Jewish lesbian activist proud of her communities
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Jewish lesbian activist proud of her communities

Sara Elkas, who built and sustained many community organisations, became active in Melbourne's thriving lesbian-feminist scene of the early 1980s, and took pride in her identity as a Jewish lesbian.

Sara Elkas was born in Haifa, Israel, on December 14, 1949, the only child of Holocaust survivors Elka Lewin (nee Kornblit) and Meir Lewin. When Sara was six, her mother died, leaving her to be raised by her father and two unmarried uncles.

Sara arrived in Australia at age 19. She lived in Darwin in the 1970s, working as a librarian. There she compiled a selected bibliography of Aboriginal women, published in 1981 under her then name, Sara Braunstein. In Darwin, she became active in the Women's Liberation movement. In 1984, several years after coming out as a lesbian, Sara adopted her mother's name as her family name.

Sara Elkas.

Sara Elkas.

Photo: Supplied

Sara gained a Bachelor of Applied Science in occupational therapy, a postgraduate Diploma in Library Studies and an MA in Indian history. She worked as a special collections and reference librarian, a research officer and an occupational therapist with people with intellectual disabilities.

Sara lived in Sydney, Perth, rural WA and Darwin before settling in Melbourne, where she became active in the thriving lesbian-feminist scene of the early 1980s. She was a member of the Women's Liberation Switchboard telephone information and referral service and a member of Women Against Rape. Her activism in these groups continued for more than a decade.

In one year, Sara helped organise two Women's Balls, raising the necessary funds to house the vital collectives in the Women's Liberation (WL) Building in West Melbourne.

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Always a dedicated and hard worker, she helped to repair the newer WL Building in Fitzroy and was there for the clean-up when it closed in 1992.

In 1992, Sara co-founded the Jewish Lesbian Group of Victoria (JLGV), a social, support and advocacy group that raises awareness of Jewish lesbians and challenges invisibility and discrimination in both Jewish and lesbian communities.

For many years, Sara was a warm, welcoming first point of contact for new JLGV members. She compiled a monthly members' newsletter and undertook all the administrative tasks of JLGV.

Sara was proud of her Jewish lesbian identity and carried the JLGV banner at every Pride March in Melbourne and at Mardi Gras in Sydney, where JLGV made history as the first organised Jewish group to march.

Sara staffed the inaugural JLGV stall at the Jewish community festival, In One Voice: Concert in the Park, remaining characteristically strong and calm in the face of abuse. She continued to staff JLGV's stall each year the festival was held.

Sara was active in the Jewish Australian Lesbian Anthology Collective, as an editor and writer, contributing two stories to the online anthology, Jewish Lesbians Down Under (jlgvic.org/anthology.html). Sara featured in the 2014 film, It's Who We Are: Celebrating 20 Years of the Jewish Lesbian Group of Victoria, and was active on the film's production collective. She remained a dynamic and respected JLGV activist until her very last days.

Sara was also a founding member of the Matrix Guild of Victoria, established in 1992 to provide a voice for lesbians aged over 40. She was actively engaged in all aspects of Matrix Guild. She continued as an office-bearer until her ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2013, and remained an active committee member until a few months before she died.

Her optimism, courage and determination were inspirational.

Sara was very proud of her involvement in setting up the first Australian affordable housing initiative specifically for older lesbians. Using her occupational therapy background, she helped to ensure that "Heather's Flats" incorporated well-designed, universal access. She was also instrumental in facilitating the funding and research resulting in four Matrix Guild publications, including We Live Here Too: A Guide to Lesbian Inclusive Practice in Aged Care, 2011.

Sara helped establish the Performing Older Women's Circus (POW) in 1995. She participated in weekly training workshops, learning a range of acrobatic and other circus skills. Sara took great pride in her clowning skills. In her multi-coloured wig and outfit, she was a sight to behold.

Sara performed in all POW shows from 1995 to 2006, including performing at the 2002 Gay Games in Sydney. She continued to train and perform with POW for as long as her health permitted.

Sara attended and contributed to national lesbian festivals and conferences during the 1990s, including the national 10/40 conferences. She single-handedly organised the final National 10/40 Conference in Victoria, in 1997.

In 2000, Sara became an active member of Women's Liberation and Lesbian Archives, later renamed as the Victorian Women's Liberation and Lesbian Feminist Archives (VWLLFA) Inc. She was active in the VWLLFA for 17 years.

Sara maintained her passionate interest in preserving our herstory, and ensured that the JLGV, POW and Matrix Guild archives, and her own personal files and photos, were included in the collection. Sara's poetry and prose (published and unpublished), diaries and notebooks are available through VWLFFA, now located within the University of Melbourne Archives.

Sara built and sustained many community organisations, working tirelessly with humility and integrity. She willingly took on the mundane but necessary tasks that maintain healthy community organisations. Once committed to something, Sara saw it through. Her dedication and diligence nourished these organisations.

Sara continued to be an active member and supporter of her communities until her death. Thanks in part to her determined efforts, these vital organisations will continue to bear fruit.

In her later years, Sara became very interested in genealogy, researching the many family members who had been murdered in the Holocaust. She travelled to Europe to pay homage and retrace her family's journeys.

After her cancer diagnosis, Sara became active in Ovarian Cancer Australia, and was dedicated to community education about the difficult-to-diagnose disease. Sara was particularly passionate about raising awareness of the increased risk factors that lesbians face with respect to ovarian cancer.

In 1994, Sara began a relationship with Ros (Shoshi) Goldman, whom she met through JLGV. Theirs was a powerful relationship, based on deep love and affection, shared goals and mutual respect across differences. Sara and Shoshi were a team whose love and support for one another was palpable. In the last weeks of Sara's life, they formalised a Registered Domestic Relationship.

Sara was a compassionate, loyal and loving friend who listened with an open heart and mind. Generous in spirit, with a delightful sense of humour, she dealt with life graciously and with aplomb. Her optimism, courage and determination were inspirational.

Her smiling face and non-judgmental support sustained her many, diverse and deep friendships. She faced her cancer as she had lived her life: calmly, with equal parts pragmatism and positivity. She showed extraordinary courage as she dealt with ovarian cancer, a total hysterectomy and double mastectomy.

Sara died peacefully on March 14, 2017 with her life-partner of 23 years, Shoshi, by her side. Aged 67, Sara had so much life left to live. Her outstanding contribution to Jewish lesbian, lesbian feminist and broader communities is deeply cherished and sorely missed.

Sara is survived by Shoshi, her grandchildren – a joyful and adored part of her life – and her many loving friends in Australia and around the world.

Sara Elkas changed our communities and our lives. We are richer for having known her and poorer for her passing.

* Written by Hinde Ena Burstin, Anneke Deutsch, Sandra Padova, Robyn Peck and Jean Taylor

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