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Hebrew dilemma runs deep

Last week, South Africa’s Jewish day schools put considerable effort into their celebrations and commemoration of Israel’s important milestones – Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut. Yet Hebrew, considered by many to be the bedrock of Zionist and Jewish identity, is no longer compulsory, nor a popular subject choice at most of these schools.





This year, a mere six pupils out of a total of 108 matriculants at Herzlia, which educates 90 per cent of Jewish children in Cape Town, are taking Hebrew. King David Linksfield has 68 taking Hebrew out of 161 matriculants; King David Victory Park has 22 out of a total of 62; while the more religious Yeshiva College has 22 out of 45.

The schools point out that they all have a portion of learners who are not pursuing a normal Independent Examination Board matric due to individual learning difficulties – so the percentages of capable learners choosing Hebrew is higher than the numbers quoted.

When I was a matriculant at King David Victory Park, only a handful of learners did not take Hebrew. Dropping the subject was not an option, unless you were a newcomer with no Hebrew background or had been diagnosed with learning challenges.

Today all the schools provide the option of dropping Hebrew either at the end of grade nine or grade 10.

This change occurred about eight years ago. At that point pupils had to choose either religious studies or Hebrew for matric. Then the Department of Education made religious studies optional and so the schools decided they could not enforce Hebrew.

Also, maths and life orientation were made compulsory and the schools decided it was not viable to make Hebrew compulsory as well, as that restricted pupils’ subject choices to five compulsory subjects: two South African languages, maths or maths literacy, life orientation and Hebrew.

Herzlia’s director of education, Geoff Cohen, has made a noble effort to revive Hebrew there. He raised R3,5 million two years ago from a UK-based donor to employ talented Hebrew educators like Ronnie Gotkin and build an attractive Hebrew lab to entice pupils to continue Hebrew. There have been no major changes in the numbers yet, but perhaps this initiative is still getting off the ground.

Some educators blame the falling numbers on the fact that, due to the astronomical cost, pupils no longer go on the three-month ulpan programme in grade 10, which had offered an intensive period of Hebrew study and a powerful “let’s love Israel campaign” for impressionable teenagers.

But most pupils are opting for other subjects not because the quality of Hebrew education has dropped. In fact the schools are using the latest teaching technologies and trying to recruit top Hebrew educators from around the world.

It is likely more about the competitive world young adults face today where they feel pressure to choose subjects they can completely excel in. Getting a distinction for Hebrew is very difficult if one is not a native speaker and university entrance and later the cutthroat job world mean choosing subjects that enhance one’s chances of later success.

Also, many parents feel their children already have to do Afrikaans, only spoken in South Africa, why master another language which has the same handicap. In fact, parents, often complain that South African Jewish day schools, unlike some of the other private schools, don’t offer options such as Mandarin or Spanish, far more important if one is looking to compete in a global job market.

For many Jewish educators, these dwindling statistics are quite depressing and may be a sign of declining observance, or worse yet greater assimilation. They feel that understanding Hebrew is the gateway to Jewish education and a meaningfully observant way of life.

It is essential to participate in prayer; it creates the option of aliyah for Diaspora Jews; it gives all Jews a common language and makes Judaism come alive.

Any authentic study of Tanach or Mishnah requires a grasp of the language. At Yeshiva College, managing director Rabbi Leron Bernstein says that most learners take Hebrew because Torah learning is a “raison d’être” of the school. Out of last year’s matric group of 33 Hebrew candidates, an astounding 31 got distinctions.

The rabbis say that the goal of Jewish day school is to create competent and proud Jewish individuals – the more complete your knowledge of the tenets of Judaism, the more proud you will be as a Jew.

When we raise young people who cannot open a bible or pray, we are not giving them a basic competency and so we cannot expect them to be proud.

Perhaps we are, as some rabbis believe, facing a dire situation with Jewish education and our schools need to take urgent action or rethink their policies.

But I can’t help thinking that if Hebrew was compulsory, we might lose a lot more young people to the benefits of Jewish education because they would choose other schools where they had more subject options.

