Millie Phillips remembered

July 20, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Tributes have poured in to recognise the philanthropic work of Millie Phillips who has died in Sydney at the age of 92.

Millie Phillips – a doctorate from Tel Aviv University in 2015

The Polish-born benefactor arrived in Australia from her native Poland at the age of 10.

At one time, she was one of Australia’s richest women having made her fortune in nickel.

Many organisations benefitted from her generosity including Tel Aviv University which has a wing named after her.

Today the world is a little bit smaller. In the early morning hours of Monday, Millie Phillips, aged 92, passed peacefully, surrounded by her loved ones, listening to the calm waves of the ocean in her room at Beresford Hall in Rose Bay.

Millie was a truly remarkable yet enigmatic figure, whose life could easily have come from the pages of any great work of literature. Narrowly escaping the rise of Nazism in her native Poland by immigrating to Australia at the age of nine in 1938, she rose in true ‘rags to riches’ fashion from a childhood of abject poverty, eating meat just once a week and living with a large family in a two-room flat, to being noted as one of Australia’s most successful business people, with a lifetime net worth estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

She was, by any measure, a true feminist icon, starting out in her first business venture running a boarding house at the Baptist Church home for Girls in Ashfield with a deposit of just £3,000 in 1959, just one year after her youngest daughter was born. Despite battling stigma as not only a woman but also a high school drop-out and a divorcee, Millie became a known figure and respected community member with multiple public and private business ventures across a range of industries that remain heavily male-dominated even today and were especially so in the 1970s when she first made a name for herself. In recognition of her multiple entrepreneurial successes, as a mining magnate, hotel chain manager, aged care operator, investor and property developer, Millie, who lacked all formal education, was recognised in 2015 with an honorary PhD from the Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Away from the headlines, Millie’s life was enriched by her great passions, for art and culture. Over her lifetime she amassed an incredibly diverse and eclectic collection of paintings and antique pieces. She travelled widely throughout her life, with notable visits to Soviet Russia and Communist China during the 1980s a part of Australian business delegations and paired this zest for adventure with a deep appreciation for the Australian landscape and natural scene. Her pride and joy to her last days remained her carefully tended federation era property in the Blue Mountains, with its extensive garden full of rare and prized plants collected and arranged over painstaking decades.

Her personal life was not without its challenges. She struggled through an abusive marriage and acrimonious divorce all while pursuing her entrepreneurial career and raising her three children Lynette, Robert and Sharonne. When tragedy struck the family again with the passing of her eldest daughter, Millie was distraught for many years, before again finding spiritual peace through both her Jewish faith and her personal beliefs in Eastern Mysticism and Hindu thought, as detailed in her 2016 book ‘Clouds of Glory’.  For her, the hardships of the world demanded above all greater acts from kindness from those who suffered.

To that end, throughout her career Millie was a noted, and extremely generous philanthropist gifting away tens of millions of dollars to various Australian charities. In recent years, Millie’s bequests have supported the building of various education and medical facilities, houses of worship, and other community buildings in Australia and Israel; with tens of millions of dollars spent on a new museum and student facilities for the Tel Aviv University in Israel, and various school and synagogue buildings commissioned around Sydney’s Suburbs and in Canberra.

In her final acts, by way of her will, Millie has left the vast bulk of her estate, valued at upwards of $100 million to the creation of a new charity, run by a board including family representatives: daughter Sharonne Phillips and grandson Anthony Small; community figures including former ALP federal MP Michael Danby; and her executors Peter Philippsohn OAM and Steven Gross, alongside others yet to be named. The entity will be tasked with pursuing the charitable purposes nearest and dearest to Millie’s heart. Namely fighting anti-semitic discrimination in all its forms, to ensure that the horrors of the Holocaust will never again be visited on us; and to promote with pride the community, and values to which she dedicated her life.

Vale Millie, a shtetl girl come good, and a hero of another era. She will be sorely missed by those who knew her.


TRIBUTES

JNF

Millie Phillips z”l was a true Zionist who dedicated her life to Am Yisrael, the State Of Israel and the Jewish community. ‘Every time I was privileged to meet with her, I was inspired by her passion to fight against antisemitism, promote Israel’s case to the broader community and to help people in need. She always knew what she wanted and what needed to happen. She was always the first to lead by example and do the right thing’ commented Yossi Eshed, JNF Shaliach.   JNF Australia, the Australian Jewish community and the State Of Israel lost a really special friend.

ZFA

The Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) extended condolences to the Phillips family on the passing of communal identity and philanthropist Millie Phillips.

Born in Poland, Millie Phillips came to Australia as a young girl, but her experiences facing anti-Semitism had a lasting impact on her.  Life Member of the ZFA Dr. Ron Weiser, who worked closely with Millie, recalls a story she told him in one of their meetings, about Polish youths throwing stones at her and her brother, which resulted in her brother being injured. Millie was determined never to be defenceless again, and that incident was a strong motivating factor in her support of Israel, and her general philanthropy for the Jewish community.

US$15 million  donation to Tel Aviv University

Through the establishment of the JCA Millie Phillips Jewish Education Fund, Millie contributed much-needed support for Zionist youth movements – for Israel Programs and local support for camps and other activities – as well as supporting Jewish students on campus through the AUJS shlichut.

President of the ZFA, Jeremy Leibler said, “we were saddened to hear of Millie’s passing. She was a remarkable woman, who has no doubt changed the lives of countless Jewish youth and students through her contributions to activities such as Zionist youth movement camps, AUJS shlichut, and Israel programs over the decades.”

