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Orthodoxy & Limmud at a stand-off

Community needs to find a way to allow anyone who wants to attend Limmud without pressure or risk to their positions, and that will not push anyone to go to Limmud if they do not want to.

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GEOFF SIFRIN, EDITOR

Orthodoxy and Limmud – an unhealthy stand-off

A storm among UK Jewry involving secular and religious leaders, about the relationship between Orthodox Jewry and Limmud, has echoes in Jewish communities worldwide, including South Africa’s.

Limmud started in England in 1978. After 35 years, the annual conferences have proliferated to 60 countries, become an educational platform in numerous languages, and include everything from Talmud study, technology, Jewish history, art, music, mysticism and other topics.

It is an excellent opportunity for diverse Jews to mingle and get to know each other. Thousands of participants of various ages and religious backgrounds attend.

The Orthodox establishment has generally refrained from formally accepting Limmud’s “legitimacy” as a platform for Jewish teaching. The first Limmud in South Africa was in 2007.

In 2008, the Southern African Rabbinical Association discouraged members from participating, referring in a resolution to its “existing policy toward the upcoming Limmud learning programme, which is that no (Orthodox) rabbi will accept an invitation to participate” and stating that rabbis in a position to dissuade people from attending, would do so.

Since then an uneasy truce has operated, without public denunciations. Initially, Orthodox Jews were not evident at Limmud, but an increasing number of kippa-wearing Orthodox Jews now attend.

International Orthodox rabbis like Nathan Luis Cardozo and Shmuely Boteach have participated. South African Orthodox rabbis, however, have held back.

The international scenario changed dramatically a few weeks ago when the UK’s new chief rabbi, South African-born Ephraim Mirvis, announced he would attend the next UK Limmud, scheduled for December.

He told the London Jewish Chronicle: “One of my primary functions is as teacher of the community. I see Limmud as an opportunity to teach Torah to large numbers of people who want to learn.”

Then last week seven strictly Orthodox rabbis, among them former head of the London Beth Din, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, published a letter in a haredi newspaper, saying “any Jew whose heart has been touched by the fear of G-d and who wishes to walk upon paths which will be viewed favourably” must not attend Limmud.

The gathering has non-Orthodox rabbis teaching Torah, leading them to say: “Participating in their conferences, events and educational endeavours, blurs the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism and would bring about tragic consequences for Anglo-Jewry.”

The next salvo came quickly, when 30 senior community leaders, politicians and philanthropists, in an open letter, reproached the seven rabbis for a “shocking failure of leadership”. It was backed by Board of Deputies President Vivian Wineman, Jewish Leadership Council Chairman Mick Davis (a former South African) and senior US figures.

The Chief Rabbi’s presence at Limmud, they said, “should be welcomed and not be the subject of misplaced and disrespectful criticism”, and the seven rabbis’ assertion that participants will not be viewed favourably by G-d, has the power to “cause great harm to our community and appears to be rooted in tactical power play, as opposed to religious principle”.

Among South African Jewry, the issue sits like the proverbial “elephant in the room”. Limmud SA consolidates itself year by year, with participants including a wide variety of Jews. It is unhealthy for this community that the matter remains in a stand-off, causing unhappiness among significant sectors.

The community’s lay leadership is generally enthusiastic about Limmud and have expressed this publicly, including the SAJBD and other organisations. Many senior leaders have attended Limmud.

South African Jewry has a history of tolerance and accommodation between its various sectors going back many years. The stunning success of recent projects emanating from the Orthodox establishment, such as Sinai Indaba and The Shabbos Project, open more opportunities to follow this line.

The community needs to find a solution which will allow anyone to attend Limmud if they wish, without pressure or risk to their positions, and that will not push anyone to go to Limmud if they do not want to.

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Young and old on record-breaking aliyah flight

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Families, yeshiva bochurs (students), lone soldiers, and a nonagenarian will be among the 87 new arrivals at Ben Gurion in Israel this week in the largest group of South African olim on one flight since 1994.

“I feel incredibly proud to be a part of this record-breaking aliyah flight. It’s comforting to make aliyah surrounded by so many South African olim who have different expectations and aspirations, but who all share the dream of beginning a new life in Israel,” Eliana Lewus told the SA Jewish Report ahead of the flight on Tuesday, 27 July.

When Jared Glass was three years old, he almost drowned. Thirty-six years later, he will be among this group of new olim. “I feel like I’m being dragged out of the deep and taken to safety again,” says Glass from Johannesburg.

