Shavuot inspires this reluctant shul goer

  • Howard Feldman 2018
I have never really loved being in shul. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy what the community has to offer, and I don’t appreciate the value of prayer.
by HOWARD FELDMAN | Jun 13, 2019

I just find myself becoming restless about 30 minutes before anyone else does. For some reason, I don’t seem to have the staying power.

Which makes it all the more strange that over Shavuot, I found myself spending time at not one synagogue, but three: Mizrachi, Maharsha, and the Base. And loving each experience.

Each congregation is distinctly different. Each has its own unenforced dress-code, each attracts different people, and each has so much to offer. And those are just the three that I visited. Within walking distance, I might well have visited another seven or eight shuls, and each would have had a different nuance and personality.

On the second day of Shavuot, I went to hear Rabbi Ken Spiro at the Base. He is a well-respected historian, with whose work I connect. He has been to South Africa a number of times, most recently for Sinai Indaba.

His topic was Zionism and Judaism. I was only vaguely interested in this. Because of the work I do, I thought I had a clear sense of the subject, and it was unlikely I would gain much from it. But I went, and discovered that I was wrong.

Although the information was not new, the perspective certainly was.

His talk traced the history of Zionism, and depicted how the Zionist movement was inherently anti-religious. Its members referred to themselves as “Hebrews” instead of Jews, and rejected what they believed was the “weakness” of European Jewry. Spiro spoke of the arrival of the Cochini Jews from India, who were deliberately housed in secular kibbutzim rather than being allowed to continue to be observant. The same applied to many Jews who came from Arab countries.

In essence, his talk tried to explain the antagonism between secular and religious Jewry in Israel today. Although we have come to accept it as a fact, if you think about it, the very notion is absurd.

Whether religious or secular or anything in between, the fact that a Jewish homeland exists, with all its warts, is something that should inspire us every day. Not something that should cause conflict. Yet in Israel, it does.

Spiro’s talk was not meant to cause me to consider how blessed we are in South Africa. It was not designed to elicit a feeling of gratitude towards the magnificent, accepting community that epitomises the country.

A community where it is not uncommon for one family to have members who are both religious and non-observant. Where it is not unusual to see a woman with her head covered and her clothing conforming to strict laws of modesty, having a meal with a friend wearing a vest and lululemon yoga pants.

Of course, it’s not perfect, and no doubt there are numerous anecdotal examples of the religious not accepting those who are not religious, and vice versa. On the whole, however, the attitude of the whole spectrum of observance is more tolerant and accepting than it is not.

We should be proud of that. We should guard and protect it, and we should make sure that our children see that we value it.

My shul-hopping over Shavuot, coupled with the perspective of Spiro’s history, opened my eyes to the beauty of our community. It still won’t make me love being in shul, but at least it’s a start.


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