A Family Odyssey

 

Victor Fonda, AO, z"l (1913 - 2012) - JNF Australia Life President
Sara Fonda (b.1920) - co-founder, together with Victor, of the "SAVI Foundation", and of "Recycling is Fun!"
(see videos below)

 

The following story of our parents' lives was written in 2008 and published in the anthology Building a Nation: Personal stories of life in Israel by current and former members of the Melbourne Jewish community, edited by Julie Meadows. ["Memory Guide my Hand", Volume 6, Part 1]. Makor Jewish Community Library, 2009. (pp.139-154)

Palestine, Australia and Israel  -  A Family Odyssey 

Ba'ah menuchah layagea, umargoa la'amel,
Laila chiver mistarea al sedot Emek Yizre'el ...

[Rest comes to the weary, and tranquillity to the worker;
Pale night hovers over the fields of Jezre’el ...]

The lullaby which our father sang to us, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren echoes the yearning for peaceful rest for the pioneer that has inspired our family’s attachment to Israel, Jewish ideals and community work. Both our parents have been immersed in projects strengthening the bond between Israel and Australia, and a sense of commitment and idealism has hovered over the lives of their children and grandchildren.

For as long as we remember, our father was engaged in community life, serving as president of Victoria and Australia JNF (Jewish National Fund) and as a founding member of the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce. Our mother supported him wholeheartedly throughout their working lives together, and, after their retirement, founded an organization promoting creative occupational therapy for the homebound in Israel. Our two parents come from entirely different backgrounds, but have always been united in their devotion to Israel and community welfare. Upon retirement, they moved to Israel part-time, fulfilling a long-held dream. Here are their stories in their own words. 

* * * *

Our father, Victor Fonda, was born in Palestine, 11th generation scion of the Lubavitsher dynasty which settled in Hebron in 1845. Here is his story.


I was born in 1913, just before WWI (1914-1918), in what was then Palestine, which was at that time part of the Ottoman Empire under control of the Turks. My recollection of that war was, of course, non-existent, but I do remember wandering from one place to another. The Jewish community of Palestine, which at that time was very small, created a buffer between the British army in Egypt (under the control of General Allenby) and the Turkish army, which was in Palestine. As the British army came up from the south to push out the Turkish Empire and create a foothold in the Middle East, our community kept on moving north. I was only a few years old at the time, but I do have a strong recollection of this feeling of wandering.

Eventually, the war ended in 1918, and we moved to Jerusalem to an area known as “Yegiat Kappayim”. We had a small apartment on the ground level of an old building. ... Our apartment consisted of a bedroom for my parents, an entrance room which served as a dining-room as well as a lobby, and another room, the salon, in which there was a sofa which opened up as the sleeping accommodation for Riva, my older sister, and myself. The kitchen was actually in the yard. There was no tap water - we had to go to a public water service to fill up some kind of utensil to bring it back to the house. We had a wood stove - there was no electricity or gas at the time. A little later on, in 1920, my twin sisters Ziona and Roma were born. Some two and a half years after we moved into Jerusalem, my mother left with the twins to visit her parents in Australia, who had emigrated there 20 years earlier, in 1905. They had left my mother behind as they considered her to be of marriageable age, 14 years, and believed there would be no suitable matches for young religious women in Australia.

My father, sister and I remained in Palestine, without my mother, for a period of two years. My father took good care of us: he would come home from work in the city to look after us at night and then would go out to meetings and so forth. He had a position as manager of a manchester shop which belonged to an English Jewish merchant, and he was also very involved in local politics. This was way before the State of Israel was established, but there was a local council, “D'var Ha'ir”, and other such organisations, welfare and otherwise. My father was a cultured person, well educated in terms of those days. In fact, he craved to go to university and advance his studies but he didn’t have the opportunity. I think he would have liked to become a doctor. Of course there was no university at that stage in Palestine; he would have had to go to Damascus or some other city.

