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Megillat Esther and Batmitzvah: encouraging female leadership

One of the more challenging aspects of modern Jewish communal life is how to engage teens in their Judaism post Barmitzvah and Batmitzvah.

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Voices

ADINA ROTH

It seems as if children and their parents have an understanding that the Barmitzvah ritual is an essential Jewish rite of passage, and a lot of energy is allocated to preparing for this special time in a young person’s life.

I am sure many of us have heard the rabbi giving the Barmitzvah sermon, and exhorting the child to stay involved. “Don’t become a stranger,” says the rabbi.

One could argue that the teen years are a challenging time to foster any singular identity. As our developmental psychologists explain, adolescence is a time for existential exploration. So perhaps after the ritual of B’neimitzvah, it is appropriate that our teenagers embark on identity journeys. At the same time, are there not ways we can assist our teens to connect to Jewish tradition, even while given the space to explore their horizons?

In traditional orthodox circles, many boys are equipped with a set of skills post Barmitzvah. They are able to lead parts of the service, and many of them are able to lein (chant traditional Torah cantillation), whether it is from the Torah or from the haftarah section.

One of the ways I have seen boys become more involved after their Barmitzvah is by being called in to shul to sing Anim Zemirot, or to lein. Granted, not all young people are leaders of prayer, or “wannabe” leiners. Nevertheless, it seems that the skills a Barmitzvah boy is encouraged to acquire give him the potential to develop a contributory role to the community as a leader in public Jewish life.

The rewards abound. As the young man contributes to the community, he develops an internal sense of his contributory capacities. The newly acquired sense of self makes him want to get involved more.

I have heard of many boys who have gone on to lead services at their school or who have been invited to lein at one of the upcoming Jewish holidays.

What about our girls? Shouldn’t we be seeking similar, halachically viable options for girls to develop skill sets at the time of Batmitzvah that can encourage their roles as leaders in our communities? I raise this question because of something I witnessed recently.

An incumbent Batmitzvah born two days before Purim decided she would learn to lein a chapter of the Megillah for her Batmitzvah. At first, she intended to perform this leining at her ceremony for friends and family as an indication of her learning. However, as she mastered the Megillah cantillation, a new opportunity emerged: An orthodox shul in Johannesburg was hosting a women’s Megillah reading, and she was invited to celebrate her Jewish coming of age by reading the Megillah for women on Purim.

As we assembled on Purim, I could see there were a number of young girls in the community who had come to support their friend. The young girl was a little nervous, but well prepared. She got up and chanted Chapter 6 of the Megillah with care, patience, and a lot of meaning.

When I looked around at the young girls who had come to support her, there was a shining light in their eyes. They saw their friend doing something of substance and meaning, making a contribution to the wider community in a religiously significant way on her Batmitzvah. But just as importantly, they realised that they could do it too.

After the reading, I said to this girl, you can do this every year, and she nodded and smiled.

But there was more. Two other girls participating in the reading were in high school. Each of them had had opportunities at the time of their Batmitzvahs to read from the Torah in halachic settings. While there are not many options for them to develop these capacities in Johannesburg, the women’s Megillah reading gives them the opportunity to prepare the Megillah and lein for the community.

One of these young women was leining for the third year in a row, and had taken on extra learning. The second young woman was leining for the first time, and absolutely loved the experience. These girls were post Batmitzvah, but had found ways in which to engage.

Young women are increasingly finding their voices in the wider, secular world. It seems we have a concurrent obligation as a community to identify spaces where young women can be affirmed in public, religiously significant roles. This way, we can ensure their connectedness to our tradition, and foster their potential as Jewish leaders.

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Voices

Challah – bread of Jewish men’s affliction

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There are many reasons why it isn’t easy to be a Jewish male. Expectation of performance begins at eight days, and hardly eases up until we shuffle off the mortal coil, well ahead of our time, exhausted from the effort and stress of it all.

The expectations are seemingly without end. We need to make our parents proud, we need to provide for our families, to be good husbands and better fathers, and we need to have run at least one marathon in a far-flung city by the time we are 45.

We need to be able to sing in front of the community at our Barmitzvahs, just when we are at our most awkward and when our voices are the most unreliable. We need to be able to intone anything at any given time.

And then, on the one night of the week when we can relax, we are required to cut the challah with the precision of a surgeon, the speed of Usain Bolt, and we need to do so while everyone watches in hungry expectation.

Following the kiddush prayer and the ritualistic washing of hands, there is a period of silence. With no speaking until the eating of the challah, it’s one of the most underrated aspects of being a Jewish male. It’s a moment that represents almost every aspect of “Jewish maleness”, and it happens week after week after week. Why?

Because no matter what, it will be done wrong. The slices will be too thick. Or thin. Or the wrong challah would have been selected. Too much, too little salt will have been added. And the challah serving plate will have been passed in the wrong direction. Eyes will be rolled, lips pursed, and heads will be slowly shaken. From side. To side. To side.

A Jewish male it would seem, cannot please a Jewish woman.

I have asked around. A friend’s wife told me that she can’t stand the way he cuts the challah, and prefers to do it herself. “He just can’t get it right. It’s got so bad that I hardly even let him carve the meat.”

She even went as far as to buy an electric carving knife, which she used before he got home from work on a Friday so that he didn’t need to. It might be worth mentioning that when he’s not “butchering” the challah, he’s a well-respected surgeon. At least he made his parents proud.

And there are those who are too precise for their own good. My father-in-law is one such case. Each piece of challah is measured to perfection. Sliced the way through, and then checked in case any remnants of attachment to the piece before remains, before moving on to slice number two. And so on.