Aliyah is also for the young-at-heart, as Dr Hymie Ehrlich proves. At 91, he’s ready for more adventure (he celebrated his 90th birthday by hang-gliding in his home city of Cape Town). He will join his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. His daughter and son-in-law were among the last to land in Israel in January 2021, when the Israeli government closed the airport due to COVID-19.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report, Ehrlich says, “Everything in life is a step, and this is another step onwards.” He’s sad to be leaving a “beautiful community. I wish everyone b’hatzlacha [good luck] and lehitraot [until we meet again]. See you in Israel!”

His son-in-law, Philip Stodel, says that when planning his own aliyah, “we asked him whether he would consider coming with us, but he was happy to stay. But following the onset of COVID-19, Hymie, who was still active as a medical doctor, was advised to stop working. He also found himself alone at his Shabbat table every week. He started his aliyah process in October 2020. At 91, Hymie’s mind is sharp, but he lacks technical skills. I’ve always been his ‘IT support system’, so I continued to do this remotely [to help him make aliyah].

“One of his biggest tasks was clearing his apartment of just about everything. We know this was very emotional at times. I feel like I’ve done aliyah twice, and I can honestly say that it was far easier the first time! As I sit here on a Friday afternoon, approaching what will be Hymie’s last Shabbat in South Africa, my immediate concern is for the last-minute pressure that I know await us. I will heave a huge sigh of relief once he is on the plane, and a bigger sigh when we see him on Wednesday!”

“The significance of Israel, aliyah, and a home for the Jewish people remains as relevant today as ever,” says recently-appointed Telfed (South African Zionist Federation in Israel) Chairperson Robby Hilkowitz.

“Telfed plays a vital role in facilitating the absorption of new olim,” says Telfed Chief Executive Dorron Kline. “Our role is to help new olim prepare for life in Israel. Our services centre on this and include guidance in dealing with the first bureaucratic steps; employment counselling; an in-house social worker; rental apartments in Tel Aviv/Ra’anana [depending on availability] at below-market rates; and a volunteer-based scholarship programme. Our regional volunteers welcome new olim to their communities, and are an important source of information for those considering aliyah as they decide where to settle.”

Hilkowitz says all new olim are required to go into quarantine. “For the first time, we will invite new olim to join our daily virtual Tea at Ten with Telfed, which details the important steps for the early stages of their aliyah journey. These webinars don’t just provide practical guidance, they make sure our new arrivals feel connected. We see the positive influence that a strong, connected community plays in a successful absorption. Our ultimate objective is for olim to integrate fully, to contribute to the country, but not forget their roots because being a part of a connected and dynamic community is empowering.”

They will also provide virtual activities for children and welcome packs. And, olim are invited to participate in a virtual musical Kabbalat Shabbat.

Liat Amar Arran, the director of Israel Centre South Africa, says many of the olim are making aliyah ahead of the new school year in Israel. “Like all flights during the pandemic, there have been challenges. For example, we needed to get agreement from Israel that there is enough space in its quarantine hotels to accommodate them. There has been a lot of work in the past two weeks, and our team has worked around the clock. Olim have to fill in many forms just before they leave.” Even with all of this extra administration related to COVID-19, she’s excited that the flight is able to go ahead.

Meanwhile, Lewus, who is 20 years old, is making aliyah from Johannesburg by herself. “I will be doing a year of national service in Israel [as an alternative to the army] before starting to study,” she says.

While it may seem like this group of olim are fleeing the current civil unrest, making aliyah takes time, and they started the process some time ago. “My aliyah process was gradual. I began the process about nine months ago,” Lewus says.

She is motivated by “pull factor” rather than “push factor”. “When I was in Israel on the Ohrsom gap year, I fell in love with the people, landscape, and feeling of unity. I knew I wanted to go back,” says Lewus. “I wanted to be a part of it, to be able to contribute.

“The recent unrest hasn’t influenced my feelings about aliyah,” she says. “I’m under no illusion that the perfect country exists. However, I do hope for a better future for South Africa. I feel so grateful and privileged to have been brought up as a South African Jew. Our community, culture, and upbringing are unique, and have paved the way for me to embark on my journey. I feel supported by family and friends in my decision to make aliyah, and my biggest hope is that they will be able to visit me soon.”

Tammy Wainer is 34, and making aliyah from Johannesburg with family. “The aliyah department has worked really hard to get everyone on this flight,” she says. “As much as I love South Africa and the comfortable life it offers, as a strong Zionist, my soul has always been drawn to Israel and the better life it can offer me socially and economically.”

Sandra (Sandi) Shapiro says “growing up in a very Zionistic home” is one reason she’s making aliyah. “My late father, Jack Shapiro, was the director of the Selwyn Segal home for 35 years. Although he never made aliyah, it was always his dream,” she says.

