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X-treme Torah

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This past Sunday, Sinai-X drew a capacity crowd to the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg for an interactive and fully immersive learning experience. The event also served as a big bang launch for the latest Jewish unity/identity project from the Office of the Chief Rabbi - Avot 101. Sinai-X moved to Durban this Thursday, before finishing up in Cape Town on Sunday.
by SIMON APFEL | Apr 06, 2016

Striking. That seems the best way to describe Sinai-X. The shocking pink motif. The pulsing laser-light headsets. The row upon row of lamp-lit tables that filled the cavernous venue, and in the eerie solitude that preceded the flood of arrivals, seemed oddly reminiscent of that human pod scene from the Matrix.

The roving Spidercam lunging and lurching around the room seemingly with a mind and personality of its own. The enormous X-shaped stage that looked like something from a U2 tour set. The manic chasidic violinist, all flailing coat tails and flying sidelocks, stomping around like a man possessed.

And perhaps most striking of all, the sheer spectacle of what founder and event architect Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein described as “the world’s biggest beit midrash”.

“Just look around you,” said Rabbi Goldstein. “There are over 2 000 people gathered here together in one room to learn one of our sacred Jewish texts - to discuss and debate and share their opinions, just as Jews have been doing for millennia.

“This afternoon we are continuing an age-old tradition, joining a conversation that has taken place across and between the generations, and we can all take great pride in being a part of it.”

The speakers were as struck as anyone. Rabbi Zev Leff called it a “grand and awesome occasion”. Rabbi David Milston marvelled that “no cross-section of people anywhere in the world could emulate what you are doing here this afternoon - it’s unparalleled, unbelievable.”

YY Jacobson, who along with Milston appeared at the first Sinai Indaba in 2011 when the event was still in its embryonic stage, noted how “the Chief Rabbi and the entire South African community have taken the learning of Torah to a new level, with such beauty, such grandeur, such technological acuteness…”

Sinai-X was dubbed “The Experience”, and while Sinai Indaba has always been a lively affair, the idea this year was to try out something more immersive, interactive and participative.

Aside from the three headline speakers, other past Sinai indaba luminaries - including Lori Palatnick, Rabbi Dr Akiva Tatz, David Sacks (of The Simpsons fame) and Rabbi David Aaron - had prerecorded 10-minute talks to complement and enrich the material explored by the live speakers. These were accessed via wireless headsets.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference was the audacious attempt to recreate traditional yeshiva chabura (group) learning, with participants seated in groups around tables rather than facing the stage, theatre-style, and invited to discuss and debate the material with each other.

There was also a virtuoso violinist, Daniel Ahaviel, who somehow summoned up more energy than an entire band, and even a post-event set from local DJ Jevan Binder (of electro-house duo SauBomb fame) as the brave new world of “silent disco” was unveiled at a Jewish event for the first time.

In the build-up, there were reservations - understandably for something so radically different. Yet by 13:55 the room was full to capacity, and by 14:00, they were turning people away.

“The message of Sinai-X is that in life it’s so important to innovate, reinvent and renew ourselves; to never become complacent,” says Rabbi Goldstein.

“This was partly the thinking behind changing the formula this year (the traditional Sinai Indaba format will return in 2017) - we saw this as an exciting opportunity to do something that hasn’t really ever been done before. And once again, our incredible community have turned up in their numbers, opening themselves up to the experience, just as we did with the Shabbos Project.”

The entire event revolved around the famous first Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of our Fathers”), with the line-up of live and recorded speakers conveying profound ideas and practical lessons on the art of decision-making (“Be patient in judgement”); Torah learning (“Establish many students); and the notion of boundaries (“Make a fence for the Torah”).

Of the live speakers, Rabbi Leff’s trademark thought experiments spawned insights that landed with the force and accuracy of laser-guided missiles; Rabbi Milston’s impish humour and classic British self-deprecation accompanied perhaps the most inspiring and certainly the most empowering message of the event; and YY Jacobson leapt up and down, one hand on his head holding his kippah in place, the other gesticulating wildly, his rasping tenor shaking the room, every inch the archetypal fire-and-brimstone sermoniser of old - except his words were those not of rebuke but of pure love and joy.

The crowd was a diverse one, and included people of all backgrounds (there was even a party of 12 farmers that had travelled up from the Free State) and all ages. School kids and university students were especially prevalent, many having been unable to attend previous mid-year Sinai Indaba events due to exam commitments.

The Sandton Convention Centre hummed with energy and commotion, as people soaked up a unique, and uniquely uplifting learning experience.

Finally, as the headsets were put down and last remnants of animated discussion ebbed away, South Africa’s Chief Rabbi had his long-awaited Oprah Winfrey moment.

“I'd like to invite everyone to take a look under your tables.”

But it wasn’t a BMW or a bouquet of beauty products. It was a booklet with the inscription, “Avot 101”.

First unveiled as a concept in 2013 and a full two years in the making, Avot 101 is a multifaceted learning programme centred on one of the most important, accessible and treasured of all Jewish works - Pirkei Avot. The multimedia curriculum includes podcasts, e-mails and essays, as well as original commentaries from some of the great Jewish sages of the past 2 000 years, many translated into English for the first time.

Goldstein explains that the Avot 101 tagline, “Bring it home”, is about this being something people can learn by themselves, or with their friends and families, in their own time, and in the comfort of their home.

“Today has been about inspiration, but we need to make inspiration a way of life, something that happens not only once a year, but which we take with us wherever we go,” said Rabbi Goldstein in closing.

“This is what Avot 101 is all about; it’s a journey of personal growth, of becoming a better person through the wisdom of the Torah - G-d’s own wisdom - in areas such as marriage, family, faith, friendship, character, business, leadership, community, society and absolutely everything else.

It is Divine wisdom on how to approach the real life questions and conundrums that we all face everyday.

“And it’s a journey that Jews have traversed for thousands of years.”

 

***

 

The theme of Sinai-X was “Think Again”. Ultimately though, this wasn’t just a rethinking, it was a reimagining - of what a Jewish event could be, of what a beit midrash could look like, of a new format for an ancient formula of Jewish learning. Sinai-X may only be the spiritual cousin of its more established antecedent, but Sinai Indaba’s mission statement was very much in effect.

 

This was Torah talking to - and through - a modern world. 

 

For more information on Avot 101, or to sign up and access the podcasts and other learning material, visit www.avot101.com

 

 

2 Comments

  1. 2 Ben 07 Apr
    Was considering going, and based on this article I'm quite sorry I didn't. Excellent writing, in a way I almost did feel I was there
  2. 1 lynette 09 Apr
    Our Durban experience was mind-blowing .
    A more intimate group with great appreciation that it had been brought to us here in Umhlanga Rocks.  And rock we did!   We want to listen to the recordings again on the website and are resolved to study together in the future. 
    We were also treated to a wonderful supper.  Those who did not attend missed the treat of the year.

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