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Behind the scenes of the ‘back-to-shul’ task team

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To watch a Barmitzvah boy finally get called up to the Torah, or to stand in (socially distanced) support next to someone reciting Kaddish for a parent who has passed away during lockdown from COVID-19. These are the moving and gratifying results of the recent return to shuls.

However, behind the scenes of the synagogue’s return emerges a remarkable story of a community working in unison.

The complete unity displayed in the process of reopening the shuls was something to behold. COVID-19, despite being a potentially deadly virus, has extracted some of the best elements of the human spirit within our community. What we witnessed in the process of getting the shuls ready to reopen was cohesion and unity, which are possibly one of our community’s core strengths.

It is perhaps a uniquely South African story – after all, how many other communities around the world are able to boast about this cohesion?

Under the brilliant guidance of Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, a ‘return to shuls’ task team was set up. Those involved banded together under the exceptional leadership of Professor Efraim Kramer, to quite literally save lives while upholding spiritual practices.

From esteemed rabbonim, dedicated shul leaders, and representatives of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) to the finest medical experts and Hatzolah heroes; from CSO (Community Security Organisation) security advisers, to computer whizzes and Beth Din dayanim (judges), each representative committed themselves to the process with a noble intention.

Whether it was through Zoom calls or WhatsApp groups, they collaborated across provinces; from Cape Town to Johannesburg; from the smallest synagogues, to the giants of many generations. All of the representatives were soon liaising, learning, and sharing resources and technical planning. There was an energy and an engagement that truly proved a remarkable meeting of minds and shared motivation.

Perhaps most powerful was the commitment to the collective good. It was palpable in an authentic team spirit, a genuine sense of cohesion, and a thoughtful, systematic approach to adopting a process of opening the shuls without compromising the health and safety of its members. It was true, courageous leadership – heroic and holy work!

Now we emerge from the planning phase into the application phase, and we are positive that the shuls and their congregations will implement the health and safety protocols with care. Each of us bares a personal responsibility to comply with decisions that will best keep us all safe and well.

What we have learnt is that this is a fluid process, and there will no doubt be nuances and challenges. However, with the courage and unity demonstrated thus far, our community can take comfort in its ability to overcome them, please G-d.

As we pray to one day face a world without the challenges of COVID-19, the lessons we have learnt from this process should spur us on in focusing on the many dynamic possibilities for the community.

Our community has a special place in all of our hearts. And we can all be very proud of the multiple manifestations of unity displayed over this time. Each of our valuable organisations has risen to the challenges brought about through COVID-19. In so doing, they have become frontline heroes.

  • Benjy Porter is a member of the ‘return to shuls’ task team.

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