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South Africa’s shuls close to stop spread of coronavirus




For the first time ever, South African Jews won’t be able to go to shul, effectively putting a hold on regular minyanim, shiurim (study sessions), and shul events.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report after the announcement, Goldstein described the decision as “heart-breaking”.

“The process has taken all day, and the decision is the result of multiple consultations,” he says. “We followed a very thorough process which involved medical consultations and extensive discussions with the dayanim (judges) of the Beth Din and other senior rabbis.”

In addition to all the telephonic consultations, Goldstein also conducted a conference call on Wednesday with more than 45 rabbis in South Africa in which he explained the process and reasoning behind the decision.

“Since the call, I’ve had many messages from them supporting the decision,” he says. “This was a unanimous decision taken across all the rabbinic structures.”

He stresses that a decision like this is driven by the Torah value of protecting human life. “This is a temporary measure, and we look forward to seeing things return to normal.

“It’s an important time for people to take personal responsibility, to perform more mitzvot (good deeds), and to daven at home. Just because no services are being held doesn’t mean we don’t pray. Now, more than ever, we need to pray, learn Torah, and perform acts of kindness.”

The decision was announced in a statement issued jointly by Goldstein, the Johannesburg Beth Din, the South African Rabbinical Association, and the Rabbinical Association of the Western Cape.

According to the statement, the decision to close shuls was made after extensive consultation with many parties including Netcare Chief Executive Dr Richard Friedland; virologist Professor Barry Schoub, and world halachic authority Rabbi Osher Weiss.

“Their expert […] advice is that in order to prevent further spread of the disease, our shul services should not continue at this point in time,” reads the statement. “It’s with a heavy heart that we recommend that people daven at home, on their own, without a minyan, and that shul services no longer take place at this stage.”

The chief rabbi says that many rabbis are investigating setting up online shiurim using video conferencing platforms, stressing that we all need to involve ourselves in novel approaches like this. “This is the time to pull together in unity in the knowledge that we can emerge even stronger.”

Rabbi Yossy Goldman of Sydenham Shul says, “This has never happened in my lifetime. We are in uncharted waters. There have been times when we haven’t been able to daven together because of anti-Semitism and hate, now it’s because of love.”

He and other rabbis across South Africa are to meet their leadership committees in the next 24 hours to decide the way forward. This will include providing support in all spheres.

“Thank G-d there is much Jewish inspiration and teaching available online which we can share, and we have our own talented rabbis to do the same,” says Goldman.

Rabbi Hazdan of Great Park Shul says that shiurim will continue using the online conferencing platform Zoom, and the shul hopes to offer even more shiurim than before now that people have more time on their hands. “We want to make something negative into something positive, and to enrich the community with the possibility of davening in their own homes.”

Chabad Greenstone’s Rabbi Pini Pink says that closing shuls is devastating, but it will continue to support congregants by having a roster of volunteers to assist with shopping and errands for anyone in quarantine or who is vulnerable and elderly. Community members will be able to arrange individual times to collect siddurim (prayer books), chumashim (printed Torah books) or tallises that they can borrow from the shul.

Rabbi Adrian Schnell of Bet David Progressive Shul in Sandton says the shul will run services and study sessions online, offering links and additional sources on its website.

Cape Town Hebrew Congregation’s (Gardens shul’s) Rabbi Osher Feldman says, “We have launched a Gardens ‘CoronaCare programme’ with three pillars – spiritual, emotional, and practical.” The shul has rolled out WhatsApp groups for specific age groups to provide essential updates. Using Zoom, a pre-Shabbat online service will be held on Friday, and will include interactive kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming Shabbat) singing led by Choni G and a drosha (sermon) by the rabbi.

The Gardens shul’s fathers’ and sons’ Barmitzvah course, pre-Pesach learning programme, and regular shiurim will also be online on Zoom, and the shul will host online social events and guest speakers.

The Shul on the West Coast in Cape Town’s Rabbi Osher Deren says the shul will have regular morning davening and learning open to all on Zoom. There will be a WhatsApp chat room for the whole community, and social events on Zoom. “We aren’t closing down,” says Deren. “We are just moving from our current location into your living room.”

Meanwhile, the Small Jewish Communities Association’s and African Jewish Congress’ Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft will continue his work in far-flung communities, although he is travelling by car not by air. “All the country communities are aware of coronavirus,” he says. “We all know about the elbow greeting, and are being very careful.”

Goldstein will be involved in efforts to maintain the spirit and spirituality of South African Jewry.

“I want to be there for the community, and I’m going to be working on initiatives to give people access to learning, mitzvot, and inspiration,” he says. “All the rabbis in our community will be involved. We’ll be working closely to provide the community with the upliftment we need at such a time.

“This difficult and heart-breaking decision highlights how seriously we need to take the question of precautions to prevent the spread of disease. The shul is just one place of interaction. We interact in so many other areas, and we need to be vigilant wherever we are.

“We need to be strong and courageous, to deepen our faith, and lean on Hashem and each other.”

  • Chief Rabbi Goldstein has set up a community WhatsApp group to stay connected in real-time and offer guidance, inspiration, and support. To join the group, go to

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