Yes, they are not mastering the beloved language of our people but at least they are part of a community of Jews – building friendships which often last a lifetime and still gaining a sturdy knowledge of Jewish tradition and observance. It is not the ideal scenario but it is probably a manageable compromise.


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  1. David

    May 4, 2015 at 8:30 am

    ‘I hesitate to say it  — but is Hebrew as a language that  critical to the Jewish day school system ? Yes it needs to be available and encouraged at all levels, but  unfortunately, a necessity would be questionable

       We, in the diaspora, are Jews who ,in general are more cultural and dare I have the ‘chutzpah’ to say – traditional in our outlook, although this is within the framework of being Jewish but speaking the language of the land we live in.

    Hebrew is a critical subject to all those who are Zionist in their beliefs and intentions, but as Jews who live outside Israel we have a ‘want’ of speaking and understanding Hebrew, but not a necessity of it. We all wish and intend visiting Israel but the need to communicate in Hebrew is diminishing every year as the international language of communication is English and is spoken and taught, widely in Israel.

    From a personal point of view, being a babyboomer, I grew up with Eastern European grandparents who communicated within the family in Yiddish only. Their English was heavily accented as most of my age have experienced.They believed that Hebrew was a davening language only. Consequently I spoke and understood Yiddish by default, not necessarily by design. A great pity that I have now lost most of it through non use. ‘

  2. Choni

    May 4, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    ‘You are right David. I would add that this increased indifference to Hebrew being taught and spoken is part of the process of assimilation of Jews into their host countries.’

  3. abu mamzer

    May 5, 2015 at 5:08 am

    ‘This is an important issue,because one cannot really be a Jew without a knowledge of Hebrew.

    We need a \”Hebrew Bubble:\” to create an environment of Hebrew as a living language…Laboratories,Hebrew Television,tutorials,Internet….(Israel radio).magazines,

    It’s not easy.

    The Alliance FRancaise in JHB is a wonderful example of a cultural centre but I also wonder how many graduates come out of their system knowing French.

    To be able to participate in Hebrew culture in Israel is a necessity because withot it you may as well be in Outer Mongolia.

    The Jewish religious schools do better,but there they have 4-5 hours in Limudei kodesh/Hebrew instead of the measly 4-5 hours of Hebrew at the King David/Hertzlia Hebrew currriculum.

    But they pay a secular price.

  4. wladyslaw karpeta

    May 7, 2015 at 11:57 am

    ‘As a non-Jew who is busy trying to learn Hebrew, I feel saddened by the apathy to teach Hebrew at school. My father who was Polish and fluent in Yiddish plus five other European languages taught me that any opportunity to learn another language is an opportunity not to be missed. I took French, Latin and Russian at school and my only regret is not being able to learn German. Please do not give up on Hebrew!’

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Mount Meron tragedy devastates South African family



Yohanatan Hevroni was so excited about going to Mount Meron for Lag B’Omer after not having been there for seven years, he arranged a bus for his community to get there. This time, he went as a beloved husband and the father of three girls. He wouldn’t return alive.

The 27-year-old tzaddik who lived in Givat Shmuel in central Israel leaves behind his children and wife, Tanya Hevroni (nee Taback), who made aliyah with her family from Johannesburg in 1997.

Hevroni was one of the 45 people who died senselessly in a stampede at the annual Mount Meron Lag B’Omer celebrations on Thursday, 29 April, the largest peacetime tragedy in Israel’s existence.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from the shiva house on Tuesday, 4 May, Tanya’s brother, Eitan Taback, described how events unfolded.

“A rabbi told us that on the way there, Yohanatan said how amazing it was to see the influence a tzaddik had after he had died [referring to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose life is celebrated by thousands on Lag B’Omer at Mount Meron]. And after Yohanatan passed, we saw the amount of influence he had on everyone around him – the children he taught, people with whom he learned Torah.

“At 03:00 on Thursday night, Yohanatan’s mother got a phone call from his phone,” said Taback. “They said ‘his phone had been found in Meron, but we can’t find him’. Immediately, search parties were sent to hospitals and Meron itself. No one had any answers. After searching everywhere, they decided, with heavy hearts, to check the morgue, and that’s where they found him.”

