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Here to stay and still thriving

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Had we been living in normal times, our 2023 national biennial conference would have taken the form of a celebratory gala dinner marking the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ (SAJBD’s) 120th anniversary. Instead, as much by choice as necessity, we held a low-key, online-only event where we reported back on the Board’s activities over the previous two years.

The conference took place on Sunday, 3 December, and was followed by a brief meeting of the SAJBD national executive committee to elect the office bearers for the next two years. I’m honoured to have been elected to serve a second term as national chairperson, and congratulate all our other office bearers: Zev Krengel (president); Mary Kluk (vice-president); David Kuming (treasurer); and Vice-Chairpersons Tzvi Brivik; Danny Mofsowitz; and Susan Abro. We pay tribute to outgoing President Shaun Zagnoev, who as my predecessor, devoted his invaluable set of skills to righting the ship at a troubled time and successfully managing the rationalisation and restructuring process thereafter.

As national chairperson, my vision for the SAJBD is to enable us all to live authentically as proud Jews and as proud engaged citizens in our beautiful, complicated, broken country. It was gratifying to report how every single project, activity, press statement, and initiative under my leadership had been dedicated to that vision. I recounted what we had done during the COVID-19 crisis, both on behalf of our own community, which was disproportionately affected, and in the multiple ways we were involved in helping alleviate the crisis beyond our community, when starvation was again a spectre in our streets. We carried through this active citizenship by helping with some of the worst disasters in the country, particularly the Boksburg gas tanker explosion; floods in KwaZulu-Natal; and the terrible fire in the Johannesburg inner city. Another area very close to my heart was the work done with universities, where we proactively engaged with students to bring the South African Union of Jewish Students and student representative councils together and raised enormous funds to address student debt. I related how we had further solidified our position as involved citizens and proud Jews through the marvellous Mensches in the Trenches book, telling the stories of the lesser-known Jewish stalwarts of the anti-apartheid struggle.

For the hardest part of my speech – how to live as a proud Jew and engaged citizen in light of our government’s hostility after the 7 October atrocities – I provided some chizuk through a phrase I learned from a colleague: “If Israel is a start-up nation, South African Jewry are a DIY nation.” I mentioned the wonderful communal institutions we have established that in an increasingly dysfunctional society, provide critical services in such areas as welfare, healthcare, and education. In the face of our government’s shameful international relations policy, we had been proud and forthright in our response. I mentioned some of the public stands we had taken, including demonstrating for the release of the hostages on Nelson Mandela Bridge and Durban beach, our full-page Sunday Times advertorial criticising our president for his shameful response to the 7 October atrocities, and how in the face of overwhelming press hostility, we made sure our voices were heard. In all of this, moreover, we weren’t alone. Our friends in the World Jewish Congress and other global Jewish organisations have opened their doors to us, and we also have many friends in South Africa, some of whom have fought shoulder to shoulder with us.

“We’re not going anywhere,” I concluded. South Africa belongs to all who live in it, and in spite of everything, communal life is thriving and the Jews of South Africa are still punching way above their weight.

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

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