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Israel Rugby 7s to camp with the Blitzbokke

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The thrill-a-minute Rugby 7s have captured the hearts of fans around the world. The Blitzbokke, South Africa’s national Rugby 7s team, ranks second in the world, and is among the most exciting, formidable, and feared of 7s teams.

Exactly 9 191 km away are the Israelis, an emerging rugby nation that has talent, determination, and a world-class coach in South African Kevin Musikanth. Now, these two squads will meet. The Israeli 7s side will be travelling to the SAS Rugby Academy in Stellenbosch to train with the Blitzbokke.

The Blitzbokke will have the opportunity to prepare for the coming 7s rugby season by measuring their skills of play against the Israelis. And the Israelis, well, they will be rubbing shoulders with, and learning from the best in the world and honing their skills for their coming European Rugby season.

“It’s an opportunity for our boys to learn from the world’s best,” says Musikanth. The SAS Rugby Academy is run by the legendary Frankie Horn, a technical expert whose coaching guidelines and methods are second to none in World Rugby 7s.

Musikanth took over as Rugby 15s head coach in Israel in 2018, and in October 2019, he became director of rugby for the Israeli Rugby Union and head coach for the national programmes of both the 15s and the 7s.

Horn visited Israel last December at the behest of Rugby Israel and its supporting Olympic body and since then, the partnership has continued to grow. The upcoming training camp will begin in Israel, where Horn, together with Phil Snyman, the former Blitzbok captain and multiple world champion winner, will spend a week with the players and coaching staff at Wingate, Netanya, the home base of Rugby Israel. They will then all travel to Stellenbosch for a week’s camp with the Blitzbokke.

“We’ve already seen the difference through our partnership with Frankie. Two of our players were spotted by him on his previous trip to Israel, and have been training at SAS on the off-season,” says Musikanth. The two players are Omer Levinson (scrum half) and Yotam Shulman (lock).

Horn, technical advisor to Rugby Israel’s 7s, says “It is a great opportunity for both teams to derive positive benefit from the camp.”

Israel Rugby has been making considerable professional strides since Musikanth took over the reins. Israel 15s played their 100th test match against Cyprus and celebrated with a 34-22 victory.

“We’re in the top 25 in Europe in 15s and in the top 16 in 7s, the toughest, most competitive continent in world rugby,” says Musikanth, “and I can realistically see us setting our sights on the Top 15 and Top 12 respectively in the future.”

Currently, there are three eligible South Africans who are on the Israeli national squad: Jayson Ferera as flanker (Pirates Rugby Club), Daniel Stein as fly half (studying in Israel), and Jared Sichel as prop (Hamilton’s Rugby Club, Cape Town). Eligibility to play for a national team in rugby is stricter than in other sports. One does not qualify just because one has a passport. One has to have had a parent or grandparent that was born in that country or one has to have lived in the country for at least three years.

“With so much Jewish rugby talent around the world, we would be able to put a world-class Israeli national team together if not for the measures that restrict eligibility to national call ups,” says Musikanth.

The Israel Rugby development project was accelerated thanks to Musikanth initiating Bridges through Rugby. This project is the collective effort of a few South African Jewish businessmen who appreciate the long-term vision of Israel becoming a stronger rugby nation. They have come on board to assist with this most opportune tour. National financial support is fixed and, as such, is limited. While the strong players and national coaches will be attending the training camp in Stellenbosch, there will be some that will, unfortunately, have to stay behind.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our players and coaches. To get to see the best upfront and feed off their knowledge is going to be incredible,” says Musikanth. “Everyone is eager to go, of course, but there is a cap to the support we have in place. We would like to take a development u20 squad as well as coaching staff who would carry the benefits of this into the future. A rugby visit to Stellenbosch can change rugby lives in many respects. Stellenbosch is rugby utopia!”

Rugby aside, with the Israelis and South Africans camping together, the question of what will be for dinner after a gruelling day’s training may be a matter of contention. A tussle for whether to serve boerewors or shwarma may result in a scrum in the SAS dining hall to determine the outcome.

