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Cultural comparisons build bridges

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On Friday, starting at 12:10, 101.9 Chai FM will be broadcasting the third in a four-part radio series, titled Abraham’s Children that looks at similarities and differences between Jewish and Muslim cultures.

Hosted by Charisse Zeifert, the head of communications at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) on her weekly Jewish Board Talk show, the series features Rabbi Ramon Widmonte, heads of the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning (AJTL), and Muhammad-Nur Nordien, who provide Jewish and Muslim perspectives. Among the topics discussed are food, dress codes, festivals, fasts and feasts, and gender roles.

By acknowledging, drawing on, and developing the common religious-cultural roots of the respective traditions, the initiative helps to build bridges of respect and understanding between our two communities. Hopefully, it will lead to further such engagements in the future. As a follow-up to the series, on 13 December, the AJTL will be hosting a live Q&A on Zoom based on questions submitted by listeners. To register or for more information, go to https://www.theacademy.org.za/

Antisemitism, racism, and the collective-guilt principle

Last Friday’s protest in Cape Town by Economic Freedom Fighters supporters wouldn’t have been expected to be turned into a Jewish issue, but that was what happened once it emerged that the young white spokesperson for the party was a member of the Jewish community. A video in which the individual was interviewed had hardly been uploaded before the Twittersphere was awash with the usual slurs, smears, and conspiracy theories. It would have been bad enough had it been solely a matter of a person’s Jewish identity being used to vilify him when it was in fact entirely irrelevant, but much of the invective went even further than that to malign Jews as a collective.

This, indeed, is how racism, antisemitism, and bigotry tend to play out. Such thinking doesn’t recognise that every community is made up of different individuals with their own distinct beliefs and character traits. Rather, the actions of one or a few members of a particular community are laid at the door of that community as a whole. It’s the collective-guilt principle in action, and is pernicious in the extreme. That social media is today the primary vehicle through which such slanders are spread underlines the ongoing need for anti-racism advocates across the board to work together in bringing appropriate pressure to bear on the companies that host such platforms. It has been encouraging to see over the past several months how these efforts have begun to result in real breakthroughs with some of the companies involved. The SAJBD continues to be part of global Jewish initiatives working towards this end.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Eric Samson a giant of SA Jewry

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South African Jewry has long been regarded as a model diaspora community. We are famed for our excellent communal infrastructure, high level of identity and involvement, and we have a deserved reputation for punching above our weight on the international Jewish stage.

All of this, of course, was made possible only by the deeply committed men and women who, over the years, have devoted so much time, effort, and resources to their community. These have included many remarkably generous benefactors, who in addition to what they contributed to the wider society, have consistently dug deep to ensure the continued well-being of their fellow Jews and viability of their communal institutions, whether religious, educational, Zionist, welfare-related, or cultural.

In the pantheon of Jewish philanthropists, few have matched and none have exceeded the record of Eric and Sheila Samson. Innumerable organisations and individuals benefited from his support throughout his life. This was true not just for our own community, but for the people of South Africa as a whole and for Israel. Earlier this week, we were heartbroken to learn that Eric had passed away. As our press statement put it, he was a visionary leader and nation builder, one whose multifaceted legacy would benefit our country long into the future.

One of the primary beneficiaries of Eric’s unsurpassed generosity was the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD). He was unstinting in his support for the Board, recognising the vital importance of its work to protect the civil liberties of South African Jewry and represent its vital interests, locally and abroad. The SAJBD pays fulsome tribute to a South African giant, the magnitude of whose achievements was surpassed only by the greatness of his heart.

In everything that he did, Eric was supported and assisted by his dear wife, Sheila. May she and the family be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem, and may Eric’s memory be a blessing and an inspiration for all those who follow in his footsteps.

Rabbi Desmond Maizels, zt”l

The sudden passing in Cape Town last week of Rabbi Desmond Maizels is another loss that will be deeply felt not just by his congregants and Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS) and Cape Beth Din colleagues, but by the whole of South African Jewry.

A true doyen of our community, Rabbi Maizels was someone whose dedication and expertise in the field of halacha went hand in hand with his whole-hearted love for his fellow Jews. Whether in his work on the Beth Din, as a congregational rabbi, or as an esteemed community leader, he epitomised ahavat Yisrael (love for fellow Jews) in all that he did. Rabbi Maizels was renowned in particular for his work in the field of kashrut in Cape Town, and the extraordinary lengths to which he went to create a system that would encourage and facilitate its practice. We extend our sincerest condolences to the family and his colleagues in the UOS, Beth Din, and the Rabbinical Association.Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Give schools a break

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We need to give schools a break. They are forced to find a perfect balance between trying to educate our children, keep them and the teachers safe, adhere to the sometimes confusing and always changing regulations, all while staying afloat financially.

