The Museum had just occupied its first premises in the abandoned classrooms of the Toorak synagogue when we interviewed a prospective, part time administrator, the first paid employee of the fledgling Jewish Museum of Australia. It was 1983.
Little did we envisage that the young woman we hired would become the visionary director of a world class Jewish Museum, the jewel in the crown of the Jewish community.
It was a prescient decision.
From those modest beginnings, Dr Helen Light lead the Museum for 27 years and under her influence the JMA became a key scholarly, cultural and information resource for the community both Jewish and non-Jewish, dedicated to tolerance, pluralism, creativity, pride in Judaism and a modern approach to all things Jewish.
With shared ideals we became close friends and colleagues and I will always treasure my relationship with her. Her capacity to calmly meet every challenge which this new communal organisation faced was admirable.
The term “administrator” was all encompassing and ranged from the most menial administrative jobs to the planning, researching and curation of exhibitions. From the outset, Helen set a standard of excellence in scholarship and design which became the Museum’s hallmark. This resulted in many awards and garnered respect from government and arts communities.
Volunteers flocked to the Museum and together with Helen were instrumental in caring for the growing collection, organising education programmes for adults and children, lectures, guided tours, events and fundraising. All these activities contributed to the relevance and support of the JMA as a community Museum. Such was the Museum’s reputation that it was described in the newspaper USA Today as one of the best places in the world to experience Jewish culture.
During the decades. Helen’s dedication to the Museum was unshakeable and with that went her warmth and humanity, her disarming sense of humour. She never lost her energy and enthusiasm and worked tirelessly. She was gentle but could be quite fierce in her commitment to her beliefs, always prepared to cross boundaries in pursuit of her unwavering vision.
It was Helen who coined the term “the Museum family” and she created an environment which was warm and inviting, cared for its members and inspired loyalty. Through her encouragement and trust she enriched the lives and futures of her staff and countless volunteers. She was respected and loved.
Today the JMA embodies her philosophy, her creativity, her bravery. Her photograph at the Museum’s entrance reminds us of her office, just down the corridor, the door of which was always open.
She was a blessing to the Museum and to all her knew her.
Goodbye dearest Helen, we will miss you always but your outstanding legacy will live on.
Zelda Rosenbaum OAM
Honourary Life President
Image: Supplied by the Jewish Museum of Australia.