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Yochanan’s gamble: the controversial move that saved Judaism

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Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, known as the father of rabbinic Judaism, saved Judaism from complete and utter destruction during the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. However, his methods weren’t without controversy. He was crafty, practical, and pragmatic, and history has questioned his behaviour ever since.

Limmud@Home on 22 August 2021 featured Marc Katz, the author and rabbi at Temple Ner Tamid in New Jersey, United States, who discussed Ben Zakkai’s controversial gamble that saved Judaism, and the lessons that can be learned from it.

The zealots, a group of religious fanatics in Jerusalem, wanted to fight the Romans. When the sages refused to engage in battle, the zealots burned wheat, deliberately causing starvation to make the people desperate and have no other option but to fight.

“Show me a method so that I will be able to leave the city, and it’s possible that through this, there will be some small salvation,” Ben Zakkai told Abba Sikkara, the leader of the zealots.

Heeding Sikkara’s advice, Ben Zakkai pretended to be dead. In a coffin, he could possibly travel outside the city to seek a solution with the Romans.

Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua successfully carried Ben Zakkai past the guards, who were of the faction of the zealots, by telling them that they were burying the coffin outside the city.

When Ben Zakkai reached the Roman camp, he spoke to Roman leader Vespasian. Ben Zakkai helped Vespasian cure his swollen feet. Vespasian offered something in return, and Ben Zakkai asked for certain Jewish lives to be spared and doctors to heal Rabbi Tzadok.

Why didn’t he ask the Romans to spare Jerusalem? He maintained that Vespasian might not do that much for him, and there wouldn’t be even this small amount of salvation. Therefore, he made only a modest request in the hope that he would receive at least that much.

Katz said several lessons could be learned from this story.

He drew a comparison to US President Abraham Lincoln at the time of the American Civil War in the 1860s, who freed slaves.

“One of the things he’s famous for is that he surrounded himself with people who disagreed with him in order to build the best coalition and understand that he didn’t have all the right views in a time of discord,” said Katz. “So, many of his secretaries – like his treasury secretary, his war secretary – were people who were actually his political rivals but he brought them in because it was really important for him to listen to them. It was pragmatic because he knew the social capital he was going to gain from it. It was also hopeful because he wasn’t so caught in his ways that he couldn’t hear them out or heed their warnings. That is exactly what Ben Zakkai is doing. Not only is he creating this plot of land where he is going to save Judaism, but he is the kind of guy who tends to think about politics in the way he governs.”

Another lesson is to try to seek compromises, just like Ben Zakkai did with Sikkara.

A further lesson is to have love and kindness, not regret and hatred. Katz discussed what happened when Ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem with Yehoshua, and they witnessed the destruction of the Temple. “Don’t be bitter, my son, for we have another form of atonement which is as great, and this is [an] act of love and kindness [gemilut hasadim],” Ben Zakkai told Yehoshua.

An additional lesson is not to be afraid of people. If they kill you, you won’t be dead for eternity as there is life after death. But the supreme king of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He, lives and endures forever and all-time, and if he kills you, you are dead for eternity.

“Yochanan doesn’t know if he is going to heaven or hell,” said Katz. “I truly believe that’s because he doesn’t know whether he made the right call or not – he doesn’t know if the pragmatic decision he made was better than going for broke and asking for Jerusalem to be saved.”

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The dispersal of the Bukharian Jews

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The story of the Bukharian Jews, a community with deep roots in Central Asia, is sadly coming to an end, but the community’s legacy lives on in the United States and Israel, where most of the remaining Bukharian Jews now live.

Uzbekistan-born Bukharian Jew, Ruben Shimonov, told of this little known Jewish group which emanates mostly from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, countries in the heart of the Asian continent.

Speaking to a virtual audience via Zoom at Limmud@Home last Sunday, 22 August, Shimonov said the different layers of culture, cuisine, music, and language in the region were an amalgamation of all the different cultures of Central Asia, and were also reflected in the small but deeply-rooted community of Bukharian Jews.

