Stand up for what you believe, says chief rabbi
Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein stood up to President Cyril Ramaphosa’s anti-Israel statement in the media, and on 28 May, asked for Muslim leadership to join him in calling for tolerance and non-violence. The reaction was fierce.
1. What was your response to Ramaphosa’s newsletter about Israel two weeks ago?
The essence of my letter to the president was to present the facts, both in terms of the most recent Gaza war and then in the context of the wider historical frame of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, emphatically rejecting the apartheid accusation against Israel which is utterly without foundation in reality.
2. What was it that inspired you to respond to him in the Sunday Times?
I believe passionately in the power of facts and the truth. The justice of the cause of Israel is served and strengthened by sharing the facts of the situation. I have shared my views with the president in private meetings. But I felt it was necessary to air these points in the public domain so the rest of the country could benefit because there is so much misunderstanding, confusion, and even outright ignorance of the basic facts.
3. What response did you get from the community and others?
I received many warm messages from so many people – inside and outside the community – who appreciated that the other side of the story was being told openly and proudly on the pages of a national newspaper.
4. How do you interpret South Africans’ reaction to the 11-day battle between Hamas in Gaza and Israel?
You must distinguish between the response of the ruling party and that of the country as a whole, which is much more positive. The African National Congress has taken a one-sided view of the conflict, but in my experience, the majority of South Africans are tremendously sympathetic and supportive of Israel.
5. Do you believe there has been a fair, unbiased response in mainstream media?
The problem of media bias is a global one. It comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of who the aggressor is and who the victim is. At the heart of much of the suffering in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the militant theology of Hamas, which openly seeks the genocide of all Jews in Israel and the total eradication of the Jewish state. It’s a theology that preaches the targeting of Israeli civilians and the use of its own people as human shields. I don’t think this is understood properly. I firmly believe peace is attainable. As I mentioned in my letter to the president, if the issue was land and the establishment of a Palestinian state, it would have happened long ago. There have been multiple opportunities which have been rejected time and again by the Palestinian leadership. The suffering of the Palestinian people is a result of its militant theological leadership. It’s a heart-breaking human tragedy.
6. Last Friday, you called on Muslim leaders to join you in calling for tolerance, for people not to threaten or harm each other verbally or physically over the conflict in the Middle East. Why did you do this?
It’s so disturbing to see Jews around the world attacked and living in fear as they enter shuls and schools. I contacted South African Muslim leaders because I believe that all South Africans, including Jewish and Muslim communities, should live without fear of threats of violence or intimidation. Because of the emotions of this conflict – which run higher than anything else I’ve seen – it’s vital for leaders to come forward – especially religious leaders – to preach peace.
7. What was the initial reaction when you contacted the Muslim leaders?
I phoned the senior leadership of the two main Muslim organisations, the Muslim Judicial Council and the Jamiatul Ulama South Africa, and asked them to issue a joint statement with me calling on our communities to respect differences with regards to these issues. Both organisations declined.
8. What was their reaction after you put out the statement?
The Muslim Judicial Council publicly rejected my call for a joint statement on unity and tolerance.
9. How did you feel about this?
I’m disappointed because religious leaders need to be a force for peace and tolerance in the world. I’ve had a longstanding relationship with some of the most senior Muslim leaders here, and we have worked well together with the National Religious Leaders Council. Their rejection of my overtures is a real pity. They’re letting down their own community and the country.
10. Ronnie Kasrils was extremely derogatory in his opinion piece in the Sunday Times this week. What’s your reaction to that?
Kasrils’ response is the perfect example of how so much of the anti-Israel lobby conducts itself – by delegitimising and denigrating their opponents instead of rationally debating the issues and analysing the facts. I will continue to fight for the facts to be heard in a rational and respectful way.
11. Why do you think a man like Kasrils, who has Jewish roots, would do such a thing?
The real question is not how Kasrils interacts with me personally. The real question, which only he can answer, is why he has such hatred for Israel. The irrationality of his hatred for the Jewish state comes through in everything that he does and says.
12. Are you planning to react to what was said? If so, how?
I don’t believe in mudslinging; rather, I speak to the issues. I’m not interested in responding to personal attacks. The facts speak for themselves. And I’ve laid out the facts very carefully in my letter to the president.
