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SA Jewry bucking the worldwide trend

by Jewish Report | Nov 04, 2013

The extraordinary success of The Shabbos Project again showed how much South African Jewry is bucking international trends when it comes to levels of religious observance and Jewish identity in general.

Whereas most Diaspora communities, outside of their strictly Orthodox enclaves, are experiencing a relentless downward trajectory, South Africa’s is just as consistently moving in the opposite direction. Religiosity here is growing and intensifying, particularly in Johannesburg but in the other centres as well.

By contrast, secularism is rampant in the Western world. For some time now, the countries that constitute it, have not maintained even a pretence of being Christian societies. The bulk of Jews outside of Israel now live in such countries, while of the remainder, nearly all are found in countries that once made up the Eastern Bloc and which have never recovered from the enforced secularism of the Soviet era.

Inevitably, the majority have been greatly affected by their environment, and accordingly have become secular too. In practical terms, this means that neither they nor their non-Jewish neighbours have any compelling reason not to marry one another, and indeed this is no longer the exception, but increasingly the norm.

The recently released Pew Survey on American Jewry found that well over 80 per cent of US Jews who profess no religion, “marry out”. (The rate in many European countries is over 90 per cent).

Moreover, even among those who identify as “Reform Jews” - by far, the largest group within the Jewish population - nearly six in 10 marry non-Jews without the latter undergoing any form of conversion to Judaism.

In 1983, the American Reform movement determined that henceforth, having one Jewish parent would suffice in order for the children to be recognised as Jews, thereby doing away with the matrilineal descent principle. As a result hundreds of thousands of American Jews today are considered Jewish by the Reform but not by the Orthodox nor, to my knowledge, Conservative movements.

This would particularly present problems when such individuals wished to marry within the Orthodox Jewish fold, but in practice the great majority of patrilineal Jews - not unpredictably - go on in their turn to marry non-Jews, so the question has arisen less often than had been feared.

Taking the Orthodox out of the equation - according to the Pew finding, intermarriage in this sector is only two per cent - one finds that more than seven American Jews out of 10 are marrying out of the faith.

This is despite the enormous sums that have been invested in “Jewish continuity” programmes following the results of the 1990 US National Population Survey, revealing that US intermarriage rates by then exceeded 50 per cent.

In South Africa, according to surveys conducted in 1998 and 2005, intermarriage remains well below 10 per cent. More than four out of five Jewish children attend a Jewish day school, strikingly high proportions compared with other Diaspora communities observe such basic practices as keeping Shabbat and kashrut and nearly all of the remainder are sufficiently connected to at least attend a seder and fast on Yom Kippur.

South African Jewry is, in fact, much more religious now than its pioneering ancestors were. What is more, the turnaround is largely youth-driven.

In what goes against all expectations and past experience, it has not been a case of the older generations striving (and usually failing) to keep the youth in the fold, but of the younger generations forging ahead while also raising the levels of their parents’ and grandparents’ involvement.

As a result of all of this, South African Jewry has exercised a disproportionate influence on the international Jewish stage, particularly through those of its members who have emigrated.

Among the many former South Africans who have risen to prominence is the new UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, a former Capetonian. It is hard to imagine that for most of its history, this community had to “import” its spiritual leaders.

Only from the late 1950s did local institutions begin turning out a “made in South Africa” product, commencing with the Minister’s Training College operating under the auspices of the old Federation of Synagogues and based at the Great Synagogue in Wolmarans Street Synagogue.

Since then, scores of young rabbonim have emerged from the multiple yeshivot and kollelim around the country, with a high proportion of these making a significant impact overseas.

As for the rank and file, one only has to witness the streets of the Greater Glenhazel area on any given Shabbos to see how remarkably the scrupulous piety of our Lithuanian (and other) ancestors has taken root, completely confounding the gloomy prediction of previous generations who believed such a thing to be impossible.

On a sobering note, while South African Jewry seems to be enjoying a genuine golden age, the reality is that it numbers little more than 75 000 souls and perhaps even less than that. Put another way, this community would have to grow eight-fold just to be as large as that of Miami and 50-fold if it is to match that of New York.

At the end of the day, we are only a little corner of the Diaspora, albeit a relatively healthy one, but elsewhere a vast proportion of the Jewish world is in the process of disappearing altogether. This alone should make one very hesitant to immigrate to anywhere other than Israel. 

2 Comments

  1. 2 Choni 04 Nov
    Isn't this trend merely strengthening the exile (punishment)?
    Would it not be much better if this trend were accompanied by a desire to live in our own Land?
    Should not our religious leaders educate our youth that their ultimate mitzvah should be to live in Eretz Yisrael?
  2. 1 YOSSI BOGACZ 16 Nov
    I HAD A DISCUSSION WITH DAVID SACKS LONG AGO . I TRIYED TO EXPLAIN TO HIM THAT THERE WAS NO GOD AT AUSCHWITZ . THAT THE HOLOCAUST IS THE ULTIMATE PROOF THAT THERE IS NO GOD . UNFORTUNATELY , HE IS SO BRAIN WASHED THAT HE IS UNABLE TO UNDERSTAND THIS BASIC POINT .RELIGION HAS BROUGHT TERRIBLE SUFFERING TO OUR PEOPLE AND STIL CONTINUOS TO DO A LOT OF DAMAGE INCLUDING ON THE PERSONAL , FAMILY AND COMMUNITY LEVELS .WE NEED TO GET RID OF RELIGION ONCE AND FOR ALL .THE QUESTION IS WHY SHOUDN'T WE ACCEPT NON JEWISH SPOUSES WITHOUT ANY CONVERSION REQUIREMENTS ? WHY SOULD WE LOOSE ALL THE JEWISH  INDIVIDUALS INSTEAD OF GAINING SO MUCH NEEDED FRESH BLOOD ? THE RUSSIAN JEWISH ALIAH THAT INCLUDED MANY NON JEWS WAS A GREAT BLESSING BUT THE FANATICS REJECTED IT

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