Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

A Great Man and Proud Jew – My Little Brother

Australian Jewry lost one of its greatest leaders this past week. I lost a brother.

Jeremy Jones, former President of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and community stalwart, father, husband and brother, passed away on Wednesday after a two year battle with cancer. He fought his disease in the same way that he fought against injustice and prejudice – with determination, courage, patience and dignity. Until his last hours, he maintained his sense of humour; until his last moments, he was able to express his love for his family and his adherence to his faith.

My earliest memories of him are as a beautiful little boy who often had stones or snails in his pockets, who loved matchbox cars, who was a willing participant in our fantasy games and in our commercial enterprises, including selling almonds picked from the tree in our back garden. He was so sweet that he increased our appeal to customers – until our parents discovered what we were doing and made us return any money we had earned.

He was never intimidated by his sisters and we never viewed him as too little to play with us. He was there, naturally, gradually contributing to the games we invented and the adventures that we shared. He was often braver than us, especially when it came to blue-tongue lizards and other wildlife!

He was clever and succeeded academically – no less than our parents expected from him. He was accepted into the opportunity class for gifted children and even there, excelled.

Jeremy’s bar-mitzvah photo.

When the Department of Education turned down our mother’s request to allow him to attend a different high school from his three sisters, she relented on her opposition to private schools and allowed for that contingency. My sister, Melinda, remembers that my parents were concerned about his having a gang of friends – all girls! With three sisters, he was used to female company and his blindness to gender discrimination was later reflected in his hands-on parenting and sharing of household tasks.

Jeremy won a scholarship  the prestigious boys’ school, Sydney Grammar. There, his political activism began. He succeeded in his campaign to stop the compulsory participation in military cadets – he was opposed to the military symbolism even at age 12. Our parents supported him, but Jeremy did all the campaigning. He instinctively knew how to bring about change – and his skills only got stronger.

Jeremy was not a pacifist – he supported fighting for justice and never waivered in his support for the State of Israel in all her battles – but he also knew that a combative approach was less likely to bring success than an approach based on reasoned debate and negotiation.

In order to hone his skills, he enthusiastically joined in the conversation at our dinner table, where debate was the “normal” conversation and where clever puns and wit could earn points! His parents and his sisters were all enthusiastic debaters and it could have been intimidating – but Jeremy listened until he was ready to make the irrefutable argument or throw out the line that made us all laugh so much that there was no come-back. Later, he was to take debating out of the home into the competitive arena both inter-school and with Maccabi. It was through debating that he first met Naomi, his perfect partner. Interestingly, their subsequent relationship was not adversarial – even though both had the talent to outdo the other in a battle of words. But they chose to be on the same side.

Jeremy actually stopped debating altogether at some point and instead, became a master of persuasion – not through argument but through conversation and friendly exchange of ideas.

Jeremy’s contribution to interfaith relations began even before high-school – being the only Jewish child in the class and having to explain oneself was something our family was used to – but it was at Sydney Grammar, where he had a cohort of Jewish classmates who were unable or unwilling to speak out as Jews, that he saw the true value of building relationships and took the exercise to a different level. He became a trusted spokesperson and a trusted listener. Jeremy understood that dialogue is a two-way street and he had the maturity and intelligence to truly engage in dialogue.

Jeremy was a founder of the Australian National Dialogue of Christians, Muslims and Jews 2009. Photographs used with permission.

There was a year when all four of us Joneses – not Quentin, who was much younger – were at university. We were all studying different things, all politically engaged in different ways and all representing Jewish students in one way or another. Jeremy was a leader from day one. He was soon a role-model for us in negotiations and building relationships.

He stepped up to become President of the Australian Union of Jewish Students, among other roles. On his passing, that organization honoured him with “life membership” and my sister, Amanda, commented that it referred to the life of the organization. AUJS was shaped by Jeremy and he personally mentored many generations of its leaders. He understood that AUJS had to serve its members not just in name but in truly standing up for what it means to be a Jew. That included cultural and religious activities, engagement with the broader Australian community and unwavering support for Israel.

