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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.

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The Jewish Report Editorial

GEOFF SIFRIN

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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The Jewish Report Editorial

Just get vaccinated

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As the dust settles on the violence and looting that took place last week, the community has bonded in raising funds and gathering essential goods for those sorely affected by the chaos. These include our community in KwaZulu-Natal.

I was astonished to see people, many of whom were fasting on Tisha B’Av, making their way into townships to help clean up over the weekend. The kindness and generosity of our community has, again, come to the fore.

Literally millions of rand has been raised in days to help people, mostly in KwaZulu-Natal. People who have barely left their homes in months made their way to help pack boxes and sort through essentials that were destined for Durban.

It was amazing how the horror of the pandemic took a back seat to the crazed looting, burning, and madness that was believed to have been caused by Zuma’s cronies, now known as the “dirty dozen”.

For a week, our focus shifted to another devastating situation in our country.

But as the damage is being weighed up and the true toll on the economic and political playing field is tallied, the rest of us return to the reality of the pandemic and that level 4 lockdown is still with us. The number of people with COVID-19 is still extremely high, but it’s dropping. This is a huge relief.

There is undoubtedly hope in the air, and that hope comes in the form of an injection, a jab, a shot, or a vaccination – call it what you will.

Never before have I witnessed people crying with joy when they receive a vaccination. And many are willing to wait quietly, in their masks and keeping a social distance, for hours on end just to get that small vial of muti vaccinated into their arm.

I know I was quite emotional when I had my first jab. It felt like one step towards freedom. One step towards being able to live a life without so many restrictions. As I was vaccinated, I pictured myself surrounded by my loved ones at a dinner table.

Isn’t it amazing how regular events that we took for granted have become something we long for?

While most people I know just want to be vaccinated for all the same reasons I do, I don’t understand why there are others who seem to look for excuses not to. Now, normally (if there is such a thing), I believe in letting people follow their own path. If they don’t agree with my views, so be it. They don’t have to.

However, the only way we are going to get to population or mass immunity is if more than 65% of the population is vaccinated. So, it isn’t as simple as looking the other way.

To get to the point where we can’t carry coronavirus and make someone else sick, many more of us need to have one of the vaccines on offer in South Africa. At this stage, we are vaccinating about 200 000 people a day. So far, we have given 5.5 million individual doses. The government’s aim is to vaccinate 300 000 a day.

According to the most recent research done by experts at the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch, nearly one in four are still hesitant to be vaccinated. And one in 15 are strongly opposed to it. Their reasons vary from not trusting that the vaccines have been tested for long enough to vaccinations being a global plot. I have heard and read the most ridiculous reasons for not getting vaccinated. The point is, those people who are dying and very ill in hospital are generally not vaccinated. Isn’t that enough of a reason to get the vaccine?

The reality is that as a nation, we can avoid a fourth wave. The sooner we’re all vaccinated, the sooner we can resume a semblance of normality.

Can you picture it: going to the cinema, dinner in a cosy restaurant, parties where we dance with each other.

Imagine going to a concert in the park with people all around us, dancing, smiling, and laughing. It seems almost like a dream.

The idea of going to shul and sitting next to a friend and enjoying a brocha afterwards seems like a fond memory.

Just being able to walk down the street and smile at people and see them smiling back at you would be so pleasurable. And South Africa is one of the few countries in which strangers smiling and greeting each other happens all the time.

The truth is, this isn’t that far off if we all just get vaccinated. Everyone from the age of 35 and older can get their jabs now.

In the next few weeks, the SA Jewish Report is going to focus on trying to dispel myths and answer any questions, worries, or concerns about vaccines so that we are all armed with all the facts.

This Sunday, if you are registered on the Electronic Vaccination Data System, you can go along to The Base Shul in Glenhazel where they are vaccinating. Anyone is welcome as long as he or she has their identity document and is registered. You can be on a medical aid, but you don’t have to be. You certainly don’t have to be Jewish.

Our responsibility isn’t just to get ourselves and those in our family above 35 vaccinated, it extends to those in our circle or those we know. What if the security guard at your office block has had difficulty registering and/or getting somewhere that he could be vaccinated? Don’t let him wait, help him to get there.

The same goes for your domestic workers, gardeners, other staff, or even that woman you know down the road. Do a mitzvah, help someone or a number of people to get vaccinated.

Make it your commitment to get yourself vaccinated, and everyone you know who wants to be protected against this killer coronavirus.

As a community, let’s do the right thing. We have seen too much death and illness, it’s time to bring it to an end.

And it’s not about which drug will work better and will there be a hospital bed if you get very ill with COVID-19. It’s all about doing everything you can to prevent you, me, and everyone else from getting this virus.

