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Staying in SA should about “staying for good”, say young Jews

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Young Jews need incentives to stay, succession planning, a stronger connection to South Africa, and acknowledgment of different identities if the community is to stem the tide of emigration. This was the message of a recent webinar titled, “Staying for good: South African Jews, migration and our civil commitments”, hosted by the Jewish Democratic Initiative (JDI).

The event took a deep dive into the motivation for migration and the factors that could accelerate or slow the tide. “We didn