Their family is slowly starting to make that dream come true. “My son made aliyah in February, and had the privilege of being part of a historic flight with 300 Ethiopian Jews,” Shapiro says.

She’s motivated by push and pull factors. “I have been to Israel many times, and it has always been a lifelong dream to make it my ‘forever home’. After a horrible experience in October last year, I decided that the timing was right, and started my aliyah process. There were quite a few challenges with our government services, and it took a few months to get all my documentation together. The war in Israel also delayed the process – frustrating but understandable.

“If one is deciding to make aliyah, my advice is to have lots of patience and trust the process,” she says. “Eventually, at the end of June this year, I got approval. It was one of the happiest days of my life. Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks – I was finally going home. I’m filled with pride and so humbled to be a part of another historic flight. Being a part of such a large group is breathtaking. It’s absolutely amazing that so many of us are returning home.”

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World

Ben & Jerry’s chair denies antisemitism amidst froth over boycott

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One week after Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would stop selling ice cream in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory”, the company’s board chairperson for the first time publicly rejected the suggestion that the move was antisemitic.

And the brand’s parent company, Unilever, disavowed the movement to boycott Israel. The disavowal comes as Unilever faces the prospect of being penalised financially in states that have anti-boycott laws.

Those are two of the developments to emerge in the continuing fallout from the Ben & Jerry’s boycott of Israeli settlements. Here’s a rundown of what has happened over the past day or two:

On Tuesday, 27 July, Anuradha Mittal, the chairperson of Ben & Jerry’s board of directors, tweeted her first comments on the boycott since it was announced last week. She stood by the decision, and denied being antisemitic following Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s statement that the boycott was a “shameful surrender to antisemitism”.

“I’m proud of @benandjerrys for taking a stance to end sale of its ice cream in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” she tweeted, using the same term for the West Bank that the announcement used. “This action isn’t antisemitic. I’m not antisemitic. The vile hate that has been thrown at me does [not] intimidate me. Pls work for peace – not hatred!” (Mittal didn’t detail the “vile hate” she has received, though critics of the decision have attacked her on social media.)

Mittal’s post came days after a report by NBC News that her board was unhappy with the text of the statement put out by Unilever announcing the boycott. Ben & Jerry’s would “stay in Israel through a different arrangement”, it said. That clause didn’t appear in the announcement drafted by the board.

Mittal hasn’t said that Ben & Jerry’s should withdraw from Israel entirely, and the board hasn’t voiced that position publicly. But on Twitter, Mittal has previously endorsed the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel known as BDS.

“The catastrophe continues #Nakba70 years later #palestine bleeds Boycott Divest Sanctions #israel,” she wrote in 2018.

On Tuesday, she also tweeted a statement of support from liberal Jewish groups and quoted a passage from the Unilever statement emphasising “a clear distinction between the state of Israel and the Palestinian territories it militarily occupies”.

Unilever is also stressing that the settlement boycott isn’t the same as BDS. The company’s statement, made in nearly identical letters sent to Jewish organisations on Tuesday, comes as a handful of states are considering divesting funds from Unilever under laws that ban the states from doing business with companies that boycott Israel.

The letters say Unilever is committed to doing business with Israel, where it employs 2 000 people and has invested nearly $296 million (R4.3 billion) in the country’s market.

“We look forward to investing in our business in Israel long into the future,” say the letters, which were sent to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, both of which had criticised Ben & Jerry’s West Bank pull out. “We have never expressed any support for the BDS movement, and have no intention of changing that position.”

Both the ADL and Presidents Conference said they appreciated the letter, but reiterated their previous criticism. The latter said Unilever’s “response does not go nearly far enough” and encouraged the company to try to override the Ben & Jerry’s board decision, though an internal agreement between Unilever and the Ben & Jerry’s board appears to make that impossible. The umbrella group also praised the states that are looking into whether the boycott violates anti-BDS laws.

The Presidents Conference said it opposed the Ben & Jerry’s decision, “as boycotts of Israel are discriminatory”. While the announcement and letter make clear that the boycott applies only to the West Bank, which Israel controls but hasn’t annexed, Presidents Conference Chief Executive William Daroff told JTA that the boycott would force the closure of Ben & Jerry’s plant in Israel, and that the group feels an “obligation to speak out when Jewish-owned businesses are singled out”. Daroff said that Ben & Jerry’s had made a political decision that singled out Israelis and one “disputed” territory.”

The ADL also thanked Unilever for its statement against BDS, but said, “While ADL is a strong supporter of the two-state solution, we believe that it’s wrong for any company to single out Israel by refusing to sell its products to Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank.”

