Jewish women not second class citizens
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis calls himself “very fortunate” to have grown up in South Africa and to have been part of the English Orthodox model where one did not have to be “frum” to attend an Orthodox shul. “Everybody’s welcome, all are equal and part of our communities – we leave it up to G-d to judge individuals.
“We need to reach out with genuine ahavat Israel – love of our fellow Jew.”
The Chief Rabbi was on a private visit to Cape Town during which he launched 90-year-old Rabbi Dr Lionel Mirvis’ Daroma educational programme at Beit Midrash Morasha. “I’m deriving so much huge ‘nachas’ from my Dad,” he said, paying tribute to “Avi Mori”. (my father, my teacher).
“I owe so much to my father: my knowledge, my quest for community leadership, my passion for the rabbinate. There is nothing better than to associate myself directly with Jewish educational initiatives,” in this case with a personal connection.
For his part, the elder rabbi said he was “awed to be speaking after the Chief Rabbi”. Addressing himself to his son, he said: “Thank you for acknowledging that you’re a product of your parents.”
Speaking on “the role of the shul in the 21st century”, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said pulpit rabbis needed to be a fusion of shepherd and sheepdog, the latter to prevent Jews straying from the flock. The rabbi’s role was not to produce rosh yeshivas, but to hopefully see people getting married under a chuppah.
“Through the shul we should find the means to engage with every single Jewish person and make sure they’re all welcome,” he emphasised. “It’s important that women should know that all are included,” he added.
“Within Torah law, we must guarantee that women feel as included as possible.” The Chief Rabbi had asked himself what it would be like sitting in (some of) the areas allocated to women (in synagogue). “I wouldn’t like it,” he commented.
“I’ve given instructions that no shul is to be built without my input. Women don’t have to be up in the gods – no person should feel that they’re a second class citizen,” he stated.
Introducing the Chief Rabbi earlier, Rabbi Sam Thurgood, spiritual leader of Beit Midrash Morasha, referred to Rabbi Mirvis’s appointment in 2012 of Britain’s first Orthodox female halachic adviser at London’s Finchley Synagogue, where he had been the senior rabbi.
“He has a history of being an innovator, he is prepared to take risks and move the Jewish world forward,” Rabbi Thurgood noted.
Referring to this appointment of the yoetzet halacha, the Chief Rabbi said that having a woman available had led to more women asking questions, because “the reality is that some feel uncomfortable asking a rabbi”. It had also resulted in increased observance of taharat hamishpachah (laws of family purity).
“Men can learn from women too,” he added. “We must find a way – in line with halacha – women have a role to play in our communities.”
Questioning whether the style of davening was appropriate for people of today, the chief rabbi said the days of individuals coming to shul because it was the right thing to do, were gone. “We’re facing a younger generation who are so spoilt with what they have at their fingertips – we’re competing with the most thrilling forms of entertainment.
“Today’s young people will only come if there’s something in it for them.” It is the chazzan’s role to get the community to engage in genuine davening.
“The chazzan sets the tone of the service. He’s the anchor of the service – he either includes you or he bores you to tears.
“You have to engage people, create ‘ruach’, because loyalty doesn’t exist in the younger community anymore.”
R. Hazdan keynote speaker at Chabad-Lubavitch event
Some 5 600 emissaries (shluchim) from Chabad-Lubavitch from all over the world gathered at the Pier 8 warehouse in Brooklyn, New York this week for the opening of their four-day annual international conference and banquet, 75 years after the arrival of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, from Europe.
Rabbis and guests from all over America and in fact all over the world, celebrated at a banquet, while followed by numerous viewers watching proceedings by webcast.
Rabbi Dovid Hazdan, spiritual leader of the Great Park Shul in Johannesburg and dean of The Torah Academy, was chosen to deliver the keynote address. He was the third South African to be honoured in this way. Rabbi Yossy Goldman of the Sydenham-Highlands North Shul and Rabbi Ari Shishler, director of Chabad of Strathavon, have addressed previous conferences.
In his address, Rabbi Hazdan said nobody could believe, when Chabad first came to South Africa, the degree to which it would change the face of Jewish life there. When Rabbi Mendel and Mashi Lipskar pioneered Chabad in South Africa in the 1970s, “the country was a very different place. The evils of apartheid had prepared a tinderbox of revolution and the tiny minority of white people had reason to be afraid.”
The Jewish community was stagnant in its religious growth, he said. He recalled the first mitzvah mobile and Succah mobile, part of “an unbelievable challenge to the status quo”.
It required tenacity and perseverance to prevail, he remarked.
Some 40 years ago, the Lubavitcher Rebbe introduced his education campaign. Using the example of a mountain partly covered by trees, but with large bare eroded areas, Rabbi Hazdan said “mountains produce trees, but trees preserve the mountains. Communities produce educated children, but educated children preserve our communities.”