Dr Weiser concurred, “Millie Phillips’ communal generosity was very significant. In particular, her generous and ongoing commitment in support of the Zionist Youth Movements both locally and for their Israel programs over many years, exemplified her understanding of and dedication to Jewish continuity. Millie will be sorely missed.”

Peter Philippsohn former president of JCA

Millie Phillips was a unique personality.

While I knew of her as a communal benefactor, my first real meeting with her was in response to an invite from the late Joachim Schneeweiss to meet her for lunch.

At the time I was JCA president. I had no real idea of what the purpose of the meeting was but I was happy to go.

At lunch near her office in York Street, she told me that she wanted to do something for the community and was interested in donating $2 million towards Jewish education. After some discussion, we went back to her with the concept of a JCA endowment fund for Jewish education. We described a fund which would help families with children currently attending Jewish day schools where there was a crisis in the family which made it difficult or impossible for them to pay school fees. We stressed that there needed to be long term security for these families so that the funding should be for the balance of primary or high school education

Millie and I had discussed the impact of youth groups and camps on young Jewish kids, so another project to fund kids going to their first Jewish camp was proposed. The value for young people spending time in Israel was an additional area which we recommended for her support.

The following Sunday, Millie rang me.

I wondered, had she changed her mind?

Millie said she had reconsidered her gift. $2 million wasn’t going to be enough to cover all of this, so she increased her donation to $4 million to cover all three initiatives.

Over the years when we sat in meetings of the JCA Millie Phillips Jewish Education Fund and we didn’t have enough funding available to cover all the asks which we felt merited support.

Millie would say, “I’ll cover that as well”

That was Millie

This larger than life human being will be sadly missed by many communal organisations which benefitted from her generosity.

But, her final gift to establish a fund to fight antisemitism and build Jewish pride will ensure her name and good deeds live on.

The Executive Council of Australian Jewry: President, Jillian Segal

Millie Phillips z”l will be remembered as someone who survived and overcame the dreadful trauma and loss of the Holocaust, which she was forced to endure in her native Poland at a tender age, and went on to establish a new life in Australia.  A formidable personality in every way, she not only managed to raise a family but also went on to achieve extraordinary success as a businesswoman, overcoming the deep prejudices against the participation of women in business which were prevalent during the early years of her business career.

Throughout her life, she adhered resolutely to her Jewish identity, remained a passionate fighter against antisemitism and was a generous benefactor to the Jewish community.

L-R: Steven Gross (Vice President Masada College Board of Management, Mrs Millie Phillips, Mrs Wendy Barel (College Principal), Mr Trevor Lorge (President Masada College Board of Management)  2012

 

David Knoll Co-President, Union for Progressive Judaism

I had the honour of acting for her professionally and knowing her communally.

She had a good Jewish heart and was a very generous person.

JCA

“Millie understood the importance of community and helping others and was dedicated to furthering education and fighting antisemitism.  In setting up the JCA Millie Phillips Jewish Education Fund she was able make those dreams a reality.  Her legacy will continue for years to come. On behalf of everyone at JCA I extend my deepest condolences to her family and friends.” Ian Sandler, President, JCA.

Rabbi Jeffrey B. Kamins, Emanuel Synagogue

Millie Phillips was an extraordinary woman of vitality and courage, a woman who never forgot her Polish roots and the tragedy of the Shoah, and was therefore committed to building the Jewish community and fighting antisemitism.  She was a unique thinker, strong-minded and stubborn, and also deeply spiritual – passionately connected to her Judaism, believing strongly in the power of the mind, and finding ultimate succour in her country home in Kurrajong, with its exquisite garden, ever-present and ever-changing.
Millie was a true pioneer, a woman ahead of her times, and after achieving tremendous financial success committed to sharing most generously her good fortune with so many organisations in the Australian Jewish community and in Israel, where she will be laid to rest next to her daughter Lynette who predeceased her.  She has been a significant supporter of Emanuel School and her gift to the synagogue is the largest single donation we have ever received, instrumental in the transformation of Emanuel Synagogue and its place in the community.
I am grateful for our friendship, our sharp conversations and of recent, our ability to celebrate Shabbat together.  I will miss Millie and join the community in sending condolences to her son Robert, her daughter Sharonne and their families. Her legacy will live on through the generations, may her memory be a blessing.
Moriah College
Over the years, through The Moriah Foundation, the College was the recipient of Millie’s generosity via her support of the 2011 Capital Appeal and the Millie Phillips Jewish Education Fund (MPJEF), which provides financial assistance to families who would not otherwise be able to afford a Moriah education. In addition, her legacy includes funding via the Millie Phillips Gam Yachad Program, which fosters opportunities for social inclusion amongst students. We wish the Phillips family long life. May her memory be a blessing.

The ACT Jewish Community (ACTJC)

We pay tribute to Millie Phillips z”l, a remarkable woman and generous benefactor to our community.  The ACTJC is one of countless organisations which have benefitted from Millie’s generosity.

Millie made a landmark donation to the redevelopment of the ACTJC National Jewish Memorial Centre in 2018, with the new wing and entry foyer named in her honour.  She recognized the significance of building a modern national Jewish centre in our national capital to serve as a focal point for local community growth and for hosting national engagement with federal parliament, the diplomatic community and the national media based in Canberra.  With her contribution we were able to complete our vision of building an architecturally striking, secure and multi-purpose national centre with capacity to host national events and exhibitions, to welcome visitors, and to provide a modern comfortable venue for religious and educational activity. Our community is so thankful for her commitment and generosity.

Millie was a remarkable business woman, a ground breaker, a community leader and a benefactor whose legacy will strengthen Jewish communal organisations from generation to generation.

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