Kalanit Taub, a volunteer emergency medical worker with United Hatzalah of Israel, described the devastation she encountered at the scene. “We saw stretcher after stretcher coming up the hill, with people performing CPR on them as they were running. I just saw bodies lying on the ground to my left and right. They all looked completely whole, completely fine, no broken bones, no blood. When we learned about [dealing with] a mass casualty incident, the first thing you’re supposed to do is treat the injured because those are the ones you’re more likely to save. But I didn’t see anyone injured. All I saw was people who weren’t breathing, who didn’t have a heartbeat. I thought, ‘Where are the injured people? Everywhere you look, everybody’s dead!’

“There was nothing we could do for any of them, we all tried our hardest, and we were completely unsuccessful,” she said. “The line of bodies kept getting longer and longer. Within seconds, they were out of body bags. We were taking thermal blankets to cover these people. And then we were out of thermal blankets. We didn’t have anything to cover the bodies with. There were just too many of them.”

Taub is also a member of the psycho-trauma unit. “I walked up the hill, and there were so many people in shock. People screaming hysterically, staring into space, and lying on the ground in foetal positions, unresponsive. I probably treated a hundred psycho-trauma patients. Meanwhile, [community emergency response team] ZAKA set up a tent that became the station where all the lost kids went. They were just naming kids one after the other separated from their parents. But not all were reunited because some of those parents died.”

By a miracle, Hevroni’s family managed to arrange his funeral for that day at 17:00. Because it was just before Shabbat, they expected few people to attend. But thousands arrived to pay their respects.

“The extent of his impact on people was so clear,” said Taback. “One rabbi bought a book of poems that Yohanatan wrote. They were about the simple things in life, and recognising the good in all other human beings. One of his students shared how he came to learn with Yohanatan and be inspired by him, but after their lesson, it was Yohanatan who told his student that he was inspiring.”

He described his brother-in-law as a “quiet guy, with a gentle soul, who always had a huge smile on his face”. He and Tanya married in Israel and went on to have three daughters, aged six, four, and two. They celebrated their eldest daughter’s sixth birthday a few days before the tragedy. “It would be the last celebration we would have together. There was so much happiness,” Taback said.

Two years ago, the family faced a major crisis when Tanya was diagnosed with cancer. “Yohanatan was there the whole time. He was a full-time father and mother. Now it’s the other way around. Tanya will have to be both the mother and the father.”

He said his parents, Ofra and David Taback, have been by his sister’s side from the moment they heard that Yohanatan was missing. “My parents are strong. They’re trying to be there for Tanya and the family. They’ve been here night and day.” Family around the world have joined in their grief.

Taback said his sister is devastated, but the support of the community had helped tremendously. “One thing we can take from this is that the Jewish nation will always unite in these situations. We must be there, one for each other, as brothers and sisters are meant to be,” said Taback. “Just be good to each other. We don’t need to wait for disasters to unite us. As the Jewish people, that’s who we are.”

Meanwhile, young South Africans on a gap year in Israel said the disaster had hit close to home. Many of their contemporaries attended the celebrations at Mount Meron. Dean Chaitowitz, who is at Yeshiva Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, said he would have been there if enough boys from his yeshiva wanted to go.

“It wasn’t an official yeshiva trip, but they said that if there are enough kids, they’ll organise a bus to go. I’m trying to absorb as much of Israel as possible on my gap year, so I wanted to go. But in the end, there wasn’t enough of a demand. I was upset that I didn’t go, but when we found out what happened, I was shocked. I could easily have been there; our whole group would have gone. Hearing about yeshiva boys getting killed really hit hard, just knowing that it could literally have been any of us.”

Dani Sack who studying is at the Midreshet HaRova seminary in Jerusalem, said, “My group wasn’t going to go to Meron, but hearing about the tragedy nonetheless was a huge shock to the system, especially since some of our friends were planning to go.

“It was jarring considering we’d been so close to Meron, and also celebrated with dancing and singing that night. The fact that so many of those wounded and killed were young people put into perspective the magnitude of what a gap year entails. Being away from family is scary enough, but to think that a simple celebration on Lag B’Omer could turn deadly is terrifying.

