Aboriginal Jew earns top honour

Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver is not exactly your average Australian Jew. True, she’s one of this country’s 110,000 or so tribal members, but she’s also a member of another tribe – an Aboriginal tribe called the Wiradjuri.

And yet, despite the seeming rarity of an Aboriginal Jew, Professor Jackson Pulver says she’s not alone. “The first Jew came here on the First Fleet in 1788 and since then Jews have been marrying Aborigines because white women wouldn’t marry them,” she said this week. “There’s a big mob of black Cohens out there and they’ve got Jewish ancestry.”

But few, if any, of those “black Cohens” have been awarded an Order of Australia, as Jackson Pulver, an expert in Indigenous health, was last week.

And none have ever been elected president of an Orthodox synagogue, as Professor Jackson Pulver was last year in Newtown, Sydney.

The citation on her Order of Australia – awarded biannually on Australia Day and the Queen’s Birthday – lauds her “contribution to medical education and for her support for educational opportunities for Aboriginal Australians”.

Jackson Pulver, who was the first Aboriginal Australian to receive a PhD in medicine from the University of Sydney, is now the director of the Muru Marri Indigenous Health Unit at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

She said she was “probably proudest” of the Shalom Gamarada scholarship program, which she founded in 2004 with Ilona Lee, then president of the Shalom Institute, a Jewish residential college at the University of New South Wales.

“I set up a program to help raise money for Indigenous students to get medical degrees,” Jackson Pulver said, adding that 37 Aboriginal students have graduated through the scholarship.

Aboriginal health is a massive problem in Australia, with life expectancy among the Indigenous community – which numbers about 400,000 people, many in remote Outback communities – some 20 years less than among white Australians.

“We have had some wins,” she said of the battle to improve Indigenous people’s health. “Not as many babies are dying. And we now have about 150 Aboriginal doctors around Australia. Twenty years ago we had one.”

She is equally proud of her journey into Judaism. Although her Aboriginal lineage can be traced back to her two Indigenous grandmothers, it was not until 2004 that she completed an Orthodox conversion to Judaism.

“The things that bring us together are our history of dispossession, a deep sense of family, community and tribalism and a deep sense of what’s wrong and what’s right,” Jackson Pulver, whose Hebrew name is Elisheva bat Sarah, said.

“There is a natural relationship between my Aboriginal spirituality and my Jewish religion.

“I keep a kosher home, and I make my own challah every Friday. And I attend to cultural and spiritual practises of my grandmothers’ cultures.”

Vic Alhadeff, the chief executive officer of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, said of Professor Jackson Pulver: “The Jewish and Aboriginal peoples share many profound commonalities – a deep connection to land, a history of dispossession and genocide, the importance of memory, and a rich, vibrant culture.

“Lisa Jackson Pulver proudly embodies and embraces both aspects of her identity as the first Aboriginal woman to serve as president of an Orthodox synagogue.”

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