Local News - Victoria

Finding contentment is the secret to lockdown

In the first letter to Timothy, the author says: “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and into many foolish and harmful desires … for the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Instead, pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.

Some 1000 years earlier, in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, ascribed to King Solomon, he prayed God “give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread”. If he had too much he might disown God (precisely what happened); if he had too little he might steal and dishonour God. This quest for simplicity as a key to contentment is common to many philosophies.

Paul’s uniquely Christian insight, in total contradiction of the Roman Empire’s values, was in the paradoxical claim that God reveals his power in human weakness. He told the Corinthians: “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”

The Christian worldview is stuffed with paradox: believers are to conquer by yielding; we find rest under a yoke; we reign by serving; we are exalted when we are humble; we become wise by being fools for Christ’s sake; we are made free by becoming servants; we live by dying to self. To glory in weakness may still seem counter-intuitive 2000 years later, but it is intensely liberating.

In lockdown, achieving contentment, as always, is easier said than done but far from impossible. Focus not on what we are lacking but on what we have. Compare ourselves not with those who have more but those who have less. And enjoy the small pleasures every day brings.

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Australian News

Secret fiancee reveals WikiLeaks founder got her pregnant twice in embassy

It’s a secret love story tinged by fear.

Unknown to the world, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had a fiancee and fathered two young boys while holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.

Constantly watched by security guards, the couple’s love blossomed in secret.

Now Assange’s fiancee Stella Moris, 37, has spoken out to 60 Minutes about the surreal life she has lived for the last five years, her plea for Australia to help and the fear she feels for her two sons Gabriel, 3, and Max, 14-months.

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She describes plots to kidnap Assange, poison him, steal the couple’s oldest son Gabriel’s dummy and nappy to collect his DNA to prove the 48-year-old Aussie was the boy’s father – even allegations his confidential appointments with doctors and lawyers were spied on by the CIA inside the embassy.

60 Minutes presenter Tara Brown said the allegations read like a “terrible spy novel”.

“Stella, you have been Julian Assange’s great secret, perhaps his best surprise yet,” Brown said.

Stella, a legal researcher, replied: “Yeah, it’s quite something that one of the most surveilled people on the planet managed to carve out a space for a family and a partner.

“It wasn’t easy, but I think if you’re with someone you love, you can make impossible situations possible.”

Currently held in Britain’s maximum-security jail HMP Belmarsh, despite having already served his 50-week sentence for breaching bail, Assange is desperately fighting attempts to extradite him to the US to face espionage charges.

“I don’t want our lives to be determined by an incredible injustice. I have the certainty of his love, and he has the certainty of my love. We have an incredibly strong bond,” Stella said.

“We have two children who love their father. That’s what matters.”

The WikiLeaks founder is accused of releasing three quarters of a million highly classified military documents and videos in 2010. He faces 17 espionage charges which – if convicted – could see him sentenced to 175 years in jail.

He spent seven years holed up in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy while he was on bail over sexual assault charges which he strongly denies and which have now been dropped by Swedish prosecutors. While there, he regularly hit the headlines, most notoriously for his high-profile visitors such as former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson.

There was even speculation that Anderson and Assange were in a relationship, rumours the actress did little to play down.

However, unknown to the world, Assange was also a doting dad and his sons were snuck into the embassy with the help of British actor Stephen Hoo who pretended to be the boys’ father.

Suspicions were raised within the embassy and a dirt file was compiled on Hoo, who identifies as gay. There was even a plot to obtain the DNA of three-year-old Gabriel by stealing his dummy and nappy to prove the boy’s parentage. Whistleblowers tasked to obtain the items told the couple they were working for the US secret service.

“It was mainly a security concern and that’s why we went to extreme measures of me trying to not expose my pregnancy, bringing in Gabriel to the embassy with a friend who would pose as the father, just so that Julian would be able to see his son regularly,” Stella said.

“You don’t take these steps lightly. You only do this if you think that there’s a very serious security risk.”

Describing her elicit love affair with Assange as “very romantic”, Stella admits she is constantly wracked with fear that harm will come to her fiance and their two sons.