13. Following the past few distressing weeks, how do we move forward as a community?
The most important thing to realise as a South African Jewish community is that this is a global problem, felt by Jewish communities throughout the world. There’s been a dramatic rise in antisemitic incidents everywhere. It’s clear evidence of the deep connection between the global movement to delegitimise and destroy Israel with a virulent antisemitism that has emerged under the guise of anti-Zionism. Criticism of the state of Israel per se can, of course, be made in good faith. But when that criticism becomes a distortion of truth to demonise Israel, it becomes a dangerous form of antisemitism.
One aspect of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s) definition of antisemitism is to accuse the state of Israel of being founded on racism. The apartheid accusation, ironically, is a form of antisemitism. Isn’t it tragic that the hatred of the anti-Israel lobby is so intense that it’s using the sacred memory of the victims of racism to perpetrate another form of bigotry.
14. What message do you have for the community now?
We must live with pride and dignity in South Africa. We live in an open and free democracy, and we must be proud of our support for the state of Israel. We have to be ready with the facts. We have no one and nothing to fear. We can stand up to this pressure, and we do so as free, independent citizens of this country. We can be proud Jews, proud of our Zionism, not only because our hearts and souls are connected to Israel through our Torah, but also because of the facts which support the justice of the cause of the state of Israel. So, let’s go forward with strength and confidence.
Communal organisations help make Rosh Hashanah special
With Rosh Hashanah upon us, communal organisations are hard-pressed to make sure that every community member is looked after, but the number of people needing help has spiked since the onset of the pandemic.
The Chevrah Kadisha – which looks after the lion’s share of those in need – has recorded a 35% increase in the amount of financial assistance that it gives families towards living costs. In the Western Cape, Jewish Community Services Cape Town (JCS) recipients have increased more than 100%.
The Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society (JWBS) has also noticed an increase in the number of people in need over the past few years. “With COVID-19, it’s especially hard,” said Maureen Disler, the co-chairperson of the organisation which has survived for more than 127 years. “People have lost their jobs, and some people ask for food vouchers. They haven’t got enough to feed their children.”
The Chevrah Kadisha gives special yom tov meals to the 850 elderly and physically or mentally challenged people living in its residential facilities. However, its wider reach extends to nearly 11 000 people, helping them with living costs, food, healthcare, education, accommodation, and social services throughout the year.
“The Chev is unique in the sheer volume of people it helps, the duration of time that it helps them for, and the diverse range of its activities from cradle to grave,” said Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the largest Jewish welfare organisation on the African continent.
The organisation distributes R5 million every month to families in the community, totalling R60 million for the year. This is a significant increase from pre-COVID-19 times. It’s also involved in education, with nearly R1 million a month going towards 279 children in Jewish schools and remedial schools, as well as 130 university students who are being educated through the Chev’s interest-free student-loan programme.
“Particularly now leading up to Rosh Hashanah, a lot of assistance is being distributed through our COVID-19 emergency release fund,” Tomson said.
Smaller organisations like Yad Aharon & Michael have also been inundated with new requests over the past two years.
“Whereas the number of families who receive weekly food parcels from us stands at about 700, families who aren’t in a position to provide festive meals for Rosh Hashanah through to Sukkot apply for food parcels, which we gladly provide, thereby increasing the number of parcels packed by anything between 20 to 30 plentiful yom tov hampers,” said Alice Friedman, the chief executive of the organisation founded more than 23 years ago.
Ingrid Koor, the chairperson of the Union of Jewish Women (UJW), which assists just more than 100 people over Rosh Hashanah, said, “There are many more people in need as many families have emigrated, leaving elderly people. The economic downturn and COVID-19 have made things more difficult. With, unfortunately, many more elderly passing, our numbers have remained the same for a few years.”
The UJW’s flagship project, Kosher Mobile Meals (KMM), will supply festive cooked kosher Rosh Hashanah meals, plus honey for a hopefully sweeter year. “We will also distribute yom tom joy parcels supplied by the HOD [Hebrew Order of David] consisting of treats and non-perishable food to recipients,” said Koor. “KMM distributes kosher cooked meals to those Jewish elderly over 75 who are unable to cook for themselves.”
