'There are plenty of us Jewish Aborigines'

By Dan Goldberg, June 23, 2011
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Jackson Pulver is Australia’s first indigenous head of an Orthodox shul

Jackson Pulver is Australia’s first indigenous head of an Orthodox shul

Professor Lisa Jackson Pulver is not your average Australian Jew. True, she is one of this country's 110,000 or so tribal members, but she is 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 is 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 Professor Jackson Pulver, an expert in indigenous health, was last week.

The citation said the award was for her "contribution to medical education and for her support for educational opportunities for Aboriginal Australians".

‘Jews and Aborigines have many profound things in common’

The first Aboriginal Australian to receive a PhD in medicine from the University of Sydney, Professor Jackson Pulver 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 programme, which she founded in 2004 in conjunction with Ilona Lee, president of the Shalom Institute, which runs a Jewish residential college at the University of New South Wales.

"I set up a programme to help raise money for indigenous students to get medical degrees," Professor Jackson Pulver said, noting 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 - some 20 years lower than among white Australians.

"We have had some wins," she said of her 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."

With Scottish and Welsh roots, she describes as a "defining moment" of her career an address she gave in 2004 to the British House of Commons on the state of indigenous health.

Professor Jackson Pulver, whose Aboriginal lineage can be traced back to her two indigenous grandmothers, completed an Orthodox conversion to Judaism in 2004.

"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," Professor 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."

The last citation on her Order of Australia lists her presidency of Newtown Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation in Sydney which she has led since 2010.

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies chief executive Vic Alhadeff said: "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."

    Last updated: 2:19pm, June 23 2011