The Jewish Report Editorial

Jewish Cape Town: Faribels and festivities

  • Vanessa
This is a very big year for Cape Town Jewry. The community is celebrating 175 years of existence, beginning in 1841 with the founding of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. This actually marks the birth of organised Jewish life in southern Africa too.
by Vanessa Valkin | Jun 01, 2016

A host of events are taking place, including last month’s inaugural Jewish Literary Festival; an upcoming exhibition at the SA Jewish Museum about Jewish life; and distinguished speakers from abroad. 

But apart from the festivities, the Mother City has also inadvertently become the epicentre of two battles around the rights of women under Jewish law. The first, already extensively covered on these pages, is that of a group who tried unsuccessfully to get the ban lifted on women singing at the recent Cape Town Yom Hashoah ceremony. 

The case may make its way to the Equality Court, a division of the Western Cape High Court, unless it can be resolved at the proposed Cape Town community colloquium later this month. 

The claimants will likely argue that the Yom Hashoah ceremony, held under the auspices of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, is a secular event and is not bound by the religious doctrine of the United Orthodox Synagogues or any other religious movement.

This group is led by a Cape Town-based brother and sister and SACRED, a Progressive-affiliated interfaith group, who insist women should not be barred from singing and discriminated against on the basis of gender.

The SA Jewish Board, the defendants, will argue that it is a halachic principle that men should not hear an unaccompanied woman singing, and if women did sing, it would preclude the attendance of the Orthodox rabbinic leadership and their followers. 

They will contend that they are upholding this principle at this event in the spirit of inclusiveness, and that it is the Board’s role to ensure harmony and to respect everyone’s rights - rights to dignity, freedom of association, religious freedom and freedom of choice. 

The outcome will be interesting as there is no real precedent for this. It seems like the courts will have to decide on whether the Board is discriminating against women, but in the process will be ruling on whether this is a religious issue exempt from civil law. 

The second and more recent issue to come to the fore is that of a Cape Town Jewish woman whose former husband refused her a get while he himself got remarried in a civil ceremony last Sunday. The woman is now effectively “chained” and may not remarry.

In Israel today, rabbinical courts have the power to sentence a husband to prison to compel him to grant his wife a get, but not here or anywhere else outside of Israel.

While the South African Beth Din have tried hard to pressurise the man, and are trying to be more aggressive about “naming and shaming” recalcitrant husbands in general (this is not the first case nor will it be the last), they have no civil legal recourse to compel him. 

Section 5A of the South African Divorce Act, 1979, provides that the court may refuse a divorce decree if one spouse does not take steps necessary to dissolve the marriage in accordance with religious custom, the provision which was added in 1996, apparently does not make it obligatory. And in this case the couple got a civil divorce before the woman attempted to obtain her get anyway.  

The two cases have obvious similarities around women’s rights under Jewish law. But while the first legal battle involves civil law in that it is a secular ceremony to be adjudicated by a civil court, in the case of the get, the woman is unfortunately subject to Jewish law which has far less in hand to force the husband to acquiesce.

And then there is one more conflict taking place deep in the heart of Jewish Cape Town that is making headlines: the development of the valuable Tafelberg school site on Main Road, Sea Point. 

After a couple of South Africa’s major Jewish philanthropists donated R135 million to buy the site for the Phyllis Jowell Jewish Day School that is currently housed on the grounds of the Camps Bay Shul, a group of supporters of affordable housing approached the High Court for an interdict to stop the transfer of the property in April. 

The sale has now been delayed on the grounds that it was not advertised in Xhosa as well. It has to be re-advertised and public sentiment has to be taken into account before a final transfer can occur.

Last week Samuel Seeff and Lance Katz, chairman and vice-chairman of the Jewish community’s Western Province Priorities Board, sent a community-wide notice asking people to sign a petition in support of the sale. 

Seeff and Katz believe that although access to affordable housing in the city is critical, the high land value and the heritage aspects of the site (meaning the building cannot just be torn down to make apartments), make it less than ideal for affordable housing.

But this battle just got more complicated after David Polovin, deputy chairman of the area’s ratepayers association, was accused of racism at the end of last week by a group called Reclaim the City, as well as activist Zackie Achmat, for publicly expressing that the land was not best suited to affordable housing. 

One can only imagine that the City of Cape Town would prefer to earn the R135 million from Jewish community donors rather than use their own budget to build low cost housing. 

There will be some exciting developments ahead for Cape Town Jewry…We will be closely watching…you should too. 




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