The first thing I remember clearly about my schooling is that I went to a “Mizrachi” elementary school. This was in 1921-22, just after the first world war, when everything was disorganised. Jewish education was very spasmodic, depending on who set it up. There was the French organisation, the “Alliance”, which ran a series of schools, and there were the yeshivot. The school that I recall going to was essentially religious studies, Talmud and Hebrew. Shortly after I started, it was realized that the school was bursting and they had to create more classes. Of course nobody had money to build onto the cottage where our school was housed, so they decided to look for some other campus for two or three classes. The site they found was quite a distance away, probably a 30 minute walk between the two sections, and I remember that I was one of the instigators of a “lobby” to see that it was our class that should be sent to the other school! We did move out, and as we had to wait from one lesson to another till the teachers arrived, there was plenty of free time for fun.

By way of an anecdote: with father being busy at work, he trusted us to carry out his instructions to go to shule and to daven minchah and ma’ariv. Now shule wasn’t so far away from where we lived, an open paddock in between, and after school it was very enticing to go into the paddock with other kids and kick a ball and what have you till my dad came back. On one occasion when my father came home he asked, “Have you been to shule today?” “Oh of course I have,” I replied. “And who was the ba’al t’fila today?” ”Oh, so and so,” I said, and named some of the people who were usually there. “So you davened mincha and ma’ariv then?” Well, it happened he went to shule after work and of course I wasn’t there! 

With my mother in Australia, my sister and I would go to Hebron to stay with my father's parents. The trip from Jerusalem to Hebron was quite something to look forward to: today it would probably take 35 minutes by car, but in those days it took a whole day by horse and cart, stopping halfway for a picnic lunch - a real holiday. I recall my grandfather very vaguely; he was a sick man at the time. My grandmother was a lovely old lady and we enjoyed their company. They lived in an old structure typical of that city, with large rooms and no amenities. The upper level accommodation consisted of two modest flats – that of my grandparents and of another family with a number of sons. An Arab family lived in the lower level. From our upper level balcony, we could see what was going on down below, particularly when they had family feasts, cooking in the courtyard, the community eating the roast lamb (a whole one), a big bowl of rice and so on. The Arab family lived very amicably with the upstairs residents.

Our visits to Hebron were quite an event for us. My grandfather and one of their sons, Yosef, had a winery, making wine in a very primitive way, crushing the grapes by foot and so on. To supplement their very modest income, Yosef acted as a tour guide, earning a few shekels by showing visitors the “Ma’arat Hamachpela” [Cave of the Patriarchs] and other places of Jewish interest, and then offering them some wine made in Hebron as part of the attraction. I was told that my grandfather was in charge of the pension committee in Hebron, sending letters, soliciting funds, what have you. We also used to visit my mother's aunt and uncle in Tel Aviv. This was about 1922, when Tel Aviv was a suburb of Jaffa, and mostly sand dunes. We used to sleep on the floor tiles, on mats, and on one occasion we were taken to the beach for a swim.

As time went on, my mother being in Australia and my father in Palestine wasn’t a very satisfactory arrangement. We started to write and ask when she was coming back. This went on for some considerable time till we realized, one way or another, that she didn’t want to come back, so we had no choice but to come to Australia. In 1925, we left Palestine, boarding the boat to Australia from Port Said. My grandmother from Hebron came to see us off at the train to Egypt. She was very distraught when she realised she wouldn’t see us any more.

I had my Bar Mitzvah soon after we landed in Australia. It was held at Stone’s shule: I had three lessons with a teacher and prepared for the maftir and haftorah by myself. The celebration was limited to a family lechayim.

