In 1975 there was a political crisis in Australia. The financial affairs of the Australian government were in turmoil. Exercising what he decided was his vice-regal prerogative, the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the Labor prime minister, Gough Whitlam. That afternoon, my wife and I were visiting congregants, Dora and Bill (Hyman) Wolfensohn at their flat in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Bill was sitting in his armchair with the telephone on a little table next to him. The phone rang. All he said were two words: “Yes?” followed by a pause for the other person to say something, then “Thank you”. A second call, again “Yes?”, a pause, and “Thank you”. He turned to us and said, “The governor-general has just dismissed the prime minister”. Since Bill’s sources of information were always reliable we didn’t even dare say, “Really?”.
By the time we knew him, Bill was in his seventies. He moved ponderously, his eyesight was unreliable, he was one of the elders. He arrived every Shabbat morning at the same time, making his way laboriously up the stairs from the street to join a select group of synagogue statesmen who sagely discussed the week’s events before the service began. This group, Israel Green, Maurie Rosenblum and Bill Wolfensohn, were the unofficial arbiters of congregational policy. They all dressed formally as gentlemen should (homburg hats, black jackets, striped trousers). All had a lifetime of community service behind them. To me as a newcomer to the Great Synagogue they were the fountain of wisdom.
It was Bill in particular who made no bones about mistakes he thought I had made during the week. How he knew where I had been or not been, what I had done or left undone, what I had said or failed to say – he had his sources which he kept to himself. Like every rabbi, I did not relish being rebuked, but it was all good-natured and I learned to respect his judgment.
His seat was in the middle of the front row. I never got over the loss when he died because whoever occupied the front row was never like Bill. The visits from overseas of his son James – later the president of the World Bank – were some compensation, but not even James sits there with his eyes closed in Bill’s way. Bill warned me on my appointment not to worry if he seemed to be asleep during the sermon. He explained that looking up at the pulpit was a strain on the neck and it was easier to close his eyes. “Test me afterwards,” he added, “and I will repeat the sermon to you verbatim”.
His memory was totally reliable in Hebrew too. The last year of his life he was given the haftarah on Yom Kippur. Despite the bimah lighting which I had redesigned he was not able to see too clearly. But he stood there with his book open and sang until he suddenly dried up. I went up to him. He whispered, “Get me started again and I’ll be allright”. He was. He had learned the whole haftarah by heart.
With a remarkable brain and an effective network of contacts he did not need to run around the community and be busy. In some ways he reminded me of Mycroft Holmes, the detective’s brother, who sat dozing in his arm chair in his club but knew everything that was happening. If this was how I imagined Bill, it was only because I had not known him in his younger years when he was able to be more physically energetic, but I discovered some of the story by the time he died.
In his youth in Britain he was a fine student at school and university, where he studied both law and medicine. He enlisted in the military in the First World War though officially too young, and he reached commissioned rank. He was the recruiting officer of the Royal Fusiliers and was responsible for enlisting David Ben Gurion and Moshe Sharett. He played a leading role in the formation of the Jewish units. It was he who issued the first Hebrew orders in the British army. He was close to Chaim Weizmann, served as secretary to James de Rothschild, and counted among his friends many of the leading men in 20th century Jewish history.
In the 1920s he came to Australia, and after several commercial ventures became a business consultant. He helped hundreds of European Jews to reach and find a future in Australia. He was one of the founders of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, and for many years, at a time of crisis for Jewry and Israel, he had charge of the community’s public relations committee. He worked without noise or bombast. He believed in the principle that the best public work is done privately.
He was involved in a range of other communal organisations, not needing to hold office but always available to advise and support. His commitments included the Wolper Jewish Hospital and the Jewish Ex-Service Association, but nowhere was he more in evidence than when he sat so regally at the Great Synagogue.
He was generous in his advice and support to his protégés, but was feared by some with whom he had clashed, and unpopular with a few whose pretensions he could not abide. He could drop a client or colleague if they failed to live up to his expectations, but no-one was without respect for him.
He probably enjoyed his controversies. His pungent comments on people, events and policies were not always sweet and gentle, but he could be the kindest and most generous of friends. He liked an ordered life: his seat in the front row of the synagogue was part of his ordered universe.
That same Gough Whitlam with whom this article began came to the Great Synagogue’s resplendent centenary service in March, 1978. Outside the synagogue a crowd had gathered to see the arrival of the leaders of the nation. Only Whitlam received a cheer from the populace. What Bill Wolfensohn would have said I don’t know. He had died in the meantime.
See also: Eulogy for Bill Wolfensohn.