He was proud that “Torah Academy has produced shluchim on every continent and in every part of South Africa, with a huge amount of leadership positions being held by the graduates of our school”.
In 1989, Rabbi Hazdan became the rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Wolmarans Street, Hillbrow, “which had an illustrious past, but a very precarious future, undermined by shifting demographics” and situated in what had become a dangerous area.
Many wanted the shul to close quietly, but a small band urged the building of a new shul in a better area. The negative voices said it was not a time to build a new shul.
Rabbi Hazdan saw it as a campaign to build a new shul, because the Rebbe had said it would be good for the Jews in this country until Moshiach came and even better after that.
“It was not a time to close shop,” Rabbi Hazdan said.
Following visits to a hospital emergency room and a hospice, he said they differed in one respect – “whether we believe we can make a difference. If we believe we cannot make a difference, we can wrap things up and arrange the demise in an orderly way.
“But if we do believe we can make a difference, then it is our responsibility to respond with alacrity, determination and with energy and power. We need to respond with the urgency of an emergency room.
“Pessimistic reports about the future of the Jewish people foster dejection and apathy. But tonight is filled with the Rebbe’s emergency personnel,” he said.
Rabbi Hazdan recounted that a few years ago, he addressed a gathering in South Africa of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL), following a speaker who maintained that to reach out to others, we had to compromise our ideals; to reach out we had to be relevant.
Rabbi Hazdan said he was giving the opposite message. “We could only reach out to somebody else with integrity in our own commitment to our values, standards and religion.
“It is only by virtue of the fact that we have a tower of integrity in our own belief that we are able to reach one another. It is only if we are anchored to something higher, that we do not slip here below.”
Many South Africans were represented at the kinus, including Basil Lishansky, of the Great Park Shul, who introduced Rabbi Hazdan on video.
Edelstein’s grandson’s barmitzvah in Soweto
On Youth Day this year, one of South African Jewry’s most unusual, as well as symbolic and emotionally charged barmitzvah ceremonies took place in Soweto’s Western Jabavu suburb.
Shaun Rosenthal (father of the barmitzvah boy); Mark Goldblatt (cousin); Levi Rosenthal (barmitzvah boy – named Menachem Mendel after the late Melvin Edelstein); and Rabbi Dovid Hazdan.
PHOTOGRAPH: ILAN OSSENDRYVER
The Shacharit service was held at the site where Dr Melville Edelstein became one of the first victims of the 1976 Soweto Uprising when he was attacked and fatally injured by enraged protesters. Forty years to the day since the grandfather he never knew lost his life, 13-year-old Levy Rosenthal read the day’s Torah portion.
With him were family, friends and community members, including rabbis, SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) representatives and Jewish day school prefects. Prior to the service, a memorial plaque to Edelstein was unveiled by his widow, Rhona, daughters Shana Rosenthal and Janet Goldblatt, Minister Jeff Radebe and Gauteng Premier David Makhura.
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That Melville Edelstein was killed because he was a white man in the wrong place at the wrong time, is one of the great ironies of the Soweto Uprising. As chief welfare officer of the (then) West Rand Administration Board, his dedication to bettering the lot of Sowetans, was well known and appreciated in the wider community.
Through his research work as sociologist, he had also long warned about rising levels of black anger over the regime’s apartheid policies, most notably in his 1971 MA thesis on opinions and attitudes among matric pupils in Soweto.
Executive Mayor Parks Tau at the Youth Day ceremony, described Edelstein as “a peace loving man who dedicated his life to the service of the poor in the then dusty township streets of South Africa”.
He went on to quote the famed press photographer Peter Magubane, who on finding the fatally injured Edelstein after the attack said: “If they had known who he was this never would have happened. Not at all. He was part of the community.”
Through the SAJBD, 20 King David Linksfield and Yeshiva College prefects were among the Jewish community representatives taking part in the Youth Day commemorative events in Soweto.
Following the Edelstein unveiling ceremony and barmitzvah, participants attended the official renaming of a street after youth leader Hastings Ndlovu, who was also killed in 1976. From there, they moved on to the Hector Pieterson monument, where the prefects and SAJBD National Director Wendy Kahn laid wreaths. The SAJBD was officially welcomed by the day’s master of ceremonies.
The next morning Kahn and Chaya Singer, at the invitation of Gauteng MEC for Sport, Arts, Recreation and Culture Faith Mazibuko, represented the SAJBD at another commemorative ceremony, this time in memory of the victims of the Boipatong Massacre.
On June 17, 1992, 45 residents of Boipatong, a black township near Vanderbijlpark, were hacked to death by hostel dwellers affiliated to the Inkatha Freedom Party. The atrocity, arguably the most horrific of the many violent incidents that took place in the lead-up to the democratic transition in 1994, saw the ANC for a time pull out of the negotiations process in the belief – subsequently shown to be unfounded – that the police had colluded with the IFP in the attack.