While studying at University High School, I continued advanced Hebrew and Tanach studies. In order to earn a few shillings while at high school, I davened at the morning minyans in the East Melbourne shule (this is how young boys were enticed to fill the quotient of ten required for morning prayers), memorizing mathematical equations while riding my bike to shule. The rabbi of East Melbourne shule at the time, Rabbi Maslow, took an interest in me. He tried to advance me more, invited me to come to his home for shiurim, and tried to persuade me to study for the rabbinate. But of course, as you know, I’m not a rabbi! Because of my good knowledge of Hebrew, I was recruited quite early on, as a teenager, by the Jewish Education Board to teach Jewish studies at State schools and at Sunday school.

For my social life I tried to see what sort of Zionist activities there were. Herzl Hall, opposite Cohen’s Jewish restaurant in Drummond Street, was the Zionist building - everything emanated from there. I used to go to Herzl Hall, see what was going on and, together with other youngsters, we elected a JNF committee. It was very low key, but it was the beginning - all beginnings are low key. I recall a small group in the Young Zionist league; we had some literary and social functions, and from that I entered into the senior group, the Victorian Zionist organisation, concentrating mainly on the JNF. I also joined a small group of people who came from Palestine, the “Ivriyah”, as well as a social organisation with sporting and cultural events based at Monash House. So I was constantly involved with social, Zionist, and cultural activities - always something to do with a Jewish theme.

I studied Law/Arts at university part-time, and in 1939 opened up a sole practice in Carlton. In 1942 I joined the Air Force, working in an administrative position in Collins Street for the duration of the war. After the war, I returned to the practice briefly. I married Sara in 1947, and we opened a knitting factory which eventually developed into an innovative and successful wholesale ladies’ fashion business.

All this time I was active in the community. Work for Israel has always been an important part of my life: I would go to the office by day and attend meetings two or three times a week by night. I was involved in three main fields: the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce (AICC) and the United Israel Appeal (UIA).

I devoted a great deal of time to the JNF, working my way up the ranks, becoming president of the Victorian JNF, and then federal president for a number of years. I initiated new concepts of fundraising by introducing special projects, the first one of which was to establish what was later termed “Galil Australia”. The idea was to develop and give greater quality of life to a number of settlements in Misgav, an entire area in the Galil. We established a very fine park, Australia Park, with all the amenities: swimming pool, tennis courts, picnic grounds and so on. It was quite a showpiece in the Galil. At that time I was national president, and they honoured me by naming a plaza, the Fonda plaza, in appreciation of my contribution, initiative and leadership in the JNF.

One of the big pluses whilst in business was the opportunity to promote Israeli products. Because we used a lot of fabric, I managed to buy a lot of Israeli textile, particularly from Dimona, and use it in our own production. The realization that Australian and Israeli trade could be developed into a mutual advantage led to my interest in the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce (AICC), and I eventually served as chairman for ten years.

At one stage I was governor of Keren Hayesod, but I was only peripherally involved in this organization.

I was very much involved in Zionist leadership for the first years of my retirement, and have now stepped aside, proud to have laid the foundation for a very active, vibrant young leadership. I’m still a governor of the AICC and I’m honorary president of the JNF of Australia.

 

In January 2003 our father was awarded the prestigious “Order of Australia” “for service to the community, particularly as a leading contributor to the activities of the Jewish National Fund and as a fundraiser for charitable organisations, and to the clothing manufacturing industry.” 

* * * *

Our mother, Sara Fonda, was always extremely supportive of Dad’s communal commitment. Her own very special contribution to Israel, which continues until today, flourished from the day of their retirement from business, in 1975. Here is her story. 

 

My brother Leon [Grodski] and I were born in Bialystok, Poland. In the 1920's, my father was feeling concerned about the growing anti-Semitism in Europe. On one occasion, he was called home by my mother to find a man from the taxation department sitting at his "bureau", going through his things, claiming that Dad had not paid his taxes, which was untrue. Dad was infuriated: this man had invaded his personal space. That night he wrote three letters seeking sponsorship for emigration: the first to his friend Mr. Gordon in Australia, the second to another friend in Argentina, and the third to his brother Zorach in USA.