“At Midreshet HaRova, we sang and said tehillim at the Kotel in honour of those who were killed. All the Torah we learned on Sunday was l’iluy nishmat [for the elevation of the soul] of the 45 we lost. In Israel, the mood over Shabbos and the weekend was solemn. You could feel the loss in the air. It’s really surreal being here during this moment, something that the Jewish national will remember forever.”

To support the family of the late Yohanatan Hevroni, please visit:

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Emotions run high as JSC denies discrimination



The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has called for a face-to-face meeting with the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) to resolve tensions following the recent JSC interviews of Jewish judges, which the Board described as discriminatory.

The JSC this week denied that its interviews of Jewish candidates for appointment to the Bench were discriminatory and anti-constitutional. It said it was “factually incorrect” to say that Jewish applicants were targeted at interviews.

The Board told the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday, 5 May, that this week’s JSC statement was “unfortunate”.

Said National Director Wendy Kahn, “The SAJBD had already requested a meeting with the JSC prior to it issuing this statement. Notwithstanding the JSC’s denial this week that it had done anything wrong, we believe that the nature of the questions put to the candidates was irregular and discriminatory, and as such, in conflict with the fundamental constitutional right of all South Africans to equality and freedom of belief and association. It’s unfortunate to politicise such an august body.”

She said the Board continued to call for a face-to-face meeting with the JSC as it believed it was a “more constructive way” to address issues than through the media.

In recent weeks, the SAJBD accused the JSC of targeting Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter when they were asked questions about their Jewish identity and practice. It also described the JSC’s questioning of both men as “discriminatory and anti-constitutional”.

In a statement last week, Kahn said, “Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter were subjected to questions pertaining to their Jewish identity while no other candidates were subjected to offensive religious scrutiny. Advocate Lever was asked about his level of religious observance, specifically whether he observes Shabbat. It was made clear that this observance would be problematic for his appointment.

“It should also be noted that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practice except those of the Jewish faith. Christian candidates weren’t asked about working on Christmas, nor were Muslim candidates asked about working on Friday afternoons or Eid. It’s also extremely disturbing that questions posed to both Advocate Lever and Judge Unterhalter focused extensively on their possible association with the Board.

“Equally concerning were questions posed to the two Jewish candidates regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Kahn. “Both were questioned on their stance on the two-state solution. It’s difficult to understand how a conflict of this nature has intruded into this forum. No Muslim candidates were questioned on the issue.”

In response, the JSC said this Tuesday that the SAJBD was selectively quoting parts of the interviews.

It rejected claims that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practices except those of the Jewish faith. It also labelled the claims by the SAJBD as factually inaccurate.

“The questions relating to the association with the SAJBD dealt with concerns that the organisation supports Zionism which is viewed as a discriminatory form of nationalism and potentially in conflict with the values contained in the South African Constitution,” read the statement.

“The questions on this score were raised with the two candidates following letters of objection received by the JSC in respect of Judge Unterhalter from various organisations, including the Black Lawyers Association. This is part of JSC practice intended to afford candidates the opportunity to respond to objections lodged against their candidature.”

The statement continued, “It’s not factually correct that other candidates who aren’t of Jewish descent weren’t asked questions related to their religious affiliations.” There were other candidates who were asked questions relating to their religious or cultural beliefs, the statement said.

Said Advocate Mark Oppenheimer, “After watching Judge Unterhalter’s interview, it’s striking how many questions were about his brief stint at the SAJBD and how few questions were about his qualifications. The ratio indicates a failure on the JSC’s behalf to ask pertinent questions about his ability to hold judicial office. The volume and repetition of questions about the Board should be of concern to all South Africans who care about the important attributes of those who take up office at the highest court in the land.”

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein expressed outrage at the “conduct of the commissioners of the [JSC] in their questioning of the two Jewish judges”, describing it as “racist and antisemitic in effect, if not in intention”.

He called on JSC commissioners to retract and apologise for their comments. He also called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to return the list to the JSC as the Constitution allows him to do on the grounds that aspects of the hearing exhibited discriminatory questions which cast a shadow on the entire process.