“It was tolerable because we were able to create a haven, a private oasis and to create life. And with life there’s hope,” Stella told 60 Minutes.

“We do have these two little boys who are wonderful. There’s a future for our family together.”

Describing the moment Assange was arrested at the Ecuadorian Embassy in April 2019 and taken into police custody, she said: “We knew it was coming, but I never thought it would be as brutal and as brazen as that.”

Stella, an accomplished legal researcher who previously worked for the United Nations, met Assange when she joined his team working on helping to clear his name.

“When I first met him, I felt so fortunate that I was able to meet this person who had changed the world really with WikiLeaks,” Stella said.

“It was a game changer. Everything was possible.

“We grew closer and became friends and watched movies together and I just loved spending time with him.

“It was very romantic and cautious and very sweet.

“Would I change anything? Yes of course we would have the freedoms everyone else, the romantic dinners in a restaurant and strolling by the beach. But you can still have a lot of that in a tiny room in the embassy.

“It’s romantic anyway.”

Stella said the couple’s relationship was a well-kept secret but she felt like she was constantly being watched. However, he did have private spaces including his bedroom and office.

“I got pregnant twice while he was in the embassy,” she said. “I guess I just piled on layers and complained about getting fat. But yes, he had his private spaces. That’s all one needs to have a relationship.”

The first time she got pregnant, she had to write it on a piece of paper to tell him as there were “microphones everywhere”.

“The real issue was I thought that our family would be targeted by the same people that were trying to harm Julian in a bid to harm him,” Stella said about keeping the relationship under wraps.

Assange was unable to be with her while she gave birth and most of her child-rearing has been done alone, peppered with regular visits to the embassy and later HMP Belmarsh.

“I mean Julian was by my side on the phone when I had both Max and Gabriel. That was an incredible salve, even through childbirth,” she said.

“I think it was as strong as painkiller. But of course, I’ve been deprived of having him hold my hand while I was giving birth.”

Stella has gone to great lengths over the last five years to keep her identity and that of her boys secret. But she has now spoken out in the hope the Australian Government will step in to help Assange fight extradition to the US.

“He’s very unwell and I’m very concerned for his ability to survive this. And now he’s in the UK’s worst prison, HMP Belmarsh Prison, which they nickname it Britain’s Guantanamo Bay. And it’s a high security prison, one in five prisoners are murderers,” she said.

“He shouldn’t be there. He’s not a criminal, he’s not a dangerous person. He’s a gentle intellectual, a thinker, and a journalist. And those people are not the people who belong in prison.

“I saw him on the Sunday before lockdown started and we’ve been able to speak every day. But I’m very worried.

“If you’re separated from your family and you’re alone in a room, a tiny dark room for 23 hours a day with no control over your surroundings, I think people can imagine what that’s like.

“Well, I think any person would get very severely depressed. And he is very depressed.”

Of the threats to kidnap and potentially poison Assange, Stella said, “I think it’s hard for people to understand that such lawlessness is possible.

“So there’s incredible criminality that has been going on in order to gather information about Julian’s lawyers, and his family, and journalists who were visiting him.

“It’s shocking and I’m very fearful. I’ve been in a permanent state of fear for years and now it’s slowly playing out.

“If Australia doesn’t step in, I’m very fearful that this wrong won’t be righted.


“It’s a nightmare and it has to stop,” Stella said. “Not because he has to be treated differently, but because he has to be treated the same as everyone else, he has rights.”

One person who is on Assange’s side is Independent federal MP Andrew Wilkie, a former military intelligence officer turned Iraqi war whistleblower

“I hope many people would agree when an Australian is overseas and in strife, there is at least a moral obligation on the Australian government to come to their aid whereas in this case, the Australian government has basically hung Julian Assange out to dry, being more interested I think in cow towing to Washington as is the case with the British government,” he said.

“The substantive issue is that Julian Assange revealed hard evidence of US war crimes, in Iraq and Afghanistan, of the inhumane treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, that’s the substantive issue.

“Picture this, you know, we’ve got one lone Australian sitting in his cell in HMP Belmarsh high security prison, up against the might of the United States military intelligence and legal systems.

“There’s nothing fair about that when all he did was the right thing.

“The allegation is made that he dumped a whole lot of material and he endangered people. “The fact is there is no evidence of anyone getting hurt,” Mr Wilkie concluded.

Stella added, “I want people to understand that we’re being punished as a family. It’s not just Julian in the prison. It’s the kids that are being deprived of their father.

“It’s me that’s being deprived. I need Julian and he needs me. I’d like to ask Scott Morrison to do everything he can to get Julian back to his family.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne were contacted by 60 Minutes but declined to be interviewed.

In a statement, the federal government said the Australian High Commission in London had written to Julian Assange multiple times, offering consular assistance he had so far ignored to take that up.

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Personal touch the secret to Square Peg’s success

Square Peg’s investment in freelance marketplace Fiverr has proven to be particularly fortuitous with the Israeli company’s share price soaring by over 200 per cent since it listed last year, with most of the rise occurring since March.

Bassat says Fiverr is a good example of the sort of company Square Peg looks to invest in as a scaleable company that connected people looking for tasks to be done with freelancers anywhere in the world.

“The business was growing very quickly through 2019 but we’re seeing that growth accelerate through 2020 because processes and services and products that can be delivered online obviously have been relative winners during the crisis,” he says.

However, Square Peg’s reliance on international markets has raised some eyebrows locally.

Alan Jones, founder of now closed M8 Ventures fund, says Square Peg picks the “cream of the crop” in Australia with investments in tech unicorns Airwallex and Canva but most of its investment activity is in Israel and South East Asia.

“The bulk of their portfolio and the bulk of their focus has been offshore because this is too small a market with too few opportunities at that scale,” he says.

Boasting impeccable connections, from billionaire James Packer to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whom he advised during the coronavirus crisis as part of the Novel-19 group of key business leaders, Bassat has also found staunch support from superannuation funds Hostplus and AustralianSuper

Mike Nicholls, partner at the CSIRO’s Main Sequence Ventures fund, says investors have taken a shine to both Square Peg’s strong track record and Bassat himself.

“They have a couple of good wins under their belt and they are safe hands,” he says. “It helps that they are run by a guy who has made a lot of money.”

Bassat says he’s been able to attract investors such as the big super funds because Square Peg offers an opportunity to buy into high growth disruptive businesses and gain visibility into key technology trends and themes.

“Venture capital as an asset class offers diversification to their overall portfolio,” he says. “The performance is driven by the underlying investments as opposed to being highly correlated to gross domestic product or macro factors so that diversification and also the potential great returns is a big driver for them.”


He adds that Square Peg enables investors to gain exposure beyond Australia to the Israeli and south-east Asian markets, which are important technology hubs.

“The sorts of companies that are being produced in Israel are a little bit different to the sorts of companies being produced here in Australia, and a bit different to the companies being produced in South East Asia.”

After focusing on fundraising over the last few months Bassat says he is looking forward to getting back to meeting new founders and supporting Square Peg’s existing portfolio companies albeit these meetings are more likely to be over Zoom than face to face.

“Everyone in the team is meeting a huge number of founders at the moment, we’re seeing a lot of interesting opportunities,” he says. “What’s next for us is sort of back to the future, going back to business as usual after, after a reasonably unusual three month period for all of us.”

For workplace management software startup Deputy’s co-founder Ashik Ahmed, it’s Bassat’ commitment to investing his time with founders that makes Square Peg, which invested in the company’s $111 million investment round in 2018, an attractive partner.

“Personally I feel very lucky that I even have his number on my phone,” Ahmed says. “There is nothing the team has never done for me, that’s where their founder friendliness shines.”

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Local News - Victoria

Richard Pusey’s secret property play after tormenting neighbours

According to the sources, the 41-year-old also deterred potential buyers by tipping over rubbish bins and using a leaf-blower to push litter towards the entrance of the apartment on Whitehorse Road.

He also blocked access to the property by repeatedly parking his vehicle in the driveway.

In late, 2016, the owner of the property received an offer from a buyer that was more than $70,000 below the reserve.

However, the bid was secretly backed by Mr Pusey, who would later use his company Thanks So Much Pty Ltd as a nominee to conceal his involvement in the transaction, which settled in January 2017.

Mr Pusey was arrested on April 22 after he allegedly fled the scene of a horror crash that killed four police officers. He had been pulled over in his Porsche for allegedly speeding when a semi-trailer driven by Mohinder Singh crashed into the emergency lane, killing four police officers.

As one of the officers, Leading Senior Constable Lynette Taylor, lay dying, her body camera captured Mr Pusey saying to her: “There you go. Amazing, absolutely amazing. All I wanted to do was go home and have my sushi.”

He was charged with 12 offences, including driving at a dangerous speed, reckless conduct endangering life, failing to remain after a drug test and failing to render assistance.

He applied for bail in mid-May but it was refused by a magistrate, who said she held concerns about his risk of committing offences while on bail and about his drug use.

Property documents show the 41-year-old has an extensive property portfolio with stakes in properties in Templestowe, Doncaster and a $1.276 million property in Bonbeach. He is the owner of a terrace in West Melbourne which he bought for $1.3 million in mid-2018 and a block of units in South Geelong which he bought in 2008.

He bought the Doncaster East townhouse which is now for sale in 2017. He and his wife also own one of the other townhouses in the block.

The Doncaster East east property owned by Richard Pusey and up for sale.

The Doncaster East east property owned by Richard Pusey and up for sale.Credit:Wayne Taylor

The Champion Street residence, which has a quote range of $950,000 to $1.045 million, “showcases supreme living” and has a “modern atmosphere” ideal for families, according to the property listing.

RT Edgar agent Dennis Dellas declined to comment when contacted by The Age.

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Local News - Victoria

Secret EPA reports reveal PFAS problem on West Gate Tunnel

It comes as environmental experts warn that dumping PFAS soil in landfill could create a problem for future generations and have called for all PFAS waste — or at least the most contaminated parts — to be treated and removed.


Secret EPA classifications issued between May and September before tunnelling was to begin last year show sections of the project’s soil have 100 times the levels of PFAS acceptable in drinking water. Only one facility in the state is licensed to dispose of this soil.

Other sections of soil classified by the EPA have low-level contamination or are clean fill. The amounts of soil measured is unclear.

The Andrews government has continually argued that soil excavated during tunnelling has low traces of PFAS.

While the EPA documents appear to refer mainly to soil being dug up before tunnelling starts, they are understood to also include some areas where the tunnel will go.

“Preliminary testing has shown that the soil from tunnelling is expected to have very low levels of PFAS,” a government spokeswoman said.

Transurban is in a bitter dispute with its builders over the soil crisis. The fight is likely to wind up in court.

Ballooning project costs are linked to delays, hefty landfill levies and the need to build massive new waste facilities to store, process and test more than 1.5 million cubic metres of soil in line with beefed up EPA requirements.

The project is also under pressure to consider treatment options for waste with high traces of PFAS, rather than simply dumping it in landfill.

A CSIRO-developed treatment for PFAS called RemBind, which mixes small amounts of powdered minerals into PFAS soil and prevents the chemicals from leaching out, has been pitched to the project for around $100 million, but a decision on whether it would be used appears to have stalled.

Senior lecturer in environmental science at Melbourne University Brad Clarke said it was time to rethink dumping PFAS waste in landfill, as this was “delaying environmental problems for our children to deal with”.

“As far as we know, these compounds don’t break down at all. So at some point, we will have to dig it up and treat it.”

Associate Professor Robert Niven at the University of NSW, who is researching how to treat PFAS in soils, said decontaminating all of the project’s PFAS waste as proven treatment becomes available could add to costs, but bungling the process “will cost more in the long run”.

Bacchus Marsh resident Kat Barlow said residents were concerned about soil coming out of the tunnel and waste with high levels of PFAS being stockpiled on the side of the road that was covered only with a tarpaulin in Melbourne’s inner-west. “This is a concern for the whole of Melbourne,” she said.

“The very next thing that is going to happen is a class action from residents who find out they’ve been sitting on ‘Category A’ PFAS soil leaching out into parks and gardens where we take our children.”

The EPA requires waste that is Category A — the highest level of contamination — to be decontaminated and a spokeswoman said this was being done for small amounts of soil.

A West Gate Tunnel Project spokeswoman said the EPA “confirmed the levels of PFAS in the spoil from the tunnel boring are expected to be low and at safe levels for the community and the environment with appropriate controls”.

A Transurban spokeswoman said the project’s low levels of PFAS were not harmful to the public during soil removal, relocation or disposal. “The builder, CPB John Holland, continues to work towards a tailored solution for tunnelling that meets all relevant EPA requirements.”

Planning Minister Richard Wynne is examining an application to send the project’s soil to Maddingley Brown Coal landfill. He has triggered a clause in the Planning and Environment Act that gives Moorabool Council a say in the decision, after complaints the shire was shut out of the planning process.

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Local News - Victoria

Secret plan to reopen pubs, clubs and Crown Casino

The parties involved in the industry group include Crown Resorts; gaming giant Tabcorp; Woolworths’ pokies arm ALH; the Australian Hotels Association; Community Clubs Victoria and the RSL.

On Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the national cabinet would review all restrictions on May 8. He declined to confirm whether restrictions on licensed venues would be wound back, and instead urged the public to download the COVIDSafe app to hasten the path towards lifting lockdown restrictions.

Victorian minister Marlene Kairouz addressed members of the taskforce on Thursday.

Victorian minister Marlene Kairouz addressed members of the taskforce on Thursday. Credit:Eddie Jim

It is expected pubs and clubs will be given about a month to prepare to reopen once the national cabinet decides to ease restrictions on hospitality venues.

The taskforce, which has met in previous years and has been revived to assess the financial impact of the pandemic, meets weekly and is aiming to finalise its recommendations in the next fortnight. The recommendations will be handed to the state government, which will present the document to the national cabinet when it deliberates on relaxing restrictions.

Neil Spencer, Crown’s former head of gaming and an industry veteran, was hired by the Andrews government to head the taskforce.

Illustration: Matt Golding

Illustration: Matt GoldingCredit:

Members of the taskforce insist they are not pressuring the government to lift restrictions quickly, but are supportive of government health measures to avoid outbreaks and secondary shutdowns.

Ms Kairouz briefed the taskforce on Thursday and said it was extremely unlikely venues could reopen in June and the more likely date was late July or beyond, according to three people familiar with the minister’s briefing. Ms Kairouz said Crown – which has stood down 11,500 workers, 95 per cent of its staff – was an example of the lockdown’s effect on workers in the hospitality sector.

Pubs and gaming venues have been crippled by the shutdown of the economy, with many of closing entirely rather than serving takeaway. Community sporting clubs – many of which rely on patrons buying food and drink and hiring rooms – are buckling under financial distress.

A source in the gaming industry said the group believed it was likely an indoor limit of one person for every four square metres and a one to 1.5-metre distance between people would be in place. These rules were enforced for the three days before the national cabinet agreed on a stricter lockdown on March 22.

Measures to virus-proof venues could include testing people’s temperature at entrances and spit guards separating patrons and staff at bars. Practices that encourage groups to gather in communal areas are unlikely to be allowed, including children’s playgrounds and mosh pits for live music.

Liam Raymond Reardon, owner of Richmond's Rising Sun Hotel, says he would be pleased if he could reopen to patrons in July.

Liam Raymond Reardon, owner of Richmond’s Rising Sun Hotel, says he would be pleased if he could reopen to patrons in July.Credit:Luis Ascui

Under one plan being considered, public bar areas will be turned into quasi-dining rooms with patrons sitting at tables being served rather than standing at counters.

In dining areas there could be half the number of tables and limits on the number of people who can eat together. Condiment, cutlery and water stations would be be removed.

There are plans to turn off every second gaming machine and remove excess stools and tables to avoid loitering, while shared coin buckets could be scrapped.

One staff member could be assigned to monitoring physical distancing at all times, and staff would probably be encouraged to complete an infection control course offered by the federal Health Department.

Crown faces serious issues in making its venues safe because much of its business relies on shared gaming tables that have groups of people present using shared chips and cash.

Crown did not comment on the taskforce but said it was developing policies to ensure patron safety once it reopens.

Australian Hotels Association chief executive Paddy O’Sullivan said his organisation would “be working with the Victorian government for any future reduction in restrictions of people movement, particularly around hospitality venues”.


Tabcorp and ALH declined to comment. Community Clubs Victoria and RSL Victoria did not respond by deadline.

A spokeswoman for the Victorian government said: “Our priority is the safety and wellbeing of Victorians as we work to slow the spread of coronavirus. We will follow the advice of the Chief Health Officer to determine when it is appropriate and safe for licensed venues and casinos to reopen.”

Liam Raymond Reardon, owner of the historic Rising Sun Hotel in Swan Street, Richmond, said a July opening date would be “amazing”.

Mr Reardon said he was planning to allow patrons into his pub only if they proved they had downloaded the COVIDSafe app to ensure his venue would not be the source of an outbreak that would force it to shut for a period of time.

“I’m not going to let one ignorant person shut this pub down again,” he said.

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Australian News

Secret Defence report predicted ‘massive upheaval’ in a global crisis

A confidential report prepared by the Defence Department last year eerily predicted that Australia would suffer “massive upheaval” in a global crisis, detailing public hoarding, shortages of medical equipment, and mass worker lay-offs.

The report, viewed by ABC 7.30, outlined it would take just three months for essential services to break down.

RELATED: Follow the latest coronavirus developments

Defence’s director of preparedness and mobilisation Cheryl Durrant appeared on the program Tuesday night, revealing that Australia’s “most vulnerable areas” were studied at a top-secret Melbourne meeting last year, as part of a review into how Defence should prepare for a major crisis.

Ms Durrant commissioned the review in the event of a global catastrophe triggered by circumstances including the impact of climate change and natural disasters, a global power conflict, or a pandemic.

The meeting gathered 17 leading engineers to discuss whether their industries would survive if a crisis brought global trade to a standstill due to the severing of their supply chains.

“We wanted to understand what was the thing we were most vulnerable in,” Ms Durrant told 7.30.

The report in question laid out a three-month timeline for the failure of our essential services in the face of a crisis “far worse than COVID-19”, accurately predicting a number of issues that have come to fruition amid the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the ABC, the first prediction was public hoarding, followed by shortages of medical equipment, then mass worker lay-offs.

“We knew there were problems, we knew this may be coming, we knew various things needed to be done,” Ms Durrant said.

“I would say our preparedness planning was probably about a D-plus, C-minus, but our response was much better.”

She clarified that there had been warnings “for years” about these vulnerabilities.

“A growing group of Australia’s top brass has warned for years, our reliance on overseas supply chains makes the nation vulnerable in an increasingly unstable world.”

Now, she says, Australia is in a “fragile position”.

“We’re worse off than a few countries. Ninety eight per cent of our trade, imports, exports, depends upon foreign-owned shipping systems.”

She added that the pandemic has highlighted many aspects the report hadn’t covered, such as sanitation, which would quickly start to fail when imported water treatment chemicals run out.

“If you think of the COVID-19 crisis as a test run, it’s highlighted a lot of things that we hadn’t thought about. It’s really a critical thing for us to learn from this.”

“If we take the attitude, I think, “she’ll be right”, business as usual, bounce back, I think we’re going to find ourselves not as well prepared for what happens next,” she said.

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Local News - Victoria

Dozens of Orthodox Jews flout virus rules in secret prayer meetings


Witnesses said that on Wednesday night, dozens of men entered a side entrance to a home in St Kilda East.

They said the men prayed for more than an hour in a courtyard – shielded by a large bedsheet that blocked the view of onlookers – before dispersing after 9pm.

Witnesses say they called police several times requesting the gathering be broken up. Police said they would send someone to investigate but officers did not arrive until after the men had left.

Two similar gatherings took place on Tuesday night at another location in St Kilda East, a day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced all churches, mosques, synagogues and other places of worship must shut.

The Age made repeated attempts to contact organisers of the prayer group, but phone calls and text messages were not returned.

Jewish leaders closed all synagogues several weeks ago, well in advance of government bans.

A police spokeswoman would not confirm whether officers conducted spot checks on specific gatherings and said police would only confirm specific gatherings that breached social distancing rules if fines or charges were laid.

Mr Southwick and Josh Burns, the Labor federal MP for Macnamara, whose electorate also covers St Kilda East, have united to urge everyone to follow the restrictions laid out by governments and health authorities.

Mr Burns has written to the prayer group’s leaders telling them to shut down the meetings.

“All places of worship must be suspended during coronavirus – no exceptions,” he said.

“I’m extremely grateful to the vast majority of the community who have done the right thing. This is a small minority, and it will be shut down.”

Conducting daily prayers with 10 or more people is an important ritual for the Orthodox Jewish community, and the closure of synagogues has pushed some to establish improvised places of worship.

Many Jewish people are gathering online for prayers to avoid face-to-face contact, or not gathering at all.

The prayer groups in St Kilda East have been organised by members of the Satmar Hasidic sect, an offshoot of the Adass grouping.

Last week the chief rabbi of the Congregation Adass Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Kohn Shlita, sent a letter to his congregation instructing them to pray at home rather than in minyanim – quorums of 10 men.

“One should pray at home until the doctors say the pandemic has passed … The danger negates the requirement to pray with a congregation,” he wrote.

In a statement, the Rabbinical Council of Victoria said all synagogues were complying with the directive to close their doors, and criticised the small minority who were holding private gatherings.

“We decry and condemn anyone who breaches these guidelines and places the health of the community at risk,” the statement said.


Influential community leader Manny Waks, who noted that in Israel a large proportion of coronavirus infections were transmitted in synagogues, said the St Kilda prayer groups were “endangering themselves and the whole of society”.

“This is not the religious thing to do,” he said.

Glen Eira Council is investigating whether the prayer group had a permit to use a private venue as a place of worship.

Public health officials in New York have this week raised alarm at the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the Hasidic Jewish community.

New York police dispersed large prayer groups of Orthodox Jews who congregated outside a closed synagogue.

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Local News - Victoria

Secret Santas come to aid of family who lost home in Christmas Eve fire

The young family of five, with three children aged 6, 9 and 12, was uninjured but has been left without presents or possessions after the massive fire gutted the home.

As the fire rose up through the roof of the Wallan home, video footage shows terrified neighbours in the street yelling, “Where are the kids? Where are the kids that live there?”.

Frantic residents attempted to put out the fire with garden hoses.

Neighbour Matt Spencer said he woke up to “a lot of smoke, noise, explosions,” with flames licking at nearby homes and embers floating down the street.

“You could see flames coming out of the roof, smoke and embers falling down everywhere,” he told Channel Nine.

“I feel very sorry for the family. It looks like they’ve lost everything. But [the community] will all come together, everybody will chip in. You’ve got to help out people in times like this.”

A late-night social media call-out on Christmas Eve by Wallan’s Love In Action group has resulted in the town’s community hub now overflowing with donations.

The group’s organiser, Kym Puehringer-Head, had a sleepless night on Tuesday as hundreds of text messages brought offers of toys, clothing and furniture for the family.

A Wallan house was left gutted on Christmas Eve after a fire.

A Wallan house was left gutted on Christmas Eve after a fire. Credit:Nine News

Ms Puehringer-Head said she was “devastated” for the family but was determined to give them a “positive future” after a Christmas they’ll sadly never forget.

“One of the children actually turned around apparently, and said to the parents, ‘Where is Santa Claus going to know where to put our presents?'” she said.

“So I kindly asked if people could spare a present underneath their tree … I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of text messages coming to me all night. The community gets behind us 110 per cent.”

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