On leaving university, the Jewish community had the wisdom to employ him as a community professional and as he grew into the role and rose to leadership, he made an unparalleled contribution. He was passionate about justice and peace-building. He steered the community in its reconciliation with indigenous Australians, in building strong and lasting interfaith relations and in having antisemitism outlawed under Australian law. He facilitated relations between Israel and Indonesia – and many have remarked that the fruits of his efforts are likely to be seen in the near future.

Jeremy behind Shimon Peres’ right shoulder, with one of the Indonesian delegations he brought to Israel. Photograph used with permission.

Jeremy’s intelligence – his intellectual prowess – had been evident from a very young age but what is now clear is that Jeremy had an equally strong social intelligence. He knew how to nurture allies and his knew how to build friendships. For him, the latter was far more important. In fact, Jeremy sacrificed political alliances for genuine friendships just as he rejected expediency for principle. Jeremy was always true to himself and committed to the causes for which he fought. He had rejected debating not just because it was less effective but because it might require you to argue a cause in which you did not believe.

That was not my brother.

He might choose NOT to speak or tactically assess WHEN to speak but he would not compromise on what needed to be said. He often allowed others to say things which contradicted his own views and not attempt to silence them before gently and convincingly explaining his position. He rarely argued – although I did hear him cleverly undermining a previously stated position. He usually used a combination of humour, trivia and deep wisdom when making a point – an irresistible blend of humanity and intellect.

Jeremy brought me into the world of interreligious dialogue, so I owe him my current career.  I have been able to say proudly that I am Jeremy’s sister. Only a matter of weeks ago, when I attended the International Council of Christians and Jews meeting in Boston, so many participants from different places and both faiths, sent their love to him. I last spoke to him from the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago and we reminisced about when we presented together a training session on how to engage in dialogue at that event in Melbourne in 2009.

During this week of mourning, there has been an outpouring of love for him – and shock that he will no longer be a presence at so many of the meetings and events where his presence meant serious conversation tempered by wit and humour. He brought a platypus hand-puppet to the meeting with the Pope at the Vatican; his last Purim experience when he was forced to use a cane for balance, meant that he appeared as “Cain and Abel.”

My children have written about him and Meirav wrote the following while waiting to join the livestream of his funeral: “I am reflecting on my memories and my love for my uncle who lived a life of service, but also a life of play, fun and boundless beauty.”

She said, “Growing up, the dinner tables we shared with Uncle Jeremy were the ones I didn’t ever want to miss. Whatever else was going on in the family, somehow when Jeremy was around the conversation was guaranteed to be both highly intellectual and ridiculously entertaining at the same time. The level of challenge varied and deepened as we got older, but it was always there and never got old and certainly never dry”

“I can still see Uncle Jeremy’s serious face while the rest of him is doing the silliest things, and his very intelligent comments that were also slapstick comedy. I’m sure I’ll never be as funny as he was, but his humor is still making my kids and their friends laugh… when I get it right. Towards the end of his days, Jeremy became an incredible photographer. He may always have been, but he gave photography a different kind of attention later in life and shared his gift with the family. So he has left us with laughter and beauty, and a memory of an incredible man with many hats. I miss him as I write.”

In the parsha of the week Jeremy passed, Moshe says to the people ,”Acharei Moti…” after my death. Bialik wrote a poem of the same name and Naomi’s mother, Dahlia, asked that I read it when I eulogized him, as a tribute to the son-in-law she loved.

Bialik wrote,

“After My Death,

Say this when you mourn for me:
There was a man – and look, he is no more.
He died before his time.
The music of his life suddenly stopped.
A pity!  There was another song in him.
Now it is lost

While it is true that there will be no more songs from Jeremy and that he passed well before what we would have wanted, we can draw on a beautiful Chassidic thought – the melody lives on.

Jeremy has left behind his music, his unique and immense legacy. We will be humming his tune for generations.

Exactly a year ago, I spoke to Jeremy from Jerusalem to wish him shana tova. I said to him that I hope that the coming year would be better than the previous – in which he had received his terrible diagnosis and he responded: “What do you mean ‘better’? I was given this year as a gift of life – what could be better?”

As always, Jeremy was right.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.
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