For Rosh Hashanah, Yad Aharon & Michael is handing out double portions of seasonal fruit, apples and vegetables, supplemented by meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Its dry goods hampers include honey, grape juice, challahs, and honey cakes in addition to all the basic requirements needed to prepare yom tov meals and usher in a happy and sweet new year.
“I’m confident our families won’t need to shop for extra food for two days of yom tov,” said Friedman. “Our aim is to enable them to enjoy plentiful meals free from worry and anxiety. This is made possible by the community’s renowned generosity.”
JWBS is giving money to its recipients to sweeten their Rosh Hashanah. It also recently gave out activity packs. “People are lonely and isolated, so we’ve given them each an activity pack. They really look forward to it,” said Disler.
This Rosh Hashanah, the JCS’s hampers include round challot, ready-made vegetable soup, roast chicken, pumpkin pie, vegetables, salads, and strawberries.
“Of course, we add in the apples, honey, grape juice, and candles,” said Lauren Cohn, the chairperson of the JCS Tikvah Foodbank Committee. “In addition, we include a Tupperware container filled with teiglach, meringues, dried fruit, and Sparkles. Every food hamper has a special Rosh Hashanah card handmade by children in our local Jewish schools. These food hampers are well thought out, meticulously planned, and beautifully presented with the love, dignity, and respect that we all deserve.”
The JCS is raising funds through the Rosh Hashanah Appeal, which entails sending out e-cards on behalf of the Tikvah Foodbank’s donors. The organisation also relies on volunteers.
“Our Rosh Hashanah and Pesach [fundraising] campaigns are the biggest,” said Friedman. “We have a Rosh Hashanah campaign running at the moment. It’s widely posted on social media, advertised on street poles in suburbs known to be frequented by the Jewish community, and in the SA Jewish Report. We’re also selling beautiful yom tov gifts at various points in Joburg, which is a successful initiative.”
The JWBS phones people to ask for donations as COVID-19 restrictions prevent it from running traditional functions such as theatre shows and golf tournaments.
Since many of the UJW’s recipients don’t have family nearby or the funds to pay for their meals, KMM is run mostly on donations. “We launched a fundraising campaign on social media and via our databases to raise money,” said Koor. “We also phoned people to ask for donations.”
Although the UJW’s principal need is donations, it also needs volunteers to chat to its isolated elderly when it’s safer to do so. “KMM recipients are more isolated since COVID-19,” said Koor. “We used to host elderly people to a Wednesday lunch at our UJW house. These people are sorely missing the social interaction.”
Asked what advice she has for those wanting to help others on Rosh Hashanah, Friedman said, “Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the three elements which Hashem takes into account when finalising our verdict for the coming year. I’m fully cognisant that everybody is financially stretched, but helping those in our midst who cannot celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the chaggim without our assistance is a communal responsibility. Treating the needy with sensitivity, kindness, and empathy underpins Yad Aharon’s brand of chesed, and addressing the harsh reality of hunger and destitution in our midst forms an integral part of our mission.”
Hudaco-ORT helps disabled entrepreneurs
ORT South Africa hosted a ceremony on 12 August for 10 entrepreneurs who it assisted to obtained SETA qualifications to help them start their own businesses.
The potential and existing entrepreneurs were assisted by Hudaco-ORT to obtain National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level 2 new venture creation qualifications, assisting them to start and grow their business ventures.
Hudaco-ORT helps people with disabilities by facilitating their completion of the NQF level 2 qualifications, which equips them to capitalise on opportunities. The beneficiaries received their Sector Education Training Authority (SETA) certificates at the ceremony.
“We often unintentionally consume ourselves with what’s considered the norm rather than focusing on our own uniqueness,” Hudaco-ORT said. “People with disabilities are the epitome of uniqueness, forming a vital part of society and reminding us to value our own strengths and weaknesses.”
Said, beneficiary Mncedisi Bengu, “It was a surprise. I was fairly happy and shocked at the same time. I didn’t think I would be successful. My teacher, Sarah Malape, gave me an experience that I had never had in my life. She taught me to respect myself and other people, and to be myself.”
