smith’s Weekly. This publication accused Australian Jewry of sending funds to support action against the British in Palestine. Justice Herron ultimately directed the jury to enter a verdict for the Defendant. He ruled that the Smiths Weekly story could not reasonably be read as referring to Dr. Reading as distinct from any other members of Youth Aliyah. As there was no law against group libel he had no alternative but to find against her. But the judge also had this to say: “I give this decision with some regret”. Australia’s first laws against racial vilification were passed in NSW in 1989.
NCJWA raised over £300,000 for Commonwealth War Loans. Raised £18,000 for the Australian Comforts Fund by the Sydney Kiosk and the Midway Arcade Shop, Melbourne. Gave 3 Mobile Canteens: to Palestine, to bombed London, and to Sydney. Gave 2 transport trucks for service overseas. Gave £3,100 towards building Monash Recreation Hut for Servicemen in Sydney. Gave and equipped 72 beds in Red Cross Convalescent Homes in Sydney and Melbourne; also a Mobile Library. Raised fabulous sums on Button Days for special appeals. Made a quarter of a million garments for servicemen. Organised First Aid and Air Raid classes in every NCJWA section. Established the British Hospitality Centre for Jewish Servicemen and Women in Sydney. Established War Savings Certificate Groups. Volunteers visited sick soldiers in hospitals and convalescent homes. Members gave service in many servicemen’s canteens.
From 1923 NCJW NSW met migrants from Eastern Europe and helped to establish them as Australian citizens, and maintained relations with European Centres such as Hias Emigdiretc, Polish Federation of Jews, London, and with the American Joint Distribution.
In 1930 volunteers assisted the formation of Sydney Y.M.H.A., and later the Melbourne and Hobart Y.M.H.A.
In June 1946 the NCJW NSW volunteers arranged canteens, meals, outings, and accommodation for the lately released members of concentration camps in Europe and the Far East.
After the war the Local Charities Committee raised large sums for local hospitals, T.B. settlements, soldiers’ dependents’ homes, children’s homes, and other local charities such as Montefiore Home, Hebrew Ladies’ Maternity Society, etc. Members gave service in hospital canteens.
Members contributed large sums to Polish and German Jewish refugee associations, Rescue the Children Fund, and the United Jewish Overseas Relief Appeals. Assisted the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration by contributing thousands of garments.
The NCJWA supported all Jewish National Fund activities in Israel including Queen Competitions and raised large sums for hospitals and children’s nurseries.
Established the Rose Mandelbaum Scholarship for a woman student in the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. Assisted all appeals for day nurseries, children’s homes and including the establishment of an infant welfare centre in Tel Aviv in 1924. NCJW NSW assisted Ezra in making large contributions including for a maternity ward in the Rothschild Hadassah University Hospital on Mt. Scopus.
FANNY READING Council House
The Fanny Reading Council House, NCJW War Memorial Centre resulted from years of member fundraising and no-interest loans by members and friends. The building was officially opened at 111 -113 Queen Street, Woollahra in 1963.
Extract from a speech written by Dr Fanny Reading MBE and read at the opening of the building in 1963: “We have waited a very long time for Council House. I little thought when I returned from New York in 1926 with the idea of a Council House here, that it would take 37 years to reach its fulfillment. We have been wandering for 40 years in this city, from one place to another. Now that we shall have a home of our own worthy of our aims, I hope its doors will always be open, day and night, to welcome the stranger and those that need us, where our members can carry out our work of service with greater efficiency, and where peace and loving-kindness should reign within its walls”.
Wolper Jewish Hospital
1982 signing of the transfer of the title from the Trustees of the Hospital Visiting Committee of the NCJWA NSW to Wolper Jewish Hospital.
In gratitude for the care Council members had given her, Gertie Wolper Stone in 1949 bequeathed her house in Coogee to the NCJW NSW Hospital Visiting Committee for the establishment of a Jewish convalescent home. The Coogee house was not suitable to be used as a convalescent home and it was sold. A property at 8 Trelawney Street, Woollahra was purchased and became the Wolper Convalescent Hospital in 1953. The Sydney Jewish Hospital and the Wolper Convalescent Hospital amalgamated to become The Wolper Jewish Hospital in 1961. In 1982 the Wolper Jewish Hospital was rebuilt. “The Trustees of the Hospital Visiting Committee NCJW NSW Division on the 14th May 1982, transferred the title of the land to Wolper Jewish Hospital” (The Origins of Wolper Jewish Hospital, June 2001). This was done by Council in the spirit of communal cooperation for the symbolic sum of $1.
The hospital has successfully grown to support the rehabilitation of thousands of patients, and recently celebrated its 60th anniversary.