The JSC recommended Lever for a vacant position in the Northern Cape. The JSC also recommended lawyer Norman Manoim for a vacancy on the Gauteng High Court Bench. Both have been referred to President Cyril Ramaphosa for appointment. Unterhalter didn’t make the final list of nominees.

Meanwhile, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution is reportedly considering legal options regarding the recent interviews by the JSC for appointment to the Constitutional Court.

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Preventing stampedes ‘is a science’



As the dust settles after the Mount Meron disaster, questions will be asked about how it happened and why. Local expert Professor Efraim Kramer says stopping stampedes requires training, expertise, and planning, as just one “spark” in a crowd can have deadly consequences.

“It’s complex, emotional, and difficult to talk about stampedes, because people die needlessly. Whether it’s a football stadium or Mount Meron, people are going there for joy, yet it turns into tragedy. There’s no real place for blame because it needs a full investigation,” says Kramer.

He shared his perspectives with the SA Jewish Report as an expert in emergency and mass gathering (event) medicine. Kramer is the former head of the division of emergency medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, and professor of sports medicine at Pretoria University.

He has specialised in emergency, disaster, and stampede medicine for 30 years, and was FIFA’s tournament medical officer at the FIFA World Cup Russia in 2018. Since then, he has been actively involved with FIFA Medical. He is also involved in teaching and researching mass gathering medicine, including soccer-stadium stampede prevention and the management of disaster medicine, having been actively involved in assistance missions after earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, and volcanoes.

“A stampede is a terrible way to die,” he says. “It’s a slow asphyxiation. You can’t breathe for two to four minutes. The weight of a crowd like that can push over a wall. It’s tons of pressure. Then, if people fall down, they have no time or room to get up, and others trample on them. People either walk [over those who have fallen] or fall over themselves. So you also see severe trauma injuries.”

Kramer says preventing stampedes requires legislation, management, planning, risk assessment, logistics, and most of all, training. “In almost every incident I’ve seen like this, there has been no training. You can have 1 000 policeman and 1 000 stewards, but if no one is trained to recognise the signs of stampedes, they can easily happen. All it takes is one ‘spark’.”

He alludes to one person falling over in a stadium passage, or one fight that broke out in a stadium, which led to many people dying in stampedes in the past.

Kramer explains that medically, responding to a stampede is often counterintuitive to what a medical professional would normally do.

“In other mass disasters, you triage people who aren’t unconscious and prioritise them over unconscious victims who you may leave. But in a stampede, you immediately do CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] on the asphyxiated, non-breathing victims, because they usually have a healthy heart and you want to get oxygen back to that heart. You do CPR for half an hour to get the heart to start pumping again. You do CPR on every single non-breathing person, and then they do survive. So you don’t run it like an accident. You don’t take them to hospital – you work tirelessly on the scene.”

He says in crowded environments, it’s essential to keep the flow of people going. Even if they are walking in a narrow area, like the site where the Mount Meron tragedy occurred, as long as there is a flow of people, it’s likely to be safe. “But as soon as something goes wrong – like someone falling – it quickly perpetuates a vicious cycle.”

One way to keep the flow going is to use megaphones. “You can tell people to stop pushing, that people are getting injured, and to stay where they are. You can tell people that are being crushed to turn on their side, as then they can still breathe. You can control things verbally. Communication is crucial, and it needs to be planned beforehand.”

In his work with football stadiums, other small but significant changes have been implemented to prevent stampedes. For example, tickets are sold offsite to prevent stampedes should tickets run out. In addition, spectators are allowed only to sit in a seat, no one is allowed to stand or sit anywhere else. This controls numbers and keeps pathways open. “In 2021, crowd management is a science that needs to be learnt before disaster strikes and people die,” he says.

Kramer has seen similar numbers of deaths at other stampedes. For example, 43 people died at the Ellis Park Stadium tragedy [in South Africa] exactly 20 years ago. He says this number of fatalities is expected in the first five minutes of a stampede.

While Kramer wants to avoid laying blame, his first impression of the tragedy is that “the system went wrong … from the top, right to the bottom. Now, they’ll have to do what they should have done before – control the amount of people, manage risk, train personnel, and so on. It needs to be a well-oiled machine to stop people from dying.”

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