Ben & Jerry’s store in New York City opposed the boycott and plans to donate 10% of its profit to Israel.

A Jewish owner of a Ben & Jerry’s franchise on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has joined a group of local store owners protesting the West Bank boycott. On Monday, Joel Gasman posted on Facebook that, “We feel the recent actions by [Ben & Jerry’s] corporate office don’t reflect our personal views.”

Gasman, whose store is in a heavily Jewish neighbourhood, promised to donate 10% of its profit to “state of Israel educational causes”. He did not specify which ones.

“We’re saddened by the impact that this has had on our business and the Jewish community,” he wrote. “We are proud Jews, Americans, and active supporters of the New York Jewish community and state of Israel.”

Gasman told JTA in an email, “We have lost catering jobs for corporate offices, schools, and synagogues over the past week due to Ben & Jerry’s statement.”

Multiple supermarket owners in New York City have pledged to limit or stop the sale of Ben & Jerry’s in the wake of the announcement. The organisation that certifies Ben & Jerry’s as kosher, Kof-K, also said it was in communication with Israel and an umbrella group for the settlements “to determine the most effective way to respond”, but won’t be removing its certification from the ice cream – a move that some Israel advocates have sought – according to Yeshiva World News, an Orthodox publication.

Israel’s leaders, as well as the leaders of legacy American Jewish organisations, have come out fiercely against the boycott. On Tuesday, Axios reported that Israel has set up a task force to counter the Ben & Jerry’s boycott, and encouraged its diplomats to start a pressure campaign against the decision by fomenting protests in front of Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever offices.

At the same time, a growing chorus of progressive Jews in Israel and America is praising the boycott.

On Tuesday, a coalition of Israeli progressives took out a full-page ad in Ha’aretz, a left-leaning newspaper, to thank Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the Jewish founders of the eponymous ice cream company. The pair haven’t been involved in the company’s operations since 2000, and haven’t commented on the West Bank decision.

A range of Jewish and Arab public figures signed the advert. Some of the Jewish signatories are Zehava Galon, the former head of the left-wing Meretz party; Naomi Chazan, a former Meretz legislator and deputy Knesset speaker; Dana Olmert, the daughter of former centrist Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; Michael Sfard, a prominent Israeli human rights attorney; and Ohad Naharin, the famed Israeli choreographer.

“We are writing to let you know that in Israel there are also other opinions,” the advert says. “Thank you for your commitment to Palestinian human rights.”

The advert comes on the heels of a letter signed by seven left-wing American Jewish groups, including J Street, the New Israel Fund, and the liberal rabbinic organisation T’ruah urging governors not to penalise Ben & Jerry’s or Unilever for the settlement boycott.

“Using the full force and power of government to penalise those who exercise their rights in opposition to Israeli policy does nothing but generate further attention and sympathy for boycotts, and frames backing Israel as being in opposition to fundamental freedoms in the minds of many Americans,” the letter says. “That is a strategic disaster for those, like us, who are trying to maintain and grow a healthy US-Israel relationship.”

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Israel

SA seethes as Israel scores diplomatic coup in AU

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The South African government this week lashed out at the recent decision by the African Union (AU) to grant Israel observer status.

After nearly 20 years of persistent diplomatic efforts, Israel last week attained observer status at the AU. The development was welcomed by Israel, who has long held that the Jewish state has much to offer Africa.

However, predictably, it has been shunned by the government and local pro-Palestinian groups.

In a statement on 28 July, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), said it was “appalled” at the decision calling it “unjust” and “unwarranted”.

It said that in the context of the recent flare-up of violence in the Middle East, the decision was “inexplicable”, and accused the AU Commission of taking the decision unilaterally without consulting its members.

DIRCO said it would ask the chairperson of the commission to provide a briefing to all member states, which it hoped would be further discussed.

“South Africa firmly believes that as long as Israel isn’t willing to negotiate a peace plan without preconditions, it shouldn’t have observer status,” the statement said.

Earlier this week, the SA BDS coalition slammed the government for its silence on the matter, and for not immediately criticising the move like it has done in the past. The organisation urged the government, as well as other AU member states, to reject Israel’s claim to accreditation.

“We are extremely disappointed that our government didn’t immediately publicly reject the Israeli claim and announce that it would lodge an objection to the AU chair,” it said.

The SA BDS coalition accused Israel of “falsely claiming” that its assistance to African states in fields such as agriculture, technology, and economic development was philanthropic.

