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Rebecca Adelaide (Ada) Phillips (1862–1967)

by Sue Silberberg

Ada Phillips (1862-1967), religious reformer and community leader, was born Rebecca Adelaide (Ada) Crawcour on 5 October 1862 on the Castlemaine Goldfields, the youngest of three children to London-born parents Samuel Crawcour, a pawnbroker, and Isabella Abrahams. Ada, along with her elder sister Sarah Amelia, was educated at Miss Henderson’s Collegiate Institution for Young Ladies in Ballarat.[1] This schooling was interrupted in 1874 when the family made the first of her many overseas trips, returning to England to visit relatives. 

In 1884 Ada Crawcour married Abraham Phillips at the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation. Abraham Phillips, a financier, was the Australian-born son of the Rev Solomon Phillips, who had arrived in Sydney in 1833 to take up rabbinical roles in New South Wales before moving his family to Melbourne, where he was active in the Jewish community.

Abraham Phillips died in 1910, leaving Ada a widow and the mother of six surviving young children. In 1924 she made one of her many regular trips to England and, while there, attended a service at the Liberal Synagogue in St John’s Wood, opposite her beloved Lord’s Cricket Ground.[2] Inspired by the service, on her next trip to England she contacted Rabbi Israel Mattuck, the Chief Liberal Rabbi and editor of the first Liberal prayer book, as well as the Honourable Lily Montague, founder of Liberal Judaism in England, and Claude Montefiore, founder of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, seeking assistance and information about Liberal Judaism.

In 1930 Ada Phillips organised a meeting at her home on Wattletree Road, Malvern, hoping to form a Liberal Synagogue and inviting a group of like-minded Jewish women and men to attend. Her connection to Lily Montague and the Liberal movement resulted in the provision of logistical assistance and financial support for a fledgling community in Melbourne. This culminated in the formation of what was initially known in its first year as the Liberal Synagogue with Ada as President. In 1931 this name was changed to the Liberal Synagogue Beth Israel, and the community initially held services in rented premises in St Kilda. In 1937 the Synagogue was able to purchase a property on Alma Road and established the congregation as Temple Beth Israel. In the immediate post-war period, the congregation had risen to 1,700 members, with a religious school of six teachers educating 250 students.[3] This was followed by the establishment of a sister congregation, the Emanuel Synagogue, in Sydney in 1938. From the 1950s further communities would be established, including multiple congregations across Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, and the Gold Coast, through to New Zealand with congregations established in Wellington and Auckland and subsequently in Hong Kong. Australia has inspired and united numerous other Progressive Jewish congregations in Asia, and most of these communities are affiliated with the Australian-based Union for Progressive Judaism.

On the occasion of her one hundredth birthday, Ada Phillips reflected that she had been drawn to Liberal Judaism due to its ‘form of presentation’.[4]Unlike in orthodox services, the introduction of English allowed for a greater appreciation of the service, while the ability of families to sit together ‘strengthened family unity and created an undivided loyalty’ to the Jewish faith.[5] She also believed that this reforming of Jewish practice would enable Jewish continuity in a modern world, stimulating an interest in Judaism for individuals, a view reinforced by the large numbers of congregants she had witnessed at the St John’s Wood services.[6]  

As early as 1931, Ada Phillips was being referred to as the synagogue’s honorary life president, and in 1941, in recognition of her seminal work and achievement in establishing Progressive Judaism in Australia, Ada Phillips was made the Temple Beth Israel’s first life president.[7]

Complaining she had been forced to give up smoking at the age of ninety, her one-hundredth birthday was celebrated with a service at Temple Beth Israel with over 700 congregants and friends in attendance. Correspondents noted that a keen card player, she was still capable of imperiously complaining at midnight if her companions wanted to end the game and go to bed.[8]

Ada Phillips died on 2 March 1967 at Malvern, Victoria, aged one hundred and four. Of her eight children, two died as infants, and two others—Samuel and Caroline—predeceased her. Three of her children became medical doctors, including her daughter Dr Isabella (Belle) Phillips who was the Medical Officer at the Melbourne Hospital. Her daughter Amelia (Millie) was the Temple Beth Israel’s long-serving honorary secretary. Ada Phillips was part of a remarkable extended family, the aunt of the Fabian politician Marion Phillips; Dr Rebecca Constance Ellis, a pathologist and the first female Doctor of Medicine from the University of Melbourne; and the artist Emanuel Phillips Fox.


[1] Ballarat Star, 20 December 1872, 2.
[2] Werner Graff, Malcolm J. Turnbull, and Eliot J. Baskin, A Time to Keep: The Story of Temple Beth Israel, 1930–2005 (Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers, 2005), 11
[3] Temple Beth Israel Annual Report 1947.
[4] Australian Jewish Herald, 12 October 1962, 12.
[5] Australian Jewish Herald, 12 October 1962, 12.
[6] Australian Jewish News, 12 October 1962, 5.
[7] Argus, 17 December 1931, 3.
[8] Australian Jewish News, 5 October 1962, 9.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sue Silberberg, 'Phillips, Rebecca Adelaide (Ada) (1862–1967)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Crawcour, Rebecca Adelaide

5 October, 1862
Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia


2 March, 1967 (aged 104)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

general debility

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations