Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe (FREE) is a world wide community welfare organization that meets the needs of refugees, predominantly from the former Soviet Union. FREE in Sydney has existed for 25 years and has around 12,000 members, mostly located in the Eastern suburbs and inner Sydney.After decades of searching, FREE in Sydney, now has a unique opportunity to build an adequate centre at 105 Wellington St. Bondi, and has lodged an application with Waverley Council to develop the site.

On Tuesday night, 17 August 2010, almost two hundred members of FREE attended Waverley Council’s meeting to support the application to re-zone the privately owned Wellington St. site, which is currently operated as tennis courts. The lease on the tennis courts has already expired.The centre is much needed to service the Russian speaking Jewish community of Waverley, especially after closure of the Hakoah Club in Bondi, and the reduction of services and future closure of the Benevolent Society in Ocean St. Bondi.According to Waverley Council’s owns statistics, after English, Russian is the most commonly spoken language in the Municipality. This is the result of the Jewish Russian migration to Australia since the 1970s until the late ‘90s. In the 1980s, F.R.E.E. was established in Bondi, by Rabbi Yoram Ulman, to assist and facilitate settlement of the community in Australian society. Since then, they, and their families, have become a vibrant and vital part of Waverley Municipality, and FREE continues to work so that no-one is left behind or disadvantaged.

FREE is non-discriminatory and offers assistance to people from any background, regardless of religious affiliation. Whether it is advocacy to find housing for the homeless, to run English classes for the elderly, to have summer camps for children, to ensure that those without resources are not friendless, to keep a child from delinquency, to counsel families so that they remain stable and happy,

Rabbi Ulman’s and FREE’s work is greatly appreciated and encouraged by all levels of Australian government. Rabbi Ulman has also provided valued advice to Government on ethical aspects of matters such as in-vitro fertilisation, family law and prisoner rehabilitation. He is a Chaplain to NSW Justice System. He has been an advocate for unity in Australian society, for example organising a rally for unity on Bondi Beach in the wake of the Bali bombings. Rabbi Ulman is a member of the Sydney Beth Din (Ecclesiastic Court) and past President of the Rabbinical Council of NSW.The needs of the community are many. The only barrier to FREE being able to do more to meet them is the lack of an adequate community centre, from which to provide quality programs.

Rabbi Ulman, told Tuesday’s Council meeting that re-zoning of the land is necessary, so that a much needed community centre can be built. The community is not wealthy, and cannot afford to buy the land and build the centre without a residential component to the development. The profits from the sale of the residential component will be given to cover the cost of the land and the construction cost of the centre. This requires that residential apartments to be built on the site, and this is why rezoning of the land is needed. Should another source of adequate funds become available, FREE would forego the option to construct the apartments on the site.The Council was told that the site is privately owned land, and that continued use of the land as tennis courts is unviable. The current owner subsidises the operator, as rent paid for the site doesn’t meet costs. This can’t continue. The courts will cease to operate within 6 months, whether or not the community centre is built.

As FREE is a community organization, and accepts that people want to play tennis, FREE has offered to assist Waverley Council to relocate the courts to another location identified by Council.It should be noted that the Wellington St. courts are only technically “open space”. At present there is a modest clubhouse on the site. The courts are not public open space, and it is not parkland. There are no trees or grass or flowers or plants. It is a large concreted space coloured green. Rabbi Ulman also said that, after decades of looking, FREE has concluded that the Wellington site is the only suitable, available land for an adequate community centre to cater for the needs of the largest minority cultural group in Waverley.

FREE is a charitable community organisation that addresses the needs of youth, the aged, young mothers, and families. Given the human tragedy that results from neglecting the needs of youth and the aged in particular, the provision of a communitycentre on the site is a more urgent need than retaining private “open” (empty) space.Rabbi Ulman reassured local residents that the operation of the centre would not disadvantage them.

FREE has operated in Bondi for more than twenty years, and because of its family orientation, it has never had any problems with, or complaints about traffic, parking or noise. At the meeting Council deferred its decision on the application to allow for full consultation on the proposal.