A Stiff Necked People By Mark Joel

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21 September 2020

A Stiff Necked People
Mark Joel - CEO of the Mount Scopus College Foundation

The telephone call and subsequent email from the Aged Care Royal Commission in early 2019 informing us of an impending site visit was almost perfunctory. To be honest, the senior management team of Jewish Care of which I was a member, was understandably anxious as to how it would proceed.


Commissioner Richard Tracey[1] and his staff would be visiting Montefiore Homes on Friday morning from 9.30-12.30pm. After 3 hours of touring the facility, speaking with residents, staff and families the conversation both formal and informal at times, ranged from the history of government policy and options which the Commission was considering to the impact of the Holocaust on the ageing profile of the Melbourne Jewish community. It was Friday afternoon, and as we finished the same lunch as the residents were partaking in, I explained the importance of the forthcoming Shabbat with candles, challah and kiddush and how the residents, irrespective of their religious commitment, looked forward to its arrival each week. As I walked with Commissioner Tracey to his car at the conclusion of the visit, I asked him why he had chosen Montefiore as one of the aged care homes the Commission was examining. He turned to me and said “Mark, when we talk to people in the industry, in government, in advocacy organisations, no matter what their role in it might be, the strong message we consistently receive is that if we want to know how a culturally and linguistically diverse community should care for its aged, the ‘gold standard’ is the Jewish community and Jewish Care”. In a media landscape in which too many horror stories have been uncovered, Tracey’s comment filled us with understandable pride.


I left Jewish Care in March 2020 (voluntarily and on good terms) after 7 years of the most professionally rewarding experience of my career to date. Despite having held many voluntary community roles prior to joining Jewish Care, I had never worked professionally in the community. Like many others - or so I discovered - I had little knowledge of the scale and scope of its activities. The largest of the community’s for purpose concerns, it is one of the most unique service organisations in the Diaspora. The statistics can be read in its annual reports which it publishes on its website complete with fully audited financial statements (how many of our communal organisations do that?). Its operations too, particularly in aged care and disability, are the subject of almost continuous, rigorous audit by numerous government agencies. Each year, its Annual General Meeting is open to the community and for $40 one can apply for membership.


But in a world where it is accepted as the norm that the price of a bed in a residential aged care facility now exceeds $1million, the only place to which an elderly Russian immigrant, or an impoverished Holocaust survivor can turn to for a bed is Jewish Care.


My office was located on the ground floor of the Smorgon Family Home, a facility providing for 90 of the most frail members of our community. Alfred was my friend. Strictly speaking he was too young to be living in an aged care facility. But wheelchair bound and with no direct family, Alfred had nowhere to go. Jewish Care was his home. His friendly manner endeared him to all. He loved the Carlton AFL team and his Yiddishkeit was important to him. Most days I couldn't walk to my office without him wanting to chat with me. When he passed away suddenly, he was only in his early 60’s and I was devastated. I was in awe of the care which the staff and volunteers showed to people like Alfred; when it comes to helping the aged and people living with disability with their daily routines, you are soon reminded of the basics of life.


Of course, the organisation is far from perfect. But let’s be honest, how many of us would be happy to have our children working in an aged care home as a personal care worker with a typical hourly rate of $23? I am far from an expert in these matters but it is most likely that one of the major conclusions of the Aged Care Royal Commission is that a significant increase in government funding will be required in order to ensure that the standard of care we all expect is available.


And yes, the organisation's imperfections were regularly the subject of complaint from members of the community. We are indeed a stiff necked people; we are certainly not reticent to voice our opinions. Indeed, our individual and collective drive, our refusal to accept no for an answer and our general desire for a better world mean that we create organisations and institutions which are the envy of others. But I was witness to some truly appalling behaviour by members of our community; there can be no rationalisation of bullying, racist or misogynistic words or actions. I am proud to have been a part of a leadership group which took seriously legitimate complaints made in good faith but stood firm against the type of behavior all reasonable people would call out as unacceptable.


The success or failure of Jewish Care is a matter of critical concern to every member of our community. The truth is that in the last decade, we have been witness to Jewish Care’s extraordinary transformation from a financial and operational basket case to the fiscally responsible and growing organisation it has become. Its acquisition of the Montefiore Homes site on St Kilda Road and its investment in community infrastructure in excess of $150m (2 new aged care homes) are extraordinary in their scope and will endure for the future benefit of all of us. It has only been made possible because of the leadership of a passionate, committed and extraordinarily capable leader backed by a strong Board. I stand proudly with them.


Mark Joel is the CEO of the Mount Scopus College Foundation. He was the General Manager Community at Jewish Care from 2012 to 2020. The views expressed in this article are his own.


[1] Commissioner Tracey passed away in October 2019