On receiving his certificate, he said, “I’m excited. At my home, they gonna [sic] be happy for me, and say, ‘Wow you did it.’”
Said another beneficiary, Sthembile Gumede, “I’m so happy, and my grandmother is happy for me. I wish I learnt more because I like books.”
ORT SA wishes all the beneficiaries of the Hudaco-ORT Project well in their future endeavours, and is grateful to Hudaco for partnering with it to make a difference in people’s lives.
Rabbi and craftsman perfect the art of charity
Two people from two different backgrounds – Rabbi David Masinter and artist Leonard Nyathi – have come together with the goals of teaching, educating, uplifting, and spreading the message about the need for charity around the globe.
Masinter, the rabbi of Chabad House in Johannesburg and the founder of the fundraiser Miracle Drive, was looking for a good craftsman who could also teach in the most destitute areas.
He came across Nyathi, a master craftsman whose business struggled before Miracle Drive recognised his talents and commissioned custom artworks.
Masinter told Nyathi, “Let’s identify the artists, bring them together, train them, and I will buy in a whole bunch.”
Encouraged, Nyathi started working with Masinter. “We worked as a team, an unusual team,” says Masinter. “The only thing we have in common is that we both like to teach.”
They started hiring and training underprivileged people. “We normally hire street kids and people with disabilities,” says Nyathi. “We also give training to people that don’t have an education. The rabbi and I decided to employ people so that they could make a living.”
Masinter says they found underprivileged artists in the most remote areas, and improved their skills. “When you find a skill within a person, you improve not only that skill but every other aspect as well,” he says.
Nyathi and the other artists are turning Jewish objects into what Masinter calls “African art”. All the artworks are handcrafted and hand painted – from ceramic mezuzah cases and ceramic dreidels to ceramic arks and a set of three ceramic grating plates (meat, parev, and dairy). It can all be purchased on the online Gallery of Goodness and Kindness, set up due to COVID-19. According to Masinter, they also “have a whole bunch” of non-Jewish products.
“The gallery online is only the beginning,” says Masinter. “We are building a proper gallery like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art – a proper beautiful online gallery to promote South African art, underprivileged and other artists, one that can bring a smile to people’s faces.”
Asked if they have a marketing and sales strategy, Masinter says, “A hundred percent. That’s why this thing is going global. We also doing displays in different shopping centres, and we are taking it overseas.”
Nyathi is thankful for Masinter’s help. Now, he and the other artists can afford to pay their rent and support their families. “If it wasn’t for Shabbat, we were going to close this business,” Nyathi says.
When people praise his artwork, Nyathi says he feels “over the moon” and “recognised” in his heart.
Asked where the funding comes from for the materials, Masinter says, “Where required, I will do the funding, but the idea is to make it self-sustainable. This thing is global. We have already got orders from overseas. We are changing our world for good. Everyone should be energised by this. We can do much more.”
Masinter believes every Jew is obligated to uplift the spiritual and material welfare not only of every Jew, but also non-Jews as well.
“Therefore, we cannot live as South Africans only focusing on Jewish things when we have a fortune of programmes, from kids programmes to teenage programmes, to senior-citizen feeding programmes. We have to worry about everybody. You can’t live in a country where millions of people are living in squalor and say, ‘It’s not our problem’. The way to [help] is through job creation, and this project is helping with that. We have 21 libraries in the city in underprivileged areas. We have the whole learning programme for primary school children. We have a job-creation programme, and now during COVID-19, we went into this programme, which is self-explanatory. A rabbi and an artist have come together to turn the world upside down for good, with one thing in common, a passion for art and education.”
Masinter’s charitable work is based on two philosophies, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” and “You don’t have to stay down, you can uplift everybody.”
Asked how long he has been doing his charitable work, he says, “I’m a Chabad rabbi. Every Chabad rabbi does charitable work. We don’t talk about the past. It’s about what we could be doing. You must energise people to copy what we are doing. We can’t sit here with millions of people living in squalor. We should all be asking what are we doing to assist welfare in this country, Jewish and non-Jewish.”• The Gallery of Goodness and Kindness can be found at: https://www.chabadsouthafrica.org/templates/articlecco