Alumna's $2 million gift for teaching modern and biblical Hebrew

20 March 2019
Ann Kirby, an alumna of the University of Sydney, has left a $2 million bequest to the University to be used for teaching modern and biblical Hebrew.

The late Ann Kirby (nee Plotke), an alumna of the University, has left a $2 million bequest to the University to be used for teaching modern and biblical Hebrew, Jewish civilisation and subjects associated with Judaism, with the aim to promote understanding and tolerance between Jewish and non-Jewish faiths.

Ann Kirby (nee Plotke) at the University of Sydney.

“This is a generous bequest by an alumna to encourage students to explore the place of Jewish culture in world knowledge. Ann Kirby’s support will enrich those students’ learning experience and deepen their understanding,” said Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Sydney.

Professor Emerita, Suzanne Rutland, from the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies, who taught Ann and later became a close friend, said:

She was a quiet, kind and caring person who held strong convictions. I know her early experience of antisemitism was part of her motivation to foster good relations and understanding between Jews and non-Jews to counter antisemitism and racism. Her bequest speaks to that and her dedication to Jewish education.”

Ann Plotke arrived in Australia in 1939, aged 10. Her Jewish family had fled the Nazis in a journey taking them from Germany, then to Yugoslavia and Hungary, before they finally departed from Italy for Australia.

Despite speaking no English when she arrived, Ann soon excelled academically. She completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney in 1951, then a law degree in 1958. She became a partner at the EJ Kirby and Co law firm, with a special interest in mentoring young solicitors during her 30 years there. In time, she married the firm’s founder, Ernest Kirby, also a law graduate from the University of Sydney.  

Ann Kirby

Ann Kirby (nee Plotke)

After her retirement, Ann Kirby returned to the University of Sydney to study classical Hebrew. She was motivated by a wish to read the Torah aloud and to better understand the Torah discussions at her synagogue, Temple Emanuel.

Having completed her Diploma of Languages in 2006, she turned her attention to Jewish Studies, undertaking a wide-ranging study of Jewish civilisation from its earliest origins to the present day, completing a graduate Diploma of Arts in 2008. During this time, she spent a semester at Hebrew University studying Roman and Byzantine archaeology.

Professor Suzanne Rutland noted: “Ann was a dedicated student who battled a debilitating illness to complete her studies. She won the affection and admiration of her fellow students, many of them much younger than her.”

“She supported the ethos of the Department, which is to understand the present through the study of the past, including language study, which is so important to comprehending culture and providing insights into different ways of thinking.”

Ann was always so passionate about studying new things herself and encouraging others in their own studies.
Associate Professor Elizabeth New

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Professor Annamarie Jagose, said the Faculty is deeply thankful for the generous bequest.

“An important objective for our Faculty is to enable our students and staff to think about the real-world consequences of disciplinary ideas and debates. As a student, Ann Kirby embodied this vision and it is deeply fitting that her bequest will enable core teaching of Jewish Studies into the future.”

Founded in 1945, the year World War Two ended, the Department of Hebrew, Biblical and Jewish Studies specialises in the critical examination of Jewish and Christian texts, Jewish history and thought, Holocaust and modern Middle Eastern studies. It teaches programs in Classical Hebrew and Arabic along with other ancient Semitic languages such as Aramaic and Ugaritic.

Ann Kirby already had a record of philanthropy at the University. Her contribution to the Jewish Communal Appeal Plotke Fund continues to help support a part-time Lectureship in the Master of Teaching (Classical Hebrew) in the School of Education and Social Work, which is currently held by Dr Ari Lobel. She also donated to the Law School and a range of other University programs.

Among the many connections that Ann Kirby has to the University of Sydney that will resonate long after her death is the presence of her niece Associate Professor Elizabeth New, Westpac Research Fellow and SOAR Fellow at the School of Chemistry.

“Ann was always so passionate about studying new things herself and encouraging others in their own studies. I’m delighted that her enthusiasm for learning and her hopes for its ability to foster social cohesion will be part of her legacy at the University,” said Associate Professor New.

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