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Kol Isha dispute is settled in Johannesburg

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The threat by some Orthodox and other South African Jews and interfaith groups to take the SA Jewish Board of Deputies’ Gauteng Council to the Equality Court over kol isha, the halachic ban on women singing in front of men, has been amicably resolved for Yom Hashoah in Johannesburg, as was the case earlier this year in Cape Town.
by ANT KATZ | Nov 30, 2016

An interim decision was taken by the Gauteng Council last week Wednesday, Wendy Kahn, national director of the SAJBD told Jewish Report on Monday, “but consultations continued up until last night (Sunday).”

This means that the annual Remembrance Day for the six million Jews who fell victim to the Holocaust, Yom Hashoah, will now, in effect, be held in two parts in Johannesburg and Cape Town - while other centres, such as Durban and Pretoria “will consult and decide the best outcome for their region”, said Kahn.

While the question of the Board, a secular Jewish organisation, applying Orthodox policies at secular events, has been a thorn in the side of many South African Jews for years, the issue was only brought to the boil when Cape Town Orthodox Jew, Gilad Stern, together with his sister Sarah Goldstein and later joined by the interfaith group, the SA Centre for Religious Diversity (Sacred), instituted an Equality Court action.

After six months of wrangling, which included holding a community colloquium, and to avoid testing the courts to rule on whether Constitutional law trumps religious doctrine, the Cape Council of the Board eventually acquiesced to the demands and agreed to change the format of their annual service - for Cape Town only - to the satisfaction of all parties.

The decision was that the Cape Board would first hold a cultural memorial, which would include music and also make provision for women singing. This would be followed by an interval, after which rabbis and other ultra-observant Orthodox Jews would join in for a traditional memorial service.

Stern’s success in Cape Town included an agreement that the National Board would have its various regions meet their stakeholders and make decisions on a regional basis. However, after some months of seeming inaction, Stern and Co threated the Gauteng Council with a similar Johannesburg Equality Court case using the same arguments they had filed in Cape Town and using the same legal team.

Sunday’s agreement by the Gauteng Council, said Kahn, had been taken “with the aim of being inclusive”. In a media release on Monday, Kahn also said: “The SAJBD started a process of extensive consultations in an attempt to find solutions to what was becoming a difficult impasse.”

The Board, she said, had sought to bring about an “inclusive ceremony where all members of our community would feel welcome and comfortable, and that participation of women singing would not compromise those adhering to their religious practices”.

However, an Orthodox pundit who did not want to be named, told Jewish Report on Tuesday that while the rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox Jews are going to “take the view that halacha doesn’t change and doesn’t accommodate various streams. We (strict Orthodox Jewry) will have to fall in line with the Board’s decision.” Although the decision was billed by the Board as a joint decision, he said “it was discussed with religious groups, but by no means was the decision taken by consensus”.

The compromise means that everyone can attend the annual commemoration ceremony. “Over the past year, South African Jewry has grappled with (this) complicated issue,” says Kahn.

She explained that consultations had been held with representatives of the Orthodox and the Progressive community, women’s groups (UJW and WIZO), youth representatives (SAUJS) and the Holocaust Survivor Organisation.

The 2017 ceremony will be held on Sunday, April 23. 

Monica Solomon, national chairman of the SA Association for Progressive Judaism (SAUPJ), said: “We are thrilled that agreement has been reached… which will enable women to participate in the commemoration services.” This, she added, “represents recognition of the rights of women in South Africa’s Jewish community as a whole.”

Also speaking for the Progressive view, Sacred Chairman Rabbi Julia Margolis said: “Sacred is pleased to see that the ban on women singing at communal events hosted by the SAJBD appears, at last, to be ending.”

The interfaith group’s executive director, James Lomberg, said: “It is our fervent hope that young people, women and others who were alienated from the Holocaust Memorial due to the 11-year-long ban, will once again feel able to participate in a manner which reflects their values and the lessons of the Shoah.”

The original claimant Stern said on Monday: “I’m pleased that sanity seems to be prevailing, but we will watch to see how things play out in reality. Discrimination on the basis of gender is archaic and embarrassing.”


  1. 6 Ploni 30 Nov
    Stern says "I’m pleased that sanity seems to be prevailing."

    Insanity would be the better term.

    It's a great pity that the board caved in instead of finding a competent advocate to defend this in court.
  2. 5 Marc Lipshitz 30 Nov
    well. I guess myself and many other Orthodox Jews will no longer be attending the Yom Hashoah ceremonies.   I gues Stern thinks that discrimination based on religious observance is ok since he has pushed to make sure that Orthodox Jews have to accept being lesser than everyone else and not be able to attend the rest of the ceremony. 
  3. 4 Sholem 02 Dec
    1. A tragic day when a Jew takes a Jew to the goyishe courts.  Jews settle their machlokes in front of the Beis din.  But of course the anti-Jewish Jews couldn't do this... 

    2. A the current assimilation rate,  this problem will solve itself in a generation or so.  This is what the reform,  anti Jews don't realise,  they are a self solving problem. 
  4. 3 Clive 03 Dec
    I am so unbelievably glad that sanity has prevailed despite the protestations of Ploni et al.
    And no, the board did not 'cave' they came to an informed decision after taking into consideration all the circumstances and arguments put forth.
    If you or anyone else feels that they, in light of this decision, do not want to attend that particular ceremony ,  that is of course your right .
    Oh and belive it or not, the orthodox do have some amazingly competent advocates.
    Marc,  your comments regarding discrimination and saying that orthodox  Jews are ' lesser because  of this decision are asinine and you know it . 
  5. 2 DSB 03 Dec
    I am disappointed by the compromise reached, it should not have even been up for discussion. Orthodox Jews can listen to women singing in a mixed choir,  and I believe that the Yom Shoah commemoration will not feature a solo provocative appearance of a female singer. How sad to see Mr Gilad Stern, former Bnei Akiva shaliach and former Orthodox Jew, failed Oleh and bitter individual,  dip to such a low in an attempt to divide the community.
  6. 1 Stanley Friedman 04 Dec

    Posted on behalf of Stanley Friedman

    This singing issue is unbelievably small and petty and the height of hypocrisy and intolerance by the Orthodox. The Orthodox don't own the Holocaust, all kinds of Jews died, including women and children - including girls. That means nothing to the small-minded Orthodox who think they are Jewish peoples’ judge.

    It took months of talking to decide to have 2 services! That could have been decided in 10 minutes by sane sober serious Jews. Is this all that the SA Jewish community has to talk about - this utterly ridiculous trivial "argument" - and worry about?

    South Africa is in a bad state in very serious ways, rather think about the future of the Jewish community whose position is fragile, to say the least. What are you going to do when the bubble pops and the crunch comes?

    How will the "problem of Jewish women and girls singing" look like then.

    Utterly selfish and stupid and pathetic and pitiful and
    pathological and perfidious.

    Stanley Friedman is unable to use his hands. He reads and writes thanks to voice-activated software and this comment was emailed and has been posted on his behalf  -ED


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