“In reality, this is simply opportunistic leverage,” it said, adding that Israel’s objective was to “muscle recipient states” to support it at the United Nations (UN) and other international fora.

One local pro-Palestinian media organisation tweeted “Remove the Zionist cancer from the AU”.

South Africa, along with several other African nations, has long opposed Israel’s desire to gain observer status at the 55-member continental organisation. While chairing the AU Commission from 2012 to 2017, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma strongly objected to Israel’s rapprochement with the organisation.

In November last year on the UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, DIRCO Deputy Minister Alvin Botes accused Israel of “vociferously” lobbying African states to support its bid, saying that it was “more important than ever” to ensure that this didn’t happen.

Said Botes, “There is a growing and justifiable sense that certain African and Arab nations no longer see the liberation of Palestine as a common objective.”

He said Israel, with the support of America, was driving a wedge between these nations. “If Israel continues to score political victories while facing little resistance, it could eventually dominate Africa,” Botes said.

Algeria on Sunday condemned the decision of the AU to grant Israel observer status.

Israel previously held observer status at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), but has long been thwarted in its attempts to get it back after the OAU was disbanded in 2002 and replaced by the AU.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prioritised Israel’s relations with Africa during the latter half of his 12 years in office, including with several Muslim-majority countries on the continent.

Besides seeking new markets for Israeli expertise in fields like agriculture, high-tech, and security, Netanyahu was keen to improve African nations’ voting record on Israel-related matters in international fora such as the UN Security Council.

Aleligne Admasu, the Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, Burundi, and Chad, on 22 July presented his credentials to Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairperson of the AU Commission, at the bloc’s headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid hailed it as a “day of celebration for Israel-Africa relations”, noting that Israel currently has relations with 46 African countries.

The move will enable stronger co-operation between the two parties on various aspects, including the fight against coronavirus and the prevention “of the spread of extremist terrorism” on the African continent, the statement said.

In a separate statement, Faki Mahamat stressed the AU’s position over the longstanding Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reiterating the bloc’s stance that a two-state solution was “necessary for peaceful co-existence”.

Steven Gruzd, the head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs said it was a pragmatic decision by the AU rather than an ideological one, as “Israel has a lot to offer Africa”.

“South Africa will feel a little out-manoeuvred on this one, given that during Dlamini-Zuma’s tenure as AU commissioner, the proposal was blocked presumably by Arab states in the North of Africa as well as countries like South Africa.

“This seems to be a diplomatic coup for the Israelis. It has been quite a long time coming, and even though symbolic in many ways, it’s an entry into a forum where their interests are being discussed, and it will provide a platform for a deeper engagement with the continent.”

Since 2016, Netanyahu has been to Africa five times, displaying Israel’s keen interest in growing relations with African states, Gruzd said.

“Also, as part of the Abraham Accords process, we’ve seen normalisation with Morocco and Sudan, both Muslim-majority states. So, Israel’s forays into Africa is paying dividends, and I think it will be very pleased about this. South Africa is a strong supporter of the Palestinians, and I guess will see this as a defeat, but it’s not like pressure on Israel is going to be reduced by South Africa.”

Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF), welcomed the development, saying it was hopeful that AU members would work more closely with Israel on issues such as fighting the coronavirus, improving regional security, and implementing water, agricultural, and healthcare technology solutions.

“We are also further encouraged that the AU status may assist other African countries to do the same,” Polovin said.

“The SAZF believes that greater intercontinental co-operation with Israel is a sign that the South African government should follow suit in building and improving its relations with Israel. Furthering the partnership with Israel would bring increased positive benefits and impacts for all South Africans, and would help address the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality.”

Israel re-established relations with Guinea in 2016 and Chad in 2019. In October 2020, Israel also signed a normalisation agreement with Sudan.

In July 2016, Netanyahu became the first Israeli premier in decades to travel to the continent when he visited Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. There has been ongoing collaboration and engagement ever since with a number of African countries.

Meanwhile, the first direct commercial flights between Israel and Morocco landed in Marrakesh on Sunday, 25 July, more than seven months after the countries normalised diplomatic relations in a United States-brokered deal. This is another example of Israel and Africa moving closer together.

Passengers from Tel Aviv arrived on an Israir flight early on Sunday afternoon, and were met with dates, cakes, and mint tea at a welcoming ceremony organised in their honour. A second flight, by Israeli national carrier El Al, landed in Marrakesh later in the day. Both airlines are planning several flights per week to Marrakesh and Casablanca.

Morocco was one of four regional states to agree to normalise ties with Israel last year, along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan.

The normalisation deals between Arab states and Israel have been deemed a “betrayal” by the Palestinians, who believe the process should follow resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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