My father landed in Launceston, Tasmania, in 1926. Melbourne would have been a more natural choice because of the Jewish community life – Bialystokers started coming in 1926 - but there was a world recession, and no employment to be had there. Dad did manage to get a job in Launceston, completely unskilled at a low wage. He worked for a year and a half to bring the family out, and they stayed there for another one and a half years before leaving for Melbourne.

When the family came to Melbourne, they opened up a boarding house and a restaurant. My mother knew how to prepare meals – she put her heart and soul into cooking and was regarded as the best cook in Melbourne! – but certainly not in a businesslike way. There were three boarders, all new immigrants. One of them was broke, and left them with a debt of something like 26 pounds, which was probably the income for the whole year!

In 1929 Dad bought a grocery shop, which went with a horse and cart for deliveries. This must have been quite difficult for him, especially after his business in Bialystok, but I never heard my father complain about his hard lot in Melbourne. My mother also never complained, and they worked very hard making a meagre living out of that shop. On the contrary, Mum was always singing; there was food - the smell of kukletten, and optimism that things would improve.

My father was a traditional Jew: on Rosh Hashanah, he used to sing songs from the prayers, and he also had a great love for anything to do with Yiddishkeit: literature, theatre, and Jewish history. His favorite song was Ot azoy neyt a shnayder ["This is how the tailor sews; he sews and sews all day long, and earns a bagel with a hole!"] He was satisfied with his life; he didn't want anything more out of life than he had. He didn't even want to buy a house because he claimed that they couldn't afford it - in the end he gave in to my mother's pressure and put down a deposit.

He loved Israel, and would have liked to donate money. At the time of the War of Independence, it was customary to pass around a plate to collect money for the state at the emergency UIA functions. He was a very generous person by nature, but he didn't have any money to give away. I would put a pound in his pocket, which he'd put on the plate. Never once did I hear him complain that he couldn't afford it: he felt good that he could accept that pound and use it to participate without having to feel guilty.

My mother was a very strong character. She felt religious, especially compared to Dad. Although we weren't strictly religious or kosher, religion was very important. It was important for my brother to say the prayers, and it created great problems to maintain a kosher home when there was a restaurant and boarders who used to mix up the milchik and fleishik cutlery, which she then had to bury in the earth.

She was very Zionistic, long before it became popular. She believed in Jewish education. She would not spend money on clothes - she always wore the same old coat and the same old hat – but, as she grew older, most of the money she had went to either Scopus [Mt Scopus College] or Israel. That's what she believed in.

 

As Dad has said above, our parents married in 1947 and eventually developed a ladies’ wear business, the success of which was due in no small part to our mother’s indefatigable creativity and acumen. She encouraged Dad to serve the community, but she herself was not the type of person to sit on the committees of women’s organizations. A particularly memorable example of her own contribution to the Zionist cause was the series of Queen Competition dinners, which people still talk about today, three decades after the event! For a number of years, she hosted a series of cabaret-style gourmet meals at their home in order to raise money for the JNF and WIZO: “Maison Fonda” was run by teams of volunteers busily preparing and servicing the festivities, and a joyful time was had by all, diners and servers alike!

It is this atmosphere of enthusiastic voluntarism which characterizes all of the innovative projects which Mum has initiated. She won’t even begin to describe these projects without first of all acknowledging the inestimable contribution of the volunteers in Melbourne and in Israel. Here is the story about how her venture developed:


In 1975, as we were about to retire from business, Victor was very concerned abut me. What would I do with myself? I had always been a workaholic, and now, faced with retirement, I would be a lost soul, especially with my hearing handicap. He encouraged me to go into a dress manufacturing business, a business that I knew and understood, for the purpose of generating funds for welfare work. We set up a charitable foundation, found partners and premises, and we were soon back at work. The business was successful, we made money, but I realized that I would be just as involved as I had been before. So after about 18 months, we dropped out of the business and concentrated on the welfare work that was beginning to develop.

