The spirit of Rachael Kohn

December 5, 2018 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Broadcaster Rachael Kohn has switched off her mike for the last time at the ABC’s studios in Sydney ending a glorious 26 year career covering the world’s religions.

Rachael Kohn

The presenter of Radio National’s The Spirit of Things addressed colleagues and friends at a farewell function held at the ABC centre in Ultimo, Sydney last week.

In this extract of her speech, Rachael Kohn,  renowned for her silky smooth voice, said: “I want to talk to you about the things that kept me occupied when people asked me:   Don’t you run out of stories? 

What’s there to talk about– in religion?

I want to give you some idea of what we did talk about as a nation in my 26 years here at the ABC.  (I counted about 1800 programs, so I’ll be selective.)

I came from the University of Sydney directly to the ABC.   The moment I got here, I felt the atmosphere was brighter.   It wasn’t just the light shining into the newKen Woolley building, but people had a fire within them.

My first piece, in 1992, for Insights, with Paul Collins, was on the French Catholic composer, organist and ornithologist, Olivier Messiaen, who’d just died.  He wrote Quartet for the End of Time while in a concentration camp in World War2

In seven minutes, I combined my favourite topics: music, theology, and history, as well as Messiaen’s love of bird song — in one audio essay.  It was exhilarating!

But speaking of the War—Australia was under its shadow in the 1990s.  Mark Aarons’ publication of Sanctuary: Nazi Refugees in Australia prompted an inquiry into Nazi criminals living here. 841 investigations and 30 million dollars later, with 27 identified cases,resulted –in no prosecutions!

But it raised questions — especially when Holocaust deniers, like Fred Toben and his Adelaide Institute, came out of the woodwork.

In fact, my first television appearance on Paul Collins’ Sunday Night program, before I was hired, was a discussion about antisemitism and the Holocaust with South Australian anthropologist Evan Zuess.

Jeremy Jones took Fred Toben to court.  And community leaders like Vic Alhadeff, of the Jewish Board of Deputies, and Peter Wertheim of The Executive Council of Australian Jewry , urged action against vilifiers of Jews.

The harrowing storiesof Holocaust survivors in Australia needed to be heard, and I made sure they were.

Rays of hope shone elsewhere in Australia when the Mabo Decision in 1992 and the Wik Decision in ‘96 recognised Aboriginal land rights.

As a result, Indigenous spirituality with its connection to the landcame to the fore, and it was echoed by people like Fr. Eugene Stocktonand Professor David Taceywho persuaded a generation that ‘reverence for the land’ was a crucial component of Australian spirituality.

The Spirit of Things and The Ark explored “sacred space” in many ways, such as the six-part series on Holy Cities of the world, including Jerusalem, Rome Constantinople, Mecca, Varanasi and Kyoto, and it was followed by a longer series on Australian Sacred Sites, starting with Uluru and ending in the New Age mecca of Byron Bay.

The 1990s was also a time of religious activismin the struggles for women’s ordination; with the Uniting Church responding to the call and the Anglican Church splitting its decision, while the Catholics stood on the side lines aghast at the violation of a 2,000 year old tradition.

Well, not all Catholics took umbrage. WATAC, Women and the Australian Church, became an organ of unfailing hope for Catholic women.

I’m pleased to say, my mob was ahead of the game.  Progressive Judaism already had a generation of ordained women, like Rabbi Jackie Ninio, who’s here tonight. She’s been an inspiration both inside and outside the Jewish community.

Some women took spiritual leadership into their own hands, like Stephanie Dowrick, who reimagined God, as unboundby any one tradition. Eastern notions of God found resonances with Westerners, and The Brahma Kumarisare an example of that here in Australia, whose head Charlie Hogg is here tonight

But Religious innovation had its dark side. It’s strange for me now to see that the storiesof destructive cults that I covered for years, are now the stuff of Netflix series.

The Solar Temple, in Switzerland and Quebec, Heaven’s Gatein California, the Branch Davidiansin Waco, Texas, left 200 dead and many seriously injured.  Aum Shin Rikyoin Japan, which tried to establish itself in WA, killed 13 and injured thousands of commuters in poisonous sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo Metro.

For his crimes, the leader, Shoko Asahara, was just executed in July this year.

I made many programs on international and home-grown cults, like The Family in Victoria, which adopted babies from unsuspecting, mothers.   That too will be an ABC TV docu-drama in 2019.

Such groups wreaked havoc on followers and their children, but some survivors, like Tore Klevjer, ex-member of the Children of God, who’s here tonight, were able to put their lives back together.

Some victims in ashrams, only got their chance to put their experienceson record when the Royal Inquiry into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abusewas established in 2012.

But just as the cult phenomenon fadedinto the background, the world had another rude awakening with the rise of what’s been dubbed death cults.

On Sept 11 2001, when Islamist extremists flew planes into the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, multicultural co-existence in Australia came to a screeching halt.