They have unenviable and impossible decisions to make. And they do this in the full knowledge that no matter what they decide, someone’s mom or dad or grandmother is likely to be outraged.

Ahead of the schools’ decision, the department of education was to meet to establish the approach for the country. The private schools were waiting for the outcome of this meeting before deciding what they would do. They had consulted their medical teams and their own principals and boards, but needed the ruling before informing parents.

This is the context in which I received a letter from our school informing us about the plan for the week. My daughter had been checking in with me in 15-minute intervals to see if we had heard from the school. She got wind of the fact that an email had dropped, and came running in to the room to ask me if school was starting or not.

While she stood there in eager anticipation, I read the email. Then I reread it and skimmed it one more time. I looked at her expectant face, and felt the failure that I knew I would be when I uttered the words, “Honestly, I have no idea.”

“But you are reading the email!” she shrieked as only a 16-year-old on the brink of maybe Grade 11 could do. “Yes,” I replied. “And I genuinely have no idea. Maybe ask mom.”

It should have taken just one reading of the school’s communique to realise that I wasn’t equipped to understand it without a master’s in engineering. It needed a methodical approach, maybe even some coloured pens if I was to get a grip on what it had decided. I thought initially that a quick Excel spreadsheet would assist me in figuring out which grades were going to school for orientation only, when they would be on campus, and when they wouldn’t be. It should then have been easy to see which years would go back full time and what the reasons were, as well as the dates of travel that would preclude children from doing so.

I whipped it together in no time at all, only to give up when I realised that I needed to introduce a new tab for hotspots, weddings, and illegal minyanim.

The communication shared by some of the private Jewish schools last week was a perfect representation of how challenging the task is. It illustrated above all else how hard they are trying in full knowledge that very few would be happy.

What’s remarkable is the expectation we seem to have of our schools. The truth is, no one knows what the next day will bring in terms of COVID-19. Also, there’s not a country or government in the world that has got this right. Add to that the fact that parents will lie to the school about their own behaviour, and you see how astounding it is just how high the bar has been set.

As parents, we need to take it down a notch. We need to take a moment to appreciate just how much the schools care, how hard they are trying, and applaud the unbelievable effort they put in to educate and care for our children. Even if we don’t always understand their emails.

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Voices

Second waves and second chances

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The closing weeks of 2020 brought with them the long-anticipated onset of a second wave of COVID-19 infections in South Africa. Over the December period, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) continued to co-ordinate meetings between the communal leadership and medical experts to assess the situation and plan and advise the community accordingly.

We have since participated in several national initiatives aimed at co-ordinating the efforts of civil society and faith communities in responding to the serious challenges of the day. Last week, SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn participated in an African National Congress civil society engagement with President Cyril Ramaphosa, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, and other cabinet members titled “COVID-19 response and vaccines: the role of progressive civil society”. On Sunday, together with Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, Kahn, and SAJBD National President Mary Kluk, I attended a meeting with Ramaphosa to discuss how the religious leadership can assist government, particularly in terms of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out.

It hardly needs to be emphasised that all members of our community need to continue to do their part in minimising risk to themselves and anyone they come into contact with. Once again, I urge people to make full use of the guidelines and regular updates by Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, and other medical experts on the SAJBD Facebook page and website to ascertain how best to conduct themselves in terms of vigilance and safety practices.

Restorative justice

Last month, we were able to resolve a long-standing hate-speech case between ourselves and former student leader Mcebo Dlamini for remarks he made at the University of the Witwatersrand, on PowerFM, and social media in 2015. Successful mediation was facilitated by the SA Human Rights Commission at the Johannesburg Holocaust & Genocide Centre. We are satisfied with the outcome of this matter. As SAJBD National Vice-President Zev Krengel put it, Dlamini’s recognition that the statements were antisemitic, hurtful, and offensive, together with his genuine apology, enables us to heal from the hurt he caused.

It should never be forgotten that South Africa’s transition from an authoritarian, bitterly divided, and conflict-ridden country to the robust multiracial democracy we have today was accomplished because South Africans, without forgetting the injustices of the past, were prepared to work together in building a better future. Expressing regret for one’s previous conduct, sincerely apologising for it, and undertaking to mend one’s ways going forward has thus assumed a great deal of importance in our society, and this is particularly true when it comes to racist behaviour. Once said, offensive words cannot be unsaid, but a heartfelt apology goes a long way towards removing their sting, and makes reconciliation possible.

Our Gauteng Council chairperson, Professor Karen Milner, stressed the importance of taking a restorative approach to justice wherever possible whereby the offender acknowledges what he or she has done wrong and expresses genuine remorse. Dlamini met these criteria, and was a successful example of what’s possible with this approach.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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