Kahn was called up to jointly lay a wreath with Mazibuko. In her address, the MEC said that it was important to have the Board represented, as Jews understood from their own experiences the kind of tragedy that had occurred in Boipatong.
Kol isha heading for the Equality Court
Unless something drastic happens at the proposed Cape Town community colloquium next month to try to resolve the differences between two Cape Town Orthodox Jews joined by SACRED (a Progressive-affiliated interfaith group, the SA Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity) and the Cape Council of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies who decided not to allow women to sing solo at this year’s Yom Hashoah commemoration, the scene is set for a ground-breaking court case with huge repercussions all-round.
The Cape Council is being sued by Gilad (Gerald) Stern and Sarah Goldstein and later joined by SACRED on the basis that the Board’s policy amounts to “discrimination of women on the basis of gender”.
The claimants originally tried to use urgency to lift the ban on women singing at Yom Hashoah, which took place earlier this month, and at future Jewish secular communal events, but were unsuccessful for the recent ceremony.
The Western Cape High Court Judge President has appointed Justice Lee Bozalek of the High Court, sitting as the Equality Court, to hear the case which has been set down for August 22 and 23.
The outcome of this serious challenge between religious rights and a host of constitutional rights, could become a legal reference case in South Africa.
In their answering affidavit, Cape Board Chairman Eric Marx, sums up the pending legal tussle thus: “While I accept that the (Constitutional) right to equality is implicated in the present matter, so too are the rights to dignity, freedom of association, religious freedom and freedom of choice.”
Marx says his legal advice is that on a “proper balancing of these competing rights”, Stern’s application will fail.
It also seems a distinct possibility that should the parties remain as “immovable” as they are at present, the loser of the Equality Court matter may well challenge the decision in higher courts. Given the high calibre legal counsel involved on both sides, even assuming they are acting at “reduced rates”, the cost is going to be considerable.
In their replying affidavit, Stern et al submitted that, having read the answering affidavits of the Cape Board, SAJBD National President Mary Kluk and Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, they still believe that “a proper case has been made out that the Board has committed unconstitutional discrimination on the basis of gender, and has violated the law”.
The matter has been aired in the mainstream media this month, with Stern having written an op-ed in the Sunday Independent of May 14 and SAJBD National President Mary Kluk responding in the same publication this past weekend. All of the Independent Group newspapers have carried the story.
While Stern states in his replying affidavit that “a large portion” of the Board’s answering affidavit would be dealt with in court, he accuses the Board of “not being entirely candid” in their application. He also questions “certain aspects” of Rabbi Goldstein’s affidavit and maintains that his “entire affidavit is irrelevant to the application”.
Stern states under oath: “In every other facet of the Board’s operations and activities, it has demonstrated its complete commitment to gender equity.”
Women, he says, participate at all levels in the Board, including holding leadership positions, and “there is full participation, including women singing at other events under (the Board’s) aegis”.
The Board, in turn, takes Stern to task in its affidavit over a TV interview on ENCA, with Leigh-Anne Jansen. The two quotes highlighted by the Board are:
- “My problem is not with the rabbis that don’t want to hear women sing. I regard that as quite quaint, A bit weird;” and
- “If a rabbi has got a problem with women singing, they think it is going to affect them in the mind or in their heart or in some other part of their anatomy, they need to take a cold shower.”
The Board of Deputies, on the other hand, say it carries out a range of functions on behalf of Jewry, including:
- “Safeguarding the religious and civil rights, the status and the welfare of the Jewish community”; and
- “Furthering respect for and the application of fundamental human rights for all sections of the population.”
Marx explains that the community comprises two main groupings: Orthodox and Reform. The Board, says Marx, “treads cautiously and carefully preventing discord between both these groups of the Jewish community”.
The Cape SAJBD ensures harmony and cohesion in the community and ensures it does not act “in a way that is divisive or undermining either grouping”. The Board “represents no particular brand of Judaism” and it “exhibits no doctrinal preferences or allegiances”.
In fact, says Marx, the Cape Board has had two “female chairpersons” and the current national president and immediate past chairman is Mary Kluk.
He goes on to say that he can state without reservation that, should Stern’s order have been granted before Yom Hashoah, “many, if not all, Orthodox” Jews would not have attended. This, he told Jewish Report, had been categorically conveyed to him by the Orthodox rabbinic leadership.
He said he believed the court case was premature in that the Board had undertaken to hold a colloquium of Cape Jewry on the matter in June. Marx’s affidavit is supported by affidavits from Board National President Mary Kluk and the Chief Rabbi.
Stern himself explains in an op-ed in this week’s Jewish Report that he considers himself to be a “Shomer Shabbat Orthodox-ish Jew” and explains to the community why he is litigating.
In a written statement to Stern last month, the Board suggested “it’s caught between a rock and a hard place; either affect women or the Orthodox rabbinic leadership”.
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