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The Jewish Report Editorial

Congratulations to the Chief Rabbi on this initiative

The Shabbos Project encourages Jews, regardless of degree of religiosity, to learn about Shabbos, observe it during this coming weekend, and embrace it in their individual ways.
by GEOFF SIFRIN | Oct 13, 2013

Keeping Jews as Jews

After many attempts by others to destroy the Jewish people over the centuries, will they now destroy themselves by losing interest in being Jewish? The anti-Semitism that endangered Jews in previous eras also defined them as Jews. But in the absence of this, what ties Jews together?

“Jewish continuity” is discussed fervently across the Jewish world today because in most countries, having a Jewish identity is becoming more of a “choice” than a “given”. In places with no barriers to fully-fledged Jewish participation in society, and minimal anti-Semitism, the Jewish identity of growing numbers is becoming weaker and weaker.

The recently released Pew survey of American Jewry, now estimated to number between six and seven million, reveals startling statistics about trends in marriage, raising of children, attitudes to Israel, etc.

No similarly comprehensive survey is available for South African Jewry, although the Kaplan Centre at UCT did produce aspects of it. Other material has been gleaned from the national South African census. Indications are that the trends aren’t as severe among South African Jewry as in America.

Jewish leaders are alarmed. But what can - or should - they do? Reproaches don’t work: an identity can’t be forced on someone who doesn’t want it.

The Shabbos Project of Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, which encourages Jews, regardless of their degree of religiosity, to learn about Shabbos, observe it during this coming weekend, and embrace it in their individual ways, is an imaginative response. Its light-hearted, inviting tenor, has evoked strong, positive responses among traditional and secular Jews - including numerous celebrities - who have signed on in large numbers.

The degree to which they will actually keep Shabbos is their business, but their open endorsement of the project, and the excitement it has generated, is its own achievement.

Aside from saying: “Come and keep Shabbos with us,” it is also saying: “Here is the Shabbos tool kit - use it in the way that is best for you. Take ownership of it.” That line, rather than an authoritarian one treating people as passengers in someone else’s event, strikes a positive note in our era.

How does one measure the success of such a project? Increased attendance at shuls? More observance and interest in Jewish tradition? Greater pride in being Jewish?

In three months’ time, or a year, will this project - with its toolkits, posters, street dinners and other elements - be viewed as a rather expensive one-off “gimmick”? Or will it be valuable “seed money” well spent towards strengthening Jewish identity, knowledge and a sense of community? Hopefully, the latter.

What being Jewish means has historically always involved something an argument. For some, religiosity is fundamental - many of the luminaries who we are in awe of locate themselves firmly in the religious world. Yet, other great Jewish luminaries in whom we take pride - such as Kafka, Freud, Einstein, Marx and a host of others - were not religious. Indeed, some were harsh critics of religion and even Jewish ethnicity. They are claimed, however, by the Jewish establishment, which basks in their glory.

Jewish sportsmen, administrators and referees in various sports - and other activities - have often found themselves in a dilemma. If they did not participate in their fields on Shabbos, they would simply be out of the running. Some well-known South African Jews who rose to the greatest heights in cricket, rugby, soccer, etc, played regularly on Shabbos.

Any minority in a society has to somehow tailor their lives around the demands of the broader society. When you are less than two per cent of the population, you can’t shout the odds. The Shabbos Project will not change this, but it will certainly strengthen and enhance Jews’ knowledge about their own tradition, and clarify their choices.

We congratulate the Chief Rabbi on this initiative. May it grow from strength to strength.

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