Generally, we like to start Shabbat on Wednesday when visiting, as it takes about that long before we get to eat. All while we sit in silence.

The slicing of challah is the most underrated aspect of being a Jewish male. It carries with it all the expectation along with all the disappointment of generations of men who have failed before them.

It’s a moment that’s shared in all households across the Jewish world week after week. It bonds Jewish women to the past, and will link them to their great granddaughters, who will one day share knowing looks with their sisters as they watch their husband “butcher” the challah, just as their father did.

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Rebuilding hope and rewarding service

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This week, we have been hard at work finalising the upcoming South African Jewish Board of Deputies national conference, to take place on Sunday, 17 October, from 16:00 to 18:00.

The theme of the conference is “Hope and Recovery”, and as the title indicates, the focus will be on rebuilding following the testing and often traumatic events of the past two years. To share the challenges as well as the path of hope and recovery in areas of crucial concern, we have a panel of experts comprising Minister of Finance Enoch Godongwana, Eskom Chief Executive Andre de Ruyter, and Advocate Wim Trengove. We are further privileged to host Ambassador Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, and Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai, both of whom will be speaking.

The Board’s national conferences are also an opportunity to honour community members who have made a particularly noteworthy contribution to society, whether to the country as a whole or South African Jewry specifically. Since 1999, we have recognised those who have advanced the cause of human rights and democracy. The scope of the award, now called the Rabbi Cyril and Ann Harris Humanitarian Award, includes those involved in social outreach and upliftment work.

This year, it will be presented to Natie and Francis Kirsh and family in recognition of the unfailingly generous support they have provided to our community and our country over many years, but particularly during the COVID-19 period.

For those who have excelled in communal service, we will be presenting the Eric Samson Mendel Kaplan Award. Two presentations are made, one to a lay leader and the other to a professional. In the “lay” category, the recipients are Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Richard Friedland, two leading medical experts who during the COVID-19 pandemic, have shown extraordinary commitment and played such a pivotal role in guiding our community. In the “professional” category, we will honour Vivienne Anstey, the exemplar of a thoroughly professional, innovative Jewish public servant for more than 30 years, and Uriel Rosen, Hatzolah’s operations manager and the originator of its Wellness Monitoring Programme that has been so transformative in helping those suffering from COVID-19.

Please join us for what promises to be a fascinating conversation about how to move forward and rebuild. To register, go to https://www.corpcam.com/SAJBD17102021

#MakeUsCount events

Along with preparing for conference, the Board has been running its #MakeUsCount pre-election awareness campaign. During the past week, our Gauteng, Cape Town, and Durban branches have hosted lively and well attended “Great Debates” between representatives of the main competing parties. At the time of writing, Gauteng is preparing for a second event, a webinar with leading political journalist Stephen Grootes in conversation with political and election experts and analysts Wayne Sussman, Nompumelelo Runji, and Dr Ralph Mathekga. I look forward to updating you about further #MakeUsCount events in the days leading up to the municipal elections on 1 November.

This being my last Above Board before my term as National Chair comes to an end, I take this opportunity of recording how great an honour it has been to serve our community for the past four years and wishing my successor everything of the best.

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

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Board calls for practical implementation of hate-crime legislation

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This week, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) submitted written comments on the Prevention and Combating of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill after its release for public comment by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services. We have requested an opportunity for the SAJBD to give an oral submission on the Bill in due course. As a steering committee member representing the Board on the Hate Crimes Working Group (HCWG), our representative, Alana Baranov, was also involved in the drafting of the HCWG submission on the Bill.

The genesis of this important piece of legislation goes back to 2016, when the first draft of the Bill was released. The Board, at its own behest and through the HCWG, has been involved in the process from the outset, including making previous submissions. While we have raised certain legal-technical concerns over aspects of the Bill, in general we have welcomed it as being aimed at giving practical effect to the prevention of racism and discrimination and providing for the prosecution and prevention of hate crimes and hate speech.

The SAJBD’s submission on the Bill focused on the specific concerns of the Jewish community regarding antisemitism. It further stressed that the Act must be so framed as to make its practical implementation possible, and to this end, recommended expanding the reach and effectiveness of current legislation and mechanisms for dealing with incidents of hate, such as the South African Human Rights Commission and Equality Courts. These institutions have been of critical value to the Board in addressing numerous antisemitic incidents that have arisen over the past two decades, including those involving senior office bearers in government and trade unions. It’s therefore vital that they are adequately empowered and resourced.

JSC drops ball a second time at Concourt interviews

Earlier this year, the way in which two Jewish candidates for Constitutional Court positions were treated during their interviews by the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) generated much justified outrage. As previously recounted in this column, both were subjected to a barrage of irrelevant and inappropriate questions pertaining to their Jewish identity, association with the SAJBD, and views on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Other candidates were also subjected to inappropriate treatment. In response, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution launched a successful challenge to that process in the High Court, resulting in the JSC being directed to re-interview the candidates.

Unfortunately, the second round of interviews, conducted earlier this week, amounted to “Groundhog Day” for the Jewish community. Following their stinging rebuke at the hands of civil society and the courts, one would have expected the JSC to steer clear this time round of offensive questions concerning a candidate’s Jewish affiliations, yet once again, a Jewish candidate was so targeted, specifically for his previous association with the SAJBD. The characterisation by one of the commissioners of the SAJBD as a “pro-Zionist body that is bullying their people and organisations who are objecting to the Israeli establishment in the Palestine region” was especially out of line. This was specifically referred to in our media release issued this week, and will be one of the key issues we will address with the JSC.

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

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