Muslims were caught in the headlines – and were vilified en masse.

Tensions escalated here with a number of unfortunate incidents on both sides of the divide and recently terrorist attacks.

Externally, attacks on Westerners continued, such as the Bali Bombing, killing 202 people, 88 of them Australians.

I recently met Gill Hicks, the Australian, who lost both her legs in the 2005 suicide bomb attack in the London tube. She was the guest speaker at the fund raising dinner of Together for Humanity, whose national director Rabbi Zalman Kasteland its director Ruth Magid, are here this evening.

Gill Hicks has devoted herself to promoting understanding between religious communities, and that’s exactly what Together for Humanity achieves with its programs for Christian, Jewish and Muslim students in New South Wales.

What’s remarkable is that — as terrorist attacks on civilian targets both here and abroad continue to claim victims — Christians, Jews and Muslims come together to build bridges, demonstrating a desire to live in harmony, scholars deepen our understanding, and ordinary people strive to be their best selves. This week’s Spirit of Things is an example of that.

But the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.  And when I called out Man Haron Monis, as a ‘renegade sheik’, who needed to be reined in before he did damage to us all, it was five years before he held people hostage in the Lindt Café, in December 2014, where two innocent people were killed, prior to him being shot by police.

Because of these dire moments in our world, my aim has always been to highlight the best values of religious traditions, which rise to the surface even in the face of considerable adversity, such as bringing stories of ongoing interfaith cooperation between Arabs and Jews in Israel.

But some people have such a negative view of Israel, that they only want to hear bad news, and they deny, ignore or belittle the good news.

It’s a problem inflamed by the media, including at times the ABC.  And occasionally its brought to their attention by concerned Australians, including Bob Magid, the owner of the Australian Jewish News.

But there’s one tradition, that’s an instant winner in the popularity stakes, and that’s Buddhism.  The Dalai Lama’s several visits to Australia, his ready smile, his compassion and his Happiness Conferences attract many accolades especially in the helping professions.

But I wasn’t a pushover.   When I asked him why he accepted a large sum of money from the Buddhist cult, Aum Shin Rikyo, he paused and then laughed.  And said, ‘people make mistakes.’  He’s right, people do make mistakes and it’s good to admit them.

The Centre for Public Christianity, or CPX, entered the public square with young, well educated, and articulate people like John Dickson, who’s here tonight. They proved that Dawkins and Hitchens were simply wrong in characterising all or even the majority of Christians as narrow minded Bible thumpers.  In fact, in my experience Christians have been consistently better at acknowledging doubt and failure than anything I’ve heard from Proselytising Atheists.

Speaking of the Bible — it’s a little-known fact that the oldest continuous European organisationin this country is the Australian Bible Society.  And its CEO, Greg Clarke, in his book, The Great Bible Swindle, points out just how much the Bible is imprinted in our culture and thought:

From movies to music, from law to literature, from scientific inquiry to human rights, from the past to the present, and from the sacred to the secular.

The Millennium came and went. (I made a ten part series called Millennial Dreams).  It didn’t bring us Y2K, nor was world poverty ended by pious hopes.

But it has brought us here, to a complex community, driven by the internet, globally connected and tribally divided, and in desperate need of slowing down, taking stock, and giving a vision of hope.

Religion can do that, but it can also model good behaviour, and steer us toward a society that honours the individual, cares for the community, and encourages charity, compassion, creativity and justice.

It also marks out a quiet place of reflection, for an encounter with the Divine that is untouched by the me-firstvalues of our generation – of every generation.

The greatest gift that I’ve received from my work is witnessing thatgood religionworks wonders in people’s lives.”


4 Responses to “The spirit of Rachael Kohn”
  1. Linda Apps says:

    Please bring back The Spirit of Things. It was a quality programme and just what we need in these times. The replacement programme is lightweight in comparison. Is this another step in dumbing down the ABC and Radio National?

  2. Moira Nicholls says:

    Thank you Rachael for your wonderful interviews and insightful comments. Your sensitive, intelligent and well researched approach to every subject, no matter how difficult or controversial, was always exemplary. I was so sorry to learn that you were leaving. However, I’d like to wish you the very best in whatever comes next for you. You have made an enormous contribution to our understanding of all things ‘spiritual’ and I doubt that anyone will ever match your beautiful speaking voice, rich in human warmth and accepting of all. Thank you .

  3. Tim O’Dwyer says:

    Caught Rachael’s last words on the radio today. So sad. Enjoyed much of her ABC work over many years. (How can I send her an appreciative email?)

  4. Ben-Zion Weiss says:

    Thank you Rachael for your very inspiring work over the years. Your interview of Pir Shabda Kahn and myself in our Peace and Mediation Centre in Bondi was really wonderful. I received a lot of very positive feedback from the broadcast of your interview, Shalom, Ben-Zion

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