Celebrating BJE’s 110-year ‘Jewish journey’

From left: Tahlia Gordon, Ariella Shatari, Hilit Man and Jesse Klass toast l’chaim to BJE for its 110th birthday. Photo: Giselle Haber

“TO be honest with all of you, it was the best experience of my life to this date,” Ariella Shatari said at the NSW Board of Jewish Education’s (BJE) 110-year anniversary on Tuesday.

The BJE alumna and madrichah was reminiscing about her experience as a year 10 student on BJE’s Israel program, supported by Y2i.

“Nothing has trumped it … I don’t know if that’s sad or happy,” Shatari said, eliciting laughter from the 110 gathered to celebrate BJE as the longest-serving provider of Jewish education in NSW.

Reflecting on his and Shatari’s “Jewish journey”, which saw them lead BJE Israel 2018 with fellow madrich David Ehrlich, Jesse Klass said BJE not only “gave us a fundamental part of our Jewish education, but it also allowed us to foster lifelong friendships”.

Shatari and Klass have Lilly Maltz to thank for their transformative year 10 Israel trip.

When Maltz became BJE principal in 1997, the former educator, who has also come to know the organisation as a student, parent, and most recently, grandparent, said it was her “dream goal” for year 10 BJE students to join an Israel trip.

Just two years later, that dream was realised.

From a small group of 10 students attending an Israel trip in 1999, this year, BJE is forecast to take over 100 students from schools including Blaxland High School, Waverley College and PLC Pymble.

The impact of these trips on students’ Jewish identity is “phenomenal”, remarked Maltz, whose journey with BJE began as a child in scripture class at Bellevue Hill Public School.

As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, Maltz shared how her parents suffered immensely and were persecuted “just for being Jewish”. Upon arriving in Australia in 1947, their first concern was rebuilding their family.

“The thought was not there that their children would not only be able to live as Jews freely in Australia, but actually they would be going to their local public school, and be taught about Judaism by the Jewish community.”

Maltz’s son attended BJE classes at Sydney Boys High School, and this year, her grandson’s journey has begun.

“It is just beautiful – when we pick up our grandson from Woollahra Public School – to see how those little ‘Ks’ are already starting to read Hebrew,” she said.

Reflecting on the organisation’s exponential growth from humble beginnings, Tahlia Gordon, who became BJE’s president in April, remarked, “What started as a modest organisation to provide Jewish education to the Jewish community in NSW by a cadre of visionary leaders, has today become the quintessential provider of formal and informal Jewish education to Jewish students in non-Jewish schools across NSW.”

Significantly, in its 110 years of existence, Gordon is the first female to hold the top post.

Recognising the importance of scripture as BJE’s “core mandate”, Gordon said the organisation offers “so much more”, pointing to Hebrew programs, outreach programs, Studies of Religion program, and the weekend escape camp.

But the anniversary was also about looking forward.

Articulating the organisation’s vision, BJE board member and University of Sydney professor Dr Avril Alba said BJE’s plan offers students an “inspiring, meaningful and inclusive BJE Jewish journey”.

This goal is to be realised through growing students’ Jewish identities and knowledge, expanding their networks, and providing opportunities to give back to the community.

Aimed at engaging parents and carers, a Community Hub Steering Committee has also been established, and in tandem with the Israel program, BJE will offer newly developed pre- and post-visit learning.

Alumnus Benny Neumann also spoke of the “invaluable role” BJE plays in educating students up to and beyond their b’nei mitzvah.

Members of the community were honoured with lifetime memberships, presented by BJE CEO Hilit Man.