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SA community still world envied

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We all know that South Africans face challenges. Yet, South African Jewry remains extraordinarily vibrant and resilient. It’s often viewed with admiration and a tinge of envy by global Jewry. A few surprising facts, many of which come from a survey jointly conducted in 2019 by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town and the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in the United Kingdom (UK), highlight the uniqueness of this community.

South Africa has among the highest proportion of Jewish children in Jewish schools than any other diaspora community. It’s estimated that close to 80% of Jewish children attend Jewish schools. This ensures that Jewish knowledge, tradition, and connection to Israel are conveyed to subsequent generations. It also acts as a natural antidote to intermarriage, which stands at just less than 20% compared to levels in excess of 50% in the United States and in much of Europe.

About 90% of South African Jews have a strong or at least a moderate attachment to Israel. The Zionist youth movements are very active, with about 50% of South Africans having attended an end-of-year camp. There’s also a high level of involvement in Israeli commemorative events such as Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Hazikaron. Though I don’t have the statistics for other diaspora communities, I would believe that this is uncommon.

South African Jews, regardless of their levels of religious observance, are extremely tolerant of one another. It’s a remarkably united community. Though the vast majority of community members belong to Orthodox shuls – albeit not all practicing – there’s a co-operative relationship between Orthodox and Progressive Jewry. In fact, the umbrella body of South African Jewry, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), has representatives of all streams of Jewry and constructively deals with matters of common interest. Moreover, there’s unity between the more religious communities irrespective of ideological differences.

Notwithstanding the government’s well-known anti-Israel stance, South Africa boasts one of the lowest levels of antisemitism in the diaspora. The average number of annual antisemitic incidents over the past decade has been about 60, and these have rarely been physical in nature or acts of vandalism. This is dramatically lower than other diaspora communities such as France and Australia – about 500 each – and Canada and the UK – about 2 000 each. There are many factors contributing to this, including a society which shuns discrimination; the SAJBD, which deals head on with every antisemitic incident that occurs; and South Africa’s Constitution, considered to be the world’s most ground breaking and progressive and which was relied on recently to convict a leading member of the country’s largest trade union of antisemitic hate speech. To date, we have bucked the global trend of ballooning antisemitism.

South Africa has an exceptionally effective kashrut system. For all intents and purposes, there’s only one kosher standard. The ubiquitous South African Beth Din kosher sign is found on a vast, and continually increasing, range of products. Likewise, kosher establishments are prolific. South Africa has always been a drawcard for international tourists looking for a combination safari, mountain, and sea holiday. Travel to South Africa for international observant Jews is now more popular than ever due to the ease of accessing kosher food and religious facilities. The relatively weak rand has no doubt contributed to this trend.

South Africa’s primary Jewish welfare organisation, the Chevrah Kadisha, is in a league of its own. The Chev ensures that every single Jew in South Africa is cared for. It runs facilities for the elderly and the disabled; provides financial support to those in need; provides counselling services; assists in funding education; runs a facility for children in need; and much more. The Chev lives by its motto: “No Jew will be left behind” and raises hundreds of millions of rands to support its activities. Its work is supported by numerous other welfare organisations.

For observant Jews, South Africa offers a unique setting. There are multiple schools and synagogues – including a few new ones in the process of being built – catering for all religious streams. Through the efforts of the SAJBD, alternative arrangements are made for religious university students to write exams that have been set on Shabbat or Jewish festivals. Contrary to global trends, universities are safe spaces for Jews to express their views on all matters. South Africa is also regarded as having initiated one of the most successful ba’al teshuva (return to religious observance) movements.

At a global Hatzolah conference held in South Africa this year, South Africa’s Hatzolah was recognised as the world’s leading Hatzolah organisation due to its professionalism, infrastructure, people, innovation, and equipment. Most South Africans have observed firsthand how multiple ambulances and responders with sophisticated equipment converge within minutes of a medical emergency. South Africa also has a highly regarded private hospital network, which offers superb healthcare services by top medical specialists. As an aside, there are two organisations that provide funding to Jews unable to afford medical insurance to allow them to access the private healthcare system.

In spite of its relatively small size, our community has made and continues to make an outsized contribution to global Jewry. South African Jews have helped to create vibrant communities in many countries, including notably Australia and Canada. In relative terms, aliya from South Africa remains vibrant, with Israel being the primary emigration destination. And of course, one of our more recent exports is the global Shabbat Project, which was conceptualised and implemented by South Africa’s own visionary and dynamic Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein.

South Africa’s Jews have always made an exceptional contribution to the broader society. As is well known, they were disproportionately represented in the struggle against apartheid, and prominently involved in opposition politics and economic development. It remains gratifying that Jews continue to be at the forefront of many humanitarian outreach programmes in South Africa, but this warrants an article of its own.

Finally, I must mention that South African Jews are best known for their warmth. Perhaps it’s due to the community’s largely homogenous Lithuanian roots, the temperate, or the friendly character of South Africans generally. Whatever the cause, South African generosity and hospitality is world renowned.

Given the above, it comes as no surprise that though South African Jews who emigrate may benefit in many ways, they often struggle to replicate what they have left behind. It behoves those of us who have chosen to remain to reflect periodically on the many positive aspects of our situation.

  • Shaun Zagnoev is the national president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

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