The Gonski View

May 20, 2013 by J-Wire
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Leone Hersh interviews David Gonski for j-junction

David Gonski

David Gonski

Imagine living in a country where not all people were equal before the law, and the practice of social responsibility was politically incorrect. Such was the political and moral landscape David Gonski’s family chose to eschew in 1961.  Many years later, imbued with the values of his forebears, David champions the rights of all people to choose; how to practise one’s religion, whom one will marry, how and where their children will be educated …..

“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Vayikra 19:33-34)

Leaving South Africa at the tender age of 7, David Gonski took his parents’ lead and immediately embraced his new home, quickly and forever more, identifying as Australian. David never felt like a stranger in a strange land, but rather, in his own words, “a very fortunate immigrant,” keen to involve himself in the Australian way of life, in the community at large and to give back to this country he has long called ‘home’.

Sitting in a meeting room perched 23 floors above the CBD overlooking Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, David tells me, “I see myself as a proud Australian. I have been a very fortunate immigrant to this country. And while I do what I do for myself and for my family, I am also motivated by a real desire to give back. I believe very strongly that we as Jews must contribute to the wider community.”

He adds proudly, “It is something Jews have always done over time; it is something my grandfather did, something my father did, and I want to do it. I believe very strongly that my want to be involved in my community stems from my upbringing in South Africa.” Furthermore, David feels that contributing to the wider community can indirectly contribute to the well-being of our own Jewish community.

Never seeking to exploit nor hide the fact that he is Jewish, he says simply, “I am proud of my heritage, I am proud of my Jewish upbringing and religion but I don’t think I am any better than anyone else. After all, pride is important but arrogance is unforgivable.”

Far from being an obstacle in his professional life, David found that being Jewish had its advantages.

“When I was young I was very fortunate to be entrusted by some terrific, successful Jewish business people. I think they felt a fraternity. They understood who I was and how I operated.”

Through his involvement with dozens of different enterprises over the years, he has associated with many different people from all walks of life, and all religions. “I am a very fortunate person, having had the chance to meet and form wonderful relationships with some terrific people from the world of the arts and education. I have had terrific camaraderie with some wonderful business people, both Jewish and not Jewish. The other day I spoke at the funeral of the late Qantas chief executive, James Strong. I had a great fraternity with him. He was a wonderful man. We had a wonderful relationship. I never knew what religion he was, and he never asked me mine.”

Although he doesn’t wear a Magen David or a yarmulke in his day to day life David explains that he is always happy to say what his religion is or fill it out on a form when asked, adding, “But to be quite blunt, I think each of us is US. We’re like a very complex jigsaw made up of different pieces that come together to form us. We should be proud to be US.”

When asked how he would advise young Jewish business professionals regarding disclosure and expression of one’s Jewish heritage, David offers the following sage words, “You are what you are, and I think it is a mistake to hide who you are and where you come from, because even if you are successful, you would be living a lie. Living a lie is not a comfortable thing to do. I don’t think you need to flaunt your differences nor your advantages. I think it is best to simply be thinking, caring human beings.”

One very special thinking and caring human being in David’s life is his mother.

“One of the reasons we left South Africa was that my dear mother, who is still alive, thank G-d, could not countenance the concept of black people not being allowed to enter Cape Town University. Now when it was announced – and I don’t know whether she literally picked up the suitcase and closed it that day, but we were on our way, leaving shortly afterwards! It is interesting because having just been there over Christmas I went past the beautiful Cape Town University. They now have a proud tradition of having black people there, which they certainly did not in 1961!”

“On that same trip last year I was also fortunate enough to visit the house in which I was born in Cape Town. As we were sitting outside in a little tour bus, a man came out and said ‘What are you doing here?’ and I said ‘I was born in this house.’ And he said, ‘Well come in!’ So in my wife and I went to see how they had redesigned the house. The lady who was cleaning there at the time was sure she remembered me and gave me a kiss. Of course it can’t be, because it was 50 years ago.”

“50 years ago, when I lived in that house the kitchen was pokey, with servants’ quarters at the back. Even though it wasn’t the done thing – to go into the servants’ space, nor they into ours – I played a lot in that area because I was very fond of the lady who looked after me when I was little. Now the servants’ quarters are gone and the kitchen is just like one we would have here in Australia.”

David found this a most significant and gratifying change and was pleased to note that the owners of his old home, who also happened to be Jewish, appeared to treat this lady very similarly to the way one may treat a lady who comes to clean here in Australia today; with respect and dignity.

