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Lees is more for KDVP’s new principal

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Lifestyle/Community

King David Victory Park (KDVP) Primary School’s new principal, Kevin Lees, describes himself as a traditionalist in terms of teaching and learning, but also unconventional and flexible.

“If COVID-19 proved anything, it’s that we can’t simply rely on tried and tested methods of education,” he says. “It has brought some positive changes like blended learning and the use of technology.

“The flexibility it brought was also positive, as was the re-examination of key aspects of the curriculum, making us focus on the essentials. COVID-19 will be with us for some time, but I hope that when things get back to normal, we won’t ignore what worked, and lose that reflection and movement.”

Lees takes over from Rabbi Ricky Seeff, who has been appointed general director at the South African Jewish Board of Education. He may have been just a week in the job, but his commitment to the school and enthusiasm for everything education is palpable.

He was appointed in March, though he started his tenure at the beginning of October. It was a bombshell month for educators, with schools suddenly locked down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and teachers having to adapt overnight to online teaching. Lees saw out the storm in his former post as head of Theodor Herzl Primary in Port Elizabeth.

Lees says he believes we shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff”. He isn’t obsessed with hair length or uniforms, though he stipulates that children must be “well presented”. That was another interesting change wrought by COVID-19 – when children were allowed to go to school in civvies.

“Children should be given a level of flexibility to learn in a different way,” he says. “My previous classes were allowed to experiment with flexible seating, though admittedly it didn’t work for everyone – and sometimes, some children just need to be given a break when needed.”

It doesn’t undermine how seriously he takes the job. “Teachers aren’t merely facilitators,” he says. “We play a massive role in the lives of children. Teaching and learning must evolve. We must incorporate methods and curricula relevant to the 21st century.”

Lees has been an educator for 22 years, first at St George’s Preparatory in Port Elizabeth, followed by a stint in London, then becoming head of Theodor Herzl in 2012, where he doubled enrolment during his tenure. The career educator, who also has a degree in theology, says he felt an immediate connection with the philosophy, ethos, and approach of Theodor Herzl.

The ability to adapt and be flexible are strengths of Jewish schools, he points out, which aren’t tied up with unnecessary tradition, and have a critical-thinking culture. So, too, is an intimate connection between teacher and child, leading children to feel safe and secure. This is a particular strength of KDVP, by virtue of its size and teacher-child ratio.

Like Theodor Herzl, KDVP Primary School is small – with about 300 pupils. It allows the principal to know every pupil and parent and have an “open-door” policy, creating a sense of community, and making it easier to manage.

“We doubled enrolment at Theodor Herzl, but I wouldn’t go bigger than that,” Lees points out. Other strengths are that there is greater participation by all children in sport and the arts. “KDVP is known for its whole-school dramatic productions,” he says, “this is impossible at bigger schools.”

Though he’s not Jewish, he believes religion plays a beautiful and significant role in education. An environment like King David leads to reflection, critical thinking, and social responsibility, which is what sets our community apart. Children at King David are brought up to see themselves as part of a community, not just as individuals, and this is critically important. To this extent, he’s looking forward to working with the vibrant and closely connected Jewish community in Gauteng.

Lees is aware that he is filling big shoes in taking over from Rabbi Seeff, who was an inspiring leader and made many positive changes to the school. “Rabbi Seeff isn’t lost to the system,” he says, “we will lean on him.” But he points out that as a career educator, perhaps he brings a different lens to the job. “There is a debate among principals about the value of teachers running schools,” he says, “but if you have spent time in the classroom, it influences your perspective. Fundamentally, you must be motivated by a love for children, and be willing to listen to those around you.”

Lees is an educator and a parent – he has children who are enrolled at King David, so he is uniquely equipped to see things from both perspectives.

He has outlined four main tasks for himself in the next year. First, he wants to familiarise himself with the school, tuning into its culture, the board, and the community. He stresses that he will be careful about making changes before he has done so. He hopes to build trust and confidence among the community. Second, he will identify areas of concern by walking around and interacting with people on the ground. Third, he emphasises the continued fallout of COVID-19, ensuring the continued success of blended learning. The pandemic’s emotional impact on children is still to be felt, and he aims to address this too. Fourth, Lees is prioritising the building of partnerships and networks – educational and in the Jewish community – in Gauteng, where the community is particularly vibrant.

Finally, he may just learn some Hebrew. “I was cornered by a teacher at Theodor Herzl, who said she would teach me Hebrew, but I don’t have a gift for languages,” he comments. “Though, in a sense, it’s given me a sense of what the children go throug

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Lifestyle/Community

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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