The Bukharian Jewish story begins with the Babylonian conquest of the ancient land of Israel, Judea, and subsequent exile of Jews east of the land of Israel to other regions of the Babylonian Empire, namely present-day Iraq and Iran.

The Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Achaemenid Empire in 539 BC. “Under the Achaemenid Empire, the king was a more benevolent king and he allowed Jews to return to rebuild Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash,” said Shimonov. “But many Jews stayed as they now felt safe and secure under this new reign and moved even farther east of this new large Achaemenid Empire. This, folks, was Central Asia.”

Shimonov believes that the Bukharian Jews were more integrated with the local non-Jewish communities in Central Asia than, for example, the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.

“Even though Bukharian Jews for a large part of their history lived in quarters [maḥalla], there was constant interaction with the dominant societies amongst which they lived,” said Shimonov. “For example, the shashmaqam musical tradition is influenced by Sufi Islam, but many Bukharian Jews became the gatekeepers of this tradition.”

According to Shimonov, there are 250 000 Bukharian Jews in the world. Most of them now live in Israel or the United States, primarily in the New York City borough of Queens.

“In Uzbekistan, there are fewer than a thousand Bukharian Jews left – mainly elderly folk who are staying behind because it’s harder for them to emigrate,” said Shimonov. “Jews in Uzbekistan are highly protected; their safety is preserved. And Jews do go and visit Central Asia, including Uzbekistan, where there is one kosher restaurant and a couple of synagogues. But our story is quickly coming to an end in our place of origin.”

In the Tajikistan city of Khujand, where Bukharian Jews once enjoyed a rich communal life, the last remaining Jew, Jura Abaev, died in January this year. Zablon Simintov, a carpet trader who is the last remaining Jew in Afghanistan, is reportedly safe as the country comes under the control of the Taliban.

Shimonov, who emigrated from Uzbekistan three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said the main reason for the low numbers today was the struggle of the Bukharian Jews living in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

“State-sanctioned antisemitism and dispossession or marginalisation of Jews was part of that story even though there were more ups than downs. And then, the subsequent new instability of the newly formed independent republics – whenever new countries are formed after the colonial past there is more often than not a lot of political, social, and economic instability,” he said.

“As a democratic minority, we felt that even more. So, the urgency to leave was clear and present. In the decade of the late eighties to mid-nineties, we went from having the majority of our community living in this place where we had lived for centuries to the majority of our community living in a new diaspora. In Uzbekistan, the real impetus to leave was more about everything I mentioned than antisemitism coming from our Muslim neighbours.”

“Our Muslim neighbours were our friends, and we baked bread with them,” Shimonov said. “This is different to Jews coming from the Arab world, where Arab nationalism and Zionism came to a head in a way that the Jews were sadly caught in the crossfire.”

In contemporary times, Uzbekistan-born billionaire Lev Avnerovich Leviev and Israeli Dorrit Moussaieff are two of the Bukharian Jews who have made an impact. Known as the “king of diamonds”, Leviev annually sent large quantities of Passover food to Chabad emissaries in the Commonwealth of Independent States to distribute to Jews in these communities. Moussaieff, the former First Lady of Iceland, promoted Icelandic culture and artistic productions in the international arena.

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Shabbat Around The World beams out from Jozi

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More than 75 devices around the globe logged in to Beit Luria’s World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Shabbat Around the World programme on Friday, 15 January.

Whether it was breakfast time in California, tea time in Europe, or time to break challah in Johannesburg, participants logged in to take part in Beit Luria’s Kabbalat Shabbat service.

Among those participating were Rabbi Sergio Bergman, the president of the WUPJ; chairperson Carole Sterling; and Rabbi Nathan Alfred, the head of international relations. Singers Tulla Eckhart and Brian Joffe performed songs from a global array of artists, along with Toto’s Africa to add a little local flair to the service. After kiddish was said and bread was broken, Rabbi Bergman thanked Beit Luria for hosting the WUPJ. The shul looks forward to more collaborations with its global friends in the future.

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