Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rieke Cohen (1887–1964)

by Suzanne D. Rutland

This article was published:

Rieke Cohen (1887-1964), Zionist leader, was born on 8 October 1887 at Newtown, Sydney, fifth child of Jacob Selig, a pawnbroker who came to Australia in 1863 from Friedrichstadt, Schleswig (then part of Denmark), and his English-born wife Sarah Rebecca, née Solomon. Jacob and Sarah became dedicated workers for the Jewish community. Rieke assisted her mother in the pawnshop, and studied and taught elocution at the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music. At the Great Synagogue, Sydney, on 14 February 1912 she married a clothing manufacturer Harris Cohen (d.1944); he was a Polish widower, twenty-five years her senior, who was to support her community work.

A foundation member (1923) of the (National) Council of Jewish Women of New South Wales, Cohen met ships from Europe, escorted Jewish immigrants to the N.C.J.W. hostel at Pyrmont and helped them to find employment. In 1930 she travelled overseas with her husband: she saw the degradation of the Jews in Poland and the pioneering efforts of Jews in Palestine which strengthened her resolve to work for the Zionist cause. State president (1931-33) of the N.C.J.W., she formed a branch in the Eastern Suburbs. Despite its success, in December 1934 the federal president Dr Fanny Reading and her executive decided to close the branch. The action was partly the result of a clash between Reading and Cohen, and partly the outcome of their differing opinions over the importance of Zionist work.

Alienated by the decision, Cohen immediately resigned from all N.C.J.W. activities. In January 1935 she called a public meeting to form a new organization, Ivriah, with the aims of supporting the development of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and promoting Jewish education; in March she began a monthly journal, also named Ivriah, which she continued to publish until her death. She bought a property at 640a Old South Head Road in 1936 and converted it at her own expense into the Ivriah headquarters. This centre served as the first place of worship of the Mizrachi congregation. In January 1937 Ivriah was directly affiliated with the Women's International Zionist Organisation and from 1939 was officially called the Australian Federation of W.I.Z.O.

During World War II Cohen founded the New South Wales Jewish War Memorial Red Cross Sewing Circle and was a member of the executive committee responsible for raising funds for the Sir John Monash Hut Anzac Buffet. After the war her continued efforts for the reception of immigrants made her loved and respected by the survivors of the Holocaust. She was federal president (1949-54) of W.I.Z.O., an executive member of the State Zionist Council, the Zionist Federation of Australia and New Zealand, and the Jewish National Fund, and an elected member of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies. In recognition of her work she was appointed an honorary life member of the Australian federation, and the world executive, of W.I.Z.O.

An accomplished orator, Cohen was a radical champion of Zionism at a time when the cause was unfashionable. She was aided by her close friend and confidante Elsa London, a domestic science teacher who was vice-president of Ivriah, and State vice-president and later national treasurer of W.I.Z.O. Childless herself, Cohen made the W.I.Z.O. community—including many Holocaust survivors—her family. For much of her life she suffered from diabetes and necrosis of the skin. She died on 13 August 1964 at Prince Henry Hospital, Little Bay, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. From her estate, sworn for probate at £82,918, she made substantial donations to W.I.Z.O.'s children's home at Haifa, to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and to the Jewish National Fund, Israel.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Cohen, Beginning with Esther (Syd, 1987)
  • W. D. Rubinstein (ed), Jews in the Sixth Continent (Syd, 1987)
  • WIZO Review, Oct-Nov 1964
  • S. D. Rutland, The Jewish Community in New South Wales, 1914-1939 (M.A. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1978)
  • S. D. Rutland, The History of Australian Jewry, 1945-1960 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1989)
  • minutes and correspondence, WIZO Archives, Sydney
  • private information.

Citation details

Suzanne D. Rutland, 'Cohen, Rieke (1887–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Selig, Rieke

8 October, 1887
Newtown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


13 August, 1964 (aged 76)
Little Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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