Remembering Sir John Monash on his birthday (27 June, 1865)
On June 27 1865, Monash was born to Prussian immigrants, Louis Monash and Bertha Monash, nee Manasse. His parents hailed from Krotoschin, a city in what was once the Prussian Empire. Though Monash’s parents were not overtly religious or active in congregational life in Melbourne, a young John Monash sang in the choir and celebrated his Br Mitzvah at East Melbourne synagogue.
Though he didn’t attend synagogue regularly, faith remained a pillar of Monash’s life. In late 1914, before setting sail for the war that would put Monash on the map, Monash gathered with Jewish soldiers at St Kilda Synagogue at a service led by Rabbi Jacob Danglow.
Like clergy of other denominations, Jewish chaplains arrived as the War progressed to minister to the needs of soldiers. In November 1915 Rabbi David Freedman went to France as chaplain. Rabbi Jacob Danglow of St Kilda Synagogue later replaced him. During the war, Jewish soldiers were able to observe some festivals and John Monash organised for kosher food to be delivered in the field.
This announcement, made by Rabbi Freedman on behalf of the then, Lieutenant General Commanding John Monash, illustrates the opposition between Monash’s duty to his faith and duty to his country; often, as is the case here, Monash’s role as a military leader took priority. The note reads, “Circumstances have arisen which the Lieut. General Commanding regrets will necessitate the withdrawal of authority given to Divisional Commanders to grant leave to members of the Jewish faith for the purpose of proceeding to Paris to celebrate the Passover.” Sentimentality or sense of religious obligation could not halt Monash’s campaign in France.
After the war, Monash continued to feel a distinct tug-of-war between his professional duties as director of the State Electricity Commission and the obligations thrust upon him by the Australian public. As an accomplished military leader and son of a Jewish immigrant family, Monash was of course sought after as a spokesperson and leader within the Jewish community. In 1920, he became a member of the Board of Management of St Kilda Hebrew Congregation and in 1927, a figurehead President of the Australian Zionist Federation.
A letter from our collection shows the reluctance with which Monash assumed such positions. At the time of these appointments, Monash also held the post of Vice Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, was an integral force in the construction of the Shrine of Remembrance and led several other organisations such as the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, and Melbourne Rotary. In short, Monash was in high demand. Despite these competing calls to leadership, Monash remained “at the service of the Congregation” as a member of Board of Management until just years before his death in 1931.
His state funeral saw as many as 300,000 Victorians gathered at Brighton Cemetery, where he was buried with Jewish rites. A further 2,000 mourners attended a memorial service for General Sir John Monash at Toorak synagogue that afternoon. Among the crowd were Rabbis from across Melbourne and regional communities of Ballarat and Shepparton, military dignitaries and the 3rd St Kilda troop of Boy Scouts and 4th St Kilda Girl Guides; both troops made up of young Jewish members.
Though undoubtedly the most well-known, Monash was by no means the only member of the Jewish community to make a significant impact on the First World War. In 1914, 2,000 Australian Jews heeded the call to war, from a population of just 18,000. Two hundred never returned home.
Serle, Geoffrey 1986, Sir John Monash, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, available at http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/monash-sir-john-7618
The Argus, 1931, ‘The Late Sir John Monash, Service at Synagogue,’ The Argus, 19 October 1931, p. 8, available at Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/4427201
The Argus, 1931, ‘Sir John Monash Memorial Services and Burial,’ The Argus, 12 October 1931, p. 7, available at Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/4431571