Seeking to bring their young family up in a society that valued respect and dignity for all its citizens, David’s parents moved to Australia in 1961. David and his four siblings were enrolled into government schools.

“Then I went to Sydney Grammar for high school. Which school you send your child to is a matter of choice. As for Jewish schooling, the important issue to me is that those that want their children to go to Jewish schools should be able to do so. That’s what I wrote in the Gonski review, that’s the essence; people should be able to choose. Of course Jewish schools need to be good, first rate schools and if there aren’t enough kids attending or people can’t afford to send their children then that is a problem.”

So what about those families who choose to send their children to a government school?

The Jewish education provided by Academy BJE to students in government schools gets David’s tick of approval.  In fact he has happy memories of his time attending Board of Jewish Education classes while attending Vaucluse Primary so many years ago! “I think it is important for those families in the community who decide to send their kids to public schools to have that option. Not all Jewish kids choose to go to a Jewish school. And I also don’t believe everybody should go to university either, even though I am a chancellor; it’s a choice.”

David continues, “I believe everyone should be valued, regardless of their education, regardless of how they earn a living. I believe we all make a difference to our community, just by existing.”

He adds modestly, “While I definitely strive to be involved with and help the community in which I live I don’t think that I have made any more difference than anyone else. Some, such as those in the medical fraternity, like doctors and nurses, by virtue of the work they do, contribute on a daily basis. Business people like me have to consciously work harder to make a contribution.”

“One of the greatest things I did, as many families do now, was to set up a family foundation, with my three kids, my wife and I making up the board. I love the feeling of no longer having to make the decisions alone. And there are definitely different views because of the different ages. Even at my age, I am learning that it is important and quite good to be guided.”

He also believes it is good and important to influence other fortunate families to give generously to Jewish organisations, as his family does. That is why he doesn’t believe in giving anonymously. “I want people to know that if they can give what we give they should; if they are richer than us, they should give more. When I give I want to make a difference, so I prefer to give more to less, than less to more. In other words I don’t give a dollar to many but rather a thousand to fewer.”

Describing philanthropy as “a very personal thing”, David says he supports Australian causes associated with aspects of society that relate to his life and that of his family, both past and present.

With his wife, daughter, one brother and late father all doctors, causes related to health and medicine stir up strong feelings of admiration and a desire to contribute to the best of his ability.

Not surprisingly, education and the arts sit high on David’s list of beneficiaries, having been chairman of the Art Gallery of NSW and recently installed for a second term as chancellor of his alma mater, the University of NSW, where he also taught.

Acknowledging that giving money, if one can, is a very important thing to do, his preference is to give both money and time. “I love being involved in the things I give to, such as the art gallery and the university. By being involved there, you come to understand the institution and its influences, and have an opportunity to see how your money makes a difference.”

That involvement allowed for one of David’s proudest moments in recent times when, as Chancellor of the University of NSW he was able to graduate two of his three children. He noted, “It was even more unique because my wife and my brother, both associate professors at the university, were sitting on the stage when I graduated my daughter! And with all due health and hopefully some hard work by the third, I would like to make it a hat trick, before I go!”

Moving from the institution of learning to the institution of marriage, the question was put to David…

Should the Jewish community give a Gonski about intermarriage?

“If you are concerned that intermarriage is a problem, you don’t make it compulsory to marry Jews. You highlight the good things about being Jewish; keep telling the stories of all the wonderful people who went before, and explain what Judaism stands for in the modern context. I feel it is much more important to live on Jewish principles than being religious. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be religious; if you want to be religious that is your choice. But I will never either look down or up to people depending on their religiousness. I’m more interested in how they deal with life. And if you look at the Jewish faith, our principles are good. This way Jewish Continuity will not be an issue.”

Before there can be Jewish Continuity, their needs to be Jewish Connectivity.

So I asked David, Mr Network himself, if he supports the objectives of j-junction, the ultimate Jewish Network.

“Anything that helps people find happiness should be supported.  I was very lucky to marry the girl who lived next door. She was 15 years old when I met her, and a terrific person.”

Fortunate indeed!

“For my children, it is entirely up to them and I respect their choices. I think the greatest thing in life is finding the right partner, and without a partner life is very lonely. Jewish people should have the choice of choosing Jewish partners which is difficult to do living in Australia, and a service like j-junction supports that choice. So, as long as people are given the choice I say bravo to j-junction for your role in helping people find happiness by assisting them to find their special someone.”

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