Very gradually, a new concept of diversional occupational therapy for the aged and homebound in Israel started to take shape. It began with us providing materials, financially supporting and selling the products of a number of existing sheltered workshop projects, such as “Lifeline for the Aged” in Jerusalem, “Orah” in Netanya. Seeing our house fill to overflowing with purchases of beautiful items from the Israeli workshops – linen, hand-crocheted rugs and shawls, appliquéd aprons, etc. – we opened a shop in Richmond, but, despite trying many different strategies, only managed to attract compassionate customers – as well as lots of advice from well-wishers! The money that I had made and the trust fund was gradually being eaten away. It looked as if I had failed. I had built up people's hopes of getting work, but I wasn't able to keep it up. I was prepared to give up at that stage, but Victor urged me on.

With the enthusiastic and untiring help of volunteers, including family and old and new friends, we worked through a series of street stalls, Sunday markets and bazaars selling material remnants and thousands of types of haberdashery items. Permanent premises were eventually opened in Richmond and Williamstown, with earnings going into the “Odd Lot” Foundation, which helped to fund the sheltered workshop projects as well as charities in both Israel and Australia.

What had most convinced me of the importance of occupational therapy were the hundreds of stories of people who had benefited from our help. I can’t forget a lady, for example, who had been badly disabled and disfigured by burns and was extremely grateful for the machine we provided which hooked up her artificial limb, enabling her to produce absolutely beautiful knitwear. Not only were the recipients of the aid grateful for occupation, but the volunteers who turned up faithfully, week after week and year after year, to do any task at hand, kept saying what a difference the work had made to their lives. Selig, one of the volunteers in Netanya, thanked me ceaselessly for giving him the opportunity to make his life worthwhile.

One of the schemes that the volunteers were particularly proud of was “Project Renewal”, the urban revitalization project in Israel funded by Australian Jewry. The particular site which we personally supported together with the untiring backing of the volunteers was the Neve Golan senior citizens' centre in Jaffa, which bears our name. We were very happy to be asked to sing and dance with the senior citizens at the opening, and invited them all back for dinner at our home in Netanya.

 

In 1981, our parents set up the SAVI (SAra and VIctor) Charitable Foundation based upon the concept of utilizing redundant, non-commercial material, such as fabric off-cuts and obsolete yarn, which was sent to Israel from Australia in order to provide occupation for the community, especially for the aged, disabled and homebound. Mum, in effect, was envisioning a project based upon the principle of recycling, long before anyone had realized the potentials of harnessing “unusable” material for meaningful production. Moreover, she had perceived well before it became fashionable to do so that crafting is a “miracle drug” which can reduce stress. At this stage of their lives, it was our father who was supporting our mother to initiate and develop welfare projects in Israel.

SAVI provided materials, know-how and guidance to hundreds of centres throughout Israel. Working in close collaboration with the Departments of Health, Social Welfare and Absorption, it reached hospitals, old-age homes and centres, community and rehabilitation centres, immigrant groups, as well as the home-bound all over the country. Beit SAVI was set up in Netanya, and it provided materials, an exhibition of hundreds of handcraft items, a library of craft books and patterns, and training for madrichot and social workers from centres throughout the country. All this was given free of charge. The centre was run by a co-ordinator who worked together with volunteers from Israel and overseas. As the project grew, larger premises kept having to be found. In time, bulk stores were opened in Haifa, Jerusalem and Beer Sheba, in order to facilitate service to the many centres in those areas. SAVI was completely funded by the Odd Lot foundation and our parents; they never asked for financial support, although they did receive very generous contributions of material and volunteer time by enthusiastic people in Melbourne. By 1983, there were 850 different centres registered with SAVI.

