COMMUNITY icon Nina Bassat is being honoured for her outstanding service to the Victorian Jewish community.
Bassat, a former president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) and the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV), said she felt “extremely honoured and excited” to receive this year’s JCCV General Sir John Monash Award for outstanding service to the Victorian Jewish community.
Bassat’s communal career was woven around her leadership roles — the JCCV in 1997-98 and the ECAJ in 1999-2001 — and she said she feels “sad” she has been the only female president of a state Jewish roof organisation, something she hopes will change soon.
She was a tireless campaigner and facilitator for Holocaust restitution, for resettling Jews from the former Soviet Union, and for dealing with the aftermath of the Maccabiah bridge disaster.
A Polish-born child survivor who spent time in a displaced persons camp, Bassat arrived in Melbourne with her mother in 1949. She attended public schools before studying law at The University of Melbourne, completing her degree in 1965.
In the late 1990s, her volunteer work with the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia caught the eye of then-JCCV chair Robert Redlich, who urged her to become involved with the state body.
At first she baulked at adding more to a life already dedicated to raising three children and running a solo legal practice. But when her husband Bob lamented there were not enough women in Jewish communal leadership, she had a change of heart.
“Community structures are just an extension of family,” she reflected to The AJN, adding that perhaps this was a woman’s perspective on leadership.
As a board member of the Claims Conference, Bassat became involved in Holocaust restitution, and said it was a “powerful, emotional … complex” experience.
“To lose not only your family, to be deprived of your property and denied even a basic education … I couldn’t know how older survivors felt, but I could get just a glimmer.”
When slave labour restitution was announced, she called for volunteer case workers to head off a staff shortage at the JCCV, setting up a telephone hotline for applicants.
After the 1997 Maccabiah tragedy, she met survivors of the bridge collapse and travelled to Israel where she liaised with the Attorney-General’s Department, as part of the Australian campaign for compensation.
“I met with every Knesset member who made themselves available … I thumped tables and screamed.”
After her JCCV presidency, outgoing ECAJ president Diane Shteinman persuaded her to take on the ECAJ presidency. “She lulled me into a false sense of security,” quipped Bassat.
In 2003, Bassat, who has an Order of Australia medal, was added to the Victorian Women’s Roll of Honour, and Caulfield MLA Helen Shardey paid tribute to her in Parliament.
Bassat remains involved in several volunteer organisations, and is Melbourne deputy chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, but said her retirement has let her focus on family.
JCCV president John Searle said: “The Victorian Jewish community is blessed with many wonderful, giving volunteers, but Nina Bassat is a prominent member of a very small group that really stands out. She is a most deserving recipient and I am thrilled to be making this announcement.”
Bassat will receive her Monash Award at the JCCV’s annual Volunteer Awards presentation on November 9.