THE community is mourning the untimely passing of Johnny Baker, whose forthright voice has been interwoven with Australian Jewish projects for decades.
Baker, 62, who died of cancer last Friday, was a father of five and a grandfather.
His impact on the Jewish community was diverse and widespread, providing leadership and vision to various organisations.
Baker was president of the State Zionist Council of Victoria (now Zionism Victoria) from 1988 to 1994, and of Mount Scopus Memorial College from 1994 to 2004.
He was president of Ameinu Australia, an organisation representing progressive Zionism, of Australian Friends of Yad Vashem and an editorial committee member of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC).
Ameinu Australia stated: “For the past 10 months, Johnny Baker battled cancer. He did so in the way that only Johnny could do – not by denying reality but by affirming life and values.
“Barely six weeks ago, Johnny willed himself up on to the stage of Beit Habonim in Melbourne, to welcome over 500 guests to an event featuring leading Israeli Zionist Union/Labour Knesset Member Merav Michaeli.
“Those of us who were close to him knew the tremendous physical effort that was involved. But we also knew that his indomitable spirit and will would not allow his body to override his passions.”
Jewish Community Council of Victoria president Jennifer Huppert said: “It is sad to hear about the passing of Johnny Baker, gone far too soon. We will be all the poorer for his loss. Our thoughts are with Anita and the rest of his family at this difficult time.”
Zionism Victoria president Sharene Hambur described Baker as “an ardent Zionist … he was instrumental in the decision to move Beth Weizmann from St Kilda Road to its current home in Caulfield. This decision laid the foundations for the vibrant community centre we see today”.
Mount Scopus College principal Rabbi James Kennard said: “We are deeply indebted to Johnny, whose passion and vision for Mount Scopus and its students inspired the development of many world-class facilities and programs, together with a new and unique governance structure for the college.”
As president for 10 years, Baker “oversaw not only the growth and learning of thousands of students but also contributed significantly to the development of the Melbourne Jewish community”.
AIJAC executive director Colin Rubenstein said he had known Baker for over 40 years, “working closely and constructively with him in several areas, ever admiring his formidable leadership skills which were so effectively deployed in organisations like the State Zionist Council of Victoria and the Yad Vashem organisation.
“Crucially, I observed his pivotal role as president of Mount Scopus College when he sat on the very important, if largely unacknowledged, Committee of the Australian Jewish Day Schools, in which I also participated.
“However I became even better acquainted with his talents and energy when he became a valued member of the editorial board of the Australia/Israel Review a decade ago. The community will greatly miss his eloquent, erudite and progressive voice, which immeasurably enhanced our community’s interests.”
Mark Baker of Monash University’s Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, reflected on his brother Johnny’s “larger-than-life character, his communal achievements, his brilliant oratory skills that mesmerised a room, and his devotion to all things Jewish.
“But to me, Johnny was my brother, a family man devoted to five children who adored him, a husband to Anita whose romance began when they were teenagers, and a son to my parents. Johnny died as he lived during the 10 months of his sudden illness: he surrounded himself with friends and family, ate fine food, and drank wine with us all.”
Travelling to Israel with Anita, “he celebrated his beloved Tel Aviv, and shmoozed with politicians, old friends and hotel waiters alike”.
Johnny Baker was laid to rest at Melbourne Chevra Kadisha Cemetery in Springvale on Friday, at a funeral attended by many hundreds of family members, friends and community supporters.
An emotional Rabbi Ralph Genende, a personal friend of Baker’s, eulogised him as a man who had a caring way that made others sense they were his close friends.
Baker is survived by his wife Anita, his five children, parents Yossl and Genia, who are Holocaust survivors, and brother Mark.