In 2003, In March 2003, SAVI was centred in two municipal bomb shelters in Netanya. Due to the threat of war with Iraq and the consequent demand by the local Netanya municipality to vacate the shelters, the entire content of handicraft materials and samples was sent to the CLICK not-for-profit organization in Hod Hasharon, headed by Australian born Linda Mosek. In addition, when "Craft is Fun" (the successor to the “Odd Lot” Warehouse) was closed down in Melbourne, all of its contents were transferred to CLICK. Our parents are still in regular contact with CLICK and continue to contribute to the CLICK-SAVI project.

The contribution SAVI has made to Israeli society has been recognized by official institutions, including the Department of Health and Welfare, the Israel Gerontology Association, and the municipalities of Netanya, Petach Tikvah, Jerusalem and other city and regional councils. Our mother’s work has also been recognized in Australia: she was one of the first people to receive the Bnei Brith “Menorah” Award, in 1984. Hundreds of letters of appreciation have been sent to her, both from Australia and Israel, from the various centres and from those who have benefited from the projects.

Our mother is now aged 88 (till 120!). She has never been a person to rest on her laurels. She is now involved in a new recycling project which demonstrates how to turn used and unwanted materials into extremely attractive hand-craft items. Working with volunteers who come to the home in Caulfield, she scans through catalogues of ideas on internet sites and professional journals, and organizes hundreds of samples to be made from off-cast materials. Her aim is to set up recycling centres for people of all ages in Israel, and she is in the process of working with community organizations in Sderot and Netanya.

Due to our parents’ close association and attachment to everything in Israel, they always wanted to have a home there. On one particular trip, in 1972, they were taken for a drive to Netanya, and there, facing the seashore, was a building going up. It was all scaffolding, nothing was ready, but looking at it they decided that it was the place that they would like to have as a home. They bought the place and lived there on and off for thirty years.

This is the journey of our family, from Palestine to Australia to Israel. Each of us three children have three children of our own, who have made their lives in Australia and Israel, and who carry our parents’ ideals of service, giving and commitment in their hearts. Judy is currently president of Kehilat Nitzan Masorti/Conservative Congregation, and works for Emmy Monash Aged Care. David, a prominent and respected geriatrician, was very involved and later president of the Montefiore Homes for many years. Bev (Batya) was the one to settle in Israel, making aliyah in 1965 and bringing up her family in the country. Her profession was English teaching, and for the last 16 years of her career was engaged in teacher education, teaching how to teach English as a foreign language at Talpiot Teachers’ College in Tel Aviv. Now that she is retired, she gives lecture-recitals on Jewish folk songs.


To conclude with the words of our beloved lullaby:

Numah, emek, erets tif’eret,
Anu lecha mishmeret.
[Sleep, valley, splendid country,
We are your protector].

 

Beverley Batya Fonda, Judy Feiglin and David Fonda (2008)

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Dad, z"l, passed away in December 2012. He was loved and respected wherever he went. He was kind, gentle, generous, honest, sincere and passionate - a quiet, determined leader and mentor. As president of the JNF, he was instrumental in bringing in the next generation of leaders. At home he passed on his values to his children and grandchildren, not by command but by example.

As his grandchildren have said: “Zaida was an inspiration to us all.” “To remember Zaida is to love the Jewish people, the Jewish tradition, and the land of Israel.” He dedicated his life to helping others. These are his legacies to us all.

Mum, may she enjoy good health till 120, continues to support SAVI-CLICK and, via her project "Recycling is Fun" (Facebook) page to promote the message of using recycled materials for handicraft. Here are four videos about her work: the first is a tribute to Mum in 2011 by the Australian ambassador to Israel, in the second video Mum herself explains the project, and the next two videos are further displays of samples and explanations of how waste materials can be used productively. More videos about the work carried out by SAVI-CLICK in Israel may be seen here.

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Here are two songs sung by Batya in honour of our parents: "My Modern Jewish Mum", and "Ba'ah Menuchah Layagea" (Shir Ha'Emek).