Let’s do it!

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

Madness takes its toll

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This week, the words of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, “…madness takes its toll” keep playing in my head. We are living through what feels like a surreal and devasting time. In truth, it’s a time of national shame.

It seems fitting that this weekend is Tisha B’Av, when we remember the destruction of the temple and so many other losses.

Not only are we in level 4 lockdown and our COVID-19 numbers are still soaring, but an uprising has spread through the country. People have the right to protest, but they don’t have the right to destroy property, loot, and steal.

I don’t believe this is all about Jacob Zuma being incarcerated, but I do believe it’s a multipronged problem that has been building up. And while I believe that poverty is a major part of the problem right now, there is also lawlessness because you cannot eat a television set or a cell phone. However, there are so many people starving, and about 75% of young adults are unemployed. This has to be addressed.

It’s easy to expect the government to wave a magic wand, but that isn’t going to happen in the midst of a pandemic that’s sweeping through this country. And so, I understand why there is a feeling of despondence.

However, trashing malls and businesses is hardly going to provide jobs or feed the poor. Instead, it destroys already stressed livelihoods and creates much more unemployment.

Like most of you, I have had messages from former South Africans abroad asking if we are okay because they are watching what’s happening on the news. It clearly looks horrific, and it is, what with more than 75 killed and many more injured. Also businesses and malls have been gutted, as have homes and vehicles.

But looking out from my suburban window, I see only calm and quiet. Such is the dichotomy of our country. However, our community in KwaZulu-Natal is having a tough time, and we don’t know exactly what will happen.

This and so much fake news disseminated on social media has led to dread and fear. The number of malls that were trashed (fictitiously) in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg really got to people. There were videos of destruction that were years old, and some weren’t even from South Africa. You have probably read it or watched it and believed it until someone hopefully told you otherwise.

And, much like when we first experienced lockdown, fear and panic has led to the mass buying of food and petrol just in case… The problem is that while we don’t lack essential items right now in Gauteng, we may do if people don’t stop buying what they don’t need en masse.

As we have witnessed fear buying before, we have also witnessed the country in flames before.

Just recently, we commemorated the national youth uprising on 16 June 1974, which was a horrific time in South Africa. The country also appeared to be on the brink of civil war after the death of Chris Hani in April 1993. And, if you think back to round about this time last year in the United States, the mayhem that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers wasn’t dissimilar.

It definitely makes it much harder to deal with this as our country still feels the onslaught of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which so many people have fallen ill and died. It’s a double whammy – or a war on two fronts.

However, we’re not facing the end of our country or a war. Yes, the government has to take this in hand, and our president is trying hard to do this. The situation is extremely volatile and needs to be handled carefully. But handled, it will be.

This isn’t a time to look at everything that’s happening as the end. It isn’t. This, too, shall pass.

In fact, we were in a strangely worse situation when our former president, Jacob Zuma, was in charge with his and his cronies’ proverbial hands in the national coffers. They clearly set a horrible example for what’s happening now.

The big difference is that now we have national leaders who are trying to stop this. Then, it was almost impossible to take on the country’s leadership.

Right now, there has to be hope when you see communities forming to defend shopping centres and buildings in their areas. You see people coming out in droves to help fix those premises and business that were destroyed.

I’m astonished at the goodwill that’s coming from our community and the majority of people in this country. I do have a sense of people feeling real shame about what has happened and continues to happen.

It’s so clear that the majority of South Africans aren’t behind the trouble. Most of us are peace loving people who want to lead honest, good lives. A small number have caused this, and the full might of the law must be brought to deal with them. We need to work out exactly what was behind this uprising, though, because that’s the only way to move forward.

I know that people are feeling despondent and scared, but I’m hopeful that, with most of us wanting the same thing, we’ll get it. We’ll find a way to rebuild our economy, give jobs to the jobless, and be proud of our country once again.

As our wise Rabbi Eitan Ash said in a video this week, “South Africa is a miraculous country” and “We always come through”. He added: “I am not saying it isn’t tough, it’s so tough, but if ever there is a time to be strong and positive, it’s now.”

I couldn’t agree more. We need to be calm, work together as a community, and help do what needs to be done. We need to stay focused on being positive and uplifting those around us.

With Mandela Day on Sunday, it seems fitting to end with a quote from Madiba: “A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dream of.”

May our country be blessed with peace and prosperity!

Shabbat Shalom!

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The Jewish Report Editorial

The right to speak out

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I recall that when I was growing up, people around me would say that Jews shouldn’t stand up against the government because we were lucky to have a home here. If we made a noise and upset the powers that be, there was fear that the government might kick us out of South Africa.

Does this sound familiar? Perhaps the words you heard weren’t exactly the same but something similar.

And, for the most part, South African Jews didn’t rock the apartheid boat. They went on with doing what they did, but didn’t make too much noise against what the government was doing. Having said that, it so happens that there were a number of Jewish anti-apartheid activists who were well known for their bravery and for being Jewish.

Everybody knew that Joe Slovo, Ronnie Kasrils, Arthur Goldreich, Denis Goldberg, Ruth First, and Harold Wolpe, among others, weren’t just anti-apartheid activists, but were Jewish activists. And this made the mainstream community very uncomfortable during the apartheid era. Many chose to ostracise Jewish activists because they disapproved. The truth is, they may not have disapproved of their political beliefs necessarily, but the fact that as Jews, they were standing up against the government.

I know what I’m saying makes many in our community feel uncomfortable. I apologise for that. My saying it isn’t intended to make anyone feel uncomfortable, it’s about asking you to consider who we are in South Africa.

I’m Jewish, yes. I’m also 100% South African. My family has been here for generations, and I’m proud of being South African and Jewish. Both are deeply entrenched in my identity. And as much as I love being a part of this unique special community, I revel in being a part of South African society.

As most of you know by now, I don’t believe I have to hide what I believe to be true, and I’m happy to publish my thoughts. I’m even happy to do it if it challenges the government or the powers that be. I believe that if you don’t stand up against something you believe to be wrong, nothing will change. And, your little voice, no matter how faint it is, is a voice that deserves to be heard.

In the same way we go to the polls and choose the leaders we want, we have a right to voice our opinions and our beliefs as long as we don’t hurt anyone in the process.

Last week, the chief rabbi wrote an opinion piece in Business Day clearly pointing out what he believes to be the government’s failure to roll out vaccines timeously.

It’s important to note that our community has been hard hit by COVID-19 in the third wave. We have all felt the devastation of this coronavirus. Seven members of my family – aged between two and 62 – have COVID-19 right now. Had we all been vaccinated, there’s a good chance we wouldn’t be in this situation.

So, can I say I’m very sensitive to this right now?

My point is that there are many members of our community who are angry at the chief rabbi for publicly challenging the government. In their criticism of him, I heard the same kind of sentiment that I recalled as a child – “We shouldn’t rock the boat”; “We shouldn’t challenge the government”; “The government is already on our case because we support Israel, we shouldn’t make a fuss about other issues.”

What’s the alternative? That the chief rabbi and the rest of us just keep our mouths shut and not voice our disapproval about not being vaccinated yet? That we simply eat whatever we are dished? That we accept our fate whatever it is, no questions asked?

I don’t believe that’s who we are. I believe we are people with a moral backbone who look out for those less fortunate. We are a questioning people who don’t settle for what isn’t acceptable. As such, I believe that swallowing what we know isn’t right doesn’t sit well with any of us.

Now, I know that Professor Barry Schoub, an internationally renowned virologist and the chair of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 vaccines, wrote an opinion piece in response to the chief rabbi. This man, also a key member of our community who has guided us through this pandemic, pointed out what he believed was wrong with what Rabbi Goldstein had written.

When I read it, I was uncomfortable, and thought that it should have been discussed behind closed doors. Why? My first instinct was that Jews shouldn’t be arguing with Jews so publicly.

But, on consideration, I changed my mind. There’s nothing wrong with Jews or anyone voicing their opinion. It’s our human right.

I would hope that Professor Schoub and Rabbi Goldstein have nothing against each other but felt the need to voice their knowledgeable opinions. And once the pandemic is over, I’m sure they will break bread together.

Coming back to what I call the “visitors’ mentality”, in which we believe we shouldn’t challenge the authorities. We aren’t visitors here, we are fully fledged South Africans with the same rights as everyone else. Nobody is going to throw us out.

We live in a democracy and we have the right to voice our opinions. We have the right to stand up and say our piece, whether we are Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or even Pagan. We are all South Africans with rights.

Nobody is going to punish us for having a voice. We have to get past this visitors’ mentality. Look around you and see what our community contributes to our country. We participate fully in our country and, as such, we have rights that nobody can take from us.

We don’t have to hide our light under a bushel. We don’t have to shy away from being heard. We do have to stand for what’s right as opposed to what’s wrong. That last statement isn’t because of the country we live in but because – as Jews – we’re called upon to be a light unto the nations.

And so, we need to stand up for what’s right and against what’s wrong.

I may or may not have agreed with what the chief rabbi and Professor Schoub said, but I defend their right to say it with all my being.

Shabbat Shalom!

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