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Shembe bring blessings to Sydenham Shul

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Shabbos at Sydenham Shul took on a very different flavour on Friday, 15 March, when 250 senior members of the Shembe Nazareth Baptist Church and a delegation from the South African Friends of Israel (SAFI) joined the congregation.

The Shembe’s demonstration of support for the Jewish community of South Africa and Israel was an indicator that though the African National Congress (ANC) government continues its hostility towards Israel, this doesn’t reflect the view of all South Africans.

Nkosi Phakama Shembe, Gauteng leader of the Shembe Nazareth Baptist Church, and the priests of his congregation, attended a Friday night service and dinner hosted by SAFI and made their support known.

Simone Lipshitz, a visitor at the shul that night, said, “It was quite overwhelming to see the Shembe, in full garb, participating by clapping and singing along to the Sydenham Shul Choir. They also showed their enthusiasm and appreciation by dancing in the aisles.

“Kids and adults alike were on their feet, and our community made them feel at home and welcome. It certainly made a change from what we as Jews experience daily in the media and on social media, which is overwhelming negativity towards Jews and Israel.”

“Friday night was a testament to the fact that South Africa Jewry and our friends aren’t our government, and our government doesn’t speak for us,” Lipshitz said. “There was an incredible turnout by our community, which was there to show support to those who were making an effort to show up for the Jewish community in South Africa. I felt enormous pride in being Jewish that night.”

In his address at the Shabbat dinner afterwards, Shembe expressed solidarity with the Jewish community and affirmed the significance of supporting Israel for the betterment of all South Africans. He said many millions of South African citizens supported Israel, and discussed the connections between Sabbath observance in the Jewish and Nazareth Baptist traditions.

He said that when he visited Israel, “It was incredible to see that at 14:00 on a Friday, the buses and the trains stop operating. It was inspiring to see the Sabbath being practised in this way, so we wanted to come visit the Jewish community to be part of a Sabbath celebration here in South Africa.”

As a Christian, he believes being connected with Israel is a source of blessing for his community. “It’s not an accident that the ANC is having so many problems where we come from in KwaZulu-Natal,” he said. “It brought Israel to the ICJ [International Court of Justice] and now, all of a sudden, it has [Jacob] Zuma acting as a thorn in its side with his new party. It’s losing out on the blessings of Israel.”

The Shembe is a religious group which, according to Shembe, has more than nine million members in the country and two million in Gauteng. It forms part of African independent church formations that mix Christian observance with traditional Zulu rites.

Bafana Modise, the spokesperson for SAFI said, “This meeting shows that South Africans don’t all support the government’s stance on Hamas and its anti-Israel position. South Africans support Israel and peace, and by coming together at events like this, we can unite for a better future for our country.”

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein greeted the group and spoke of the importance of interfaith dialogue, solidarity, and mutual respect among different religious communities. Rabbi Yehuda Stern of the Sydenham Highlands North Hebrew Congregation addressed the congregation, touching on the importance of observing Shabbat and the significance of Israel in the Bible.

An education session was held with the Shembe delegation including an update about the current political situation, and a discussion with Daniel Yakcobi of the South African Israel Chamber of Commerce aout Israeli innovation in Africa. Messages of support were also received from Rowan Polovin, the national chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, who emphasised the importance of fostering positive relations between South Africa and Israel. Amichai Chikli, Israel’s minister of diaspora affairs, conveyed gratitude for the unwavering support extended by South African communities, emphasising the shared values that unite us.

SAFI Chairperson Shaun Zagnoev said, “South African Friends of Israel looks forward to continuing efforts to build bridges across communities, and the promotion of peace and understanding in South Africa and beyond.”

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