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SA Jewry’s traditional ‘warmth’ not misplaced

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The South African Jewish community has a reputation of being one of the warmest and most hospitable in the world. But, with all the media hype surrounding xenophobia, the question was posed by the SA Jewish Report: Is our community welcoming to Jews who move here from other countries? Pictured left is expat Hungarian rebbetzen Andrea Kuti (Alexander),
by SUZANNE BELLING | May 06, 2015

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While obviously not experiencing xenophobia, has there been a display of coolness or even hostility towards most Jewish immigrants to South Africa or have they been brought into the fold without reservations?

Andi - Alex Fine and famRabbi Moshe Silberhaft, CEO of the African Jewish Congress, says South Africa has seen a stream of Jews from Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and other sub-Saharan African states where there was trouble, “but the Jews were never persecuted” in those countries. “Jews never fled because they were Jews, but because of civil war and instability in those regions”.


RIGHT: Alexander Fine & family

They were welcomed wholeheartedly by South Africans and taken into the fold of synagogues, schools and welfare bodies.

Two people who left the poverty and uncertainty of Zimbabwe were Peter and Hermoine Sternberg. Hermoine was originally South African and settled in Harare when she married Peter, who for many years was president of the Zimbabwe Jewish Board of Deputies. He is currently a vice-president of the African Jewish Congress.

“We have been living in Sea Point for the past nine years and moved when things in Zimbabwe became very bad. I still travelled between the two countries for business for several years.”

The prospects for the Sternbergs were good. Because Peter has a sister, Judy Kaplan, living in Cape Town, Hermoine had friends from her earliest years here and the couple knew many people through their regular holidays. “We found ourselves very welcome.”

Having held the position of national president of the Union of Jewish Women in Zimbabwe, Hermoine easily secured a job as executive secretary of the UJW in Cape Town.

“We had no problems,” says Peter, “But we found South Africans naïve about Zimbabwe. We had no anti-Zionism and no anti-Semitism there. In general, they have the wrong impression.” 

Andi - Dan BrotmanPICTURED LEFT: Dan Brotman, executive director of the South Africa-Israel Forum in Johannesburg and formerly head of media and public affairs at the Cape Council of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, says: “I came to South Africa with one suitcase in 2010 and I never left”. He stayed because he met and married a South African, from whom he is now divorced.

Having lived both in Cape Town, where he felt comfortable because of the smaller Jewish community, and Johannesburg, which he found very welcoming, he says: “In Johannesburg I was invited out for every Jewish holiday and every seder and made to feel part of the community.

“In general, people in Johannesburg are friendlier than Cape Town. I think it is because people from all over move to Johannesburg whereas Cape Town has a small-town mentality.”

Brotman, originally from Boston, US, has also lived in Israel, but intends becoming a South African citizen in 2018.

Alexander Fine, an IT specialist from Russia, moved from Israel with his wife, Naomi, and children to Johannesburg in 2012. “We had an excellent reception,” he says. “We were welcomed like olim chadashim (new immigrants).”

Being an observant Jew, Fine set about finding a place, within walking distance from his home, where he could daven. He immediately was included in the Chabad community, with advice from Rabbi Ari Shishler and other rabbis and leaders.

“We go to the Hama’or Centre in Fairmount. The congregants were very warm and welcoming, as were Rabbi Levy Wineberg and Rabbi Berel Rodal.”

Andrea Kuti left her native Hungary 14 years ago to travel and study. At a conference in London, she met young Rabbi Greg Alexander, son of Carol and Peter Alexander from Johannesburg. The couple got married and after continuing their travels, settled in Cape Town, where Rabbi Greg is the spiritual leader of Temple Israel.

“As a woman trained and passionate about Judaism and community, I wish there were more inspirational career opportunities in the community for women to pursue,” she says.  

She has found an outlet in holistic midwifery “which is rarely found in South Africa” and is pursuing her studies in this field. Otherwise, she finds her congregants and the community warm and accepting and she aims to bring about further understanding of gender issues among South African Jews.

Rabbi Sa’ar Shaked, of Beit Emanuel, Parktown, says that apart from the fact that “I have an accent” and “there is tension between the Progressive Jews and Orthodoxy”, he feels he and his wife, Sharon,  and family have been welcomed by Johannesburg Jewry with open arms since their arrival here from Netanya, Israel three years ago. He and his family have had “the most amazing treatment,” he says. “My aim is to bring more diversity and to attract more Israelis into the community.” 

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ABOVE: Rabbi Sa’ar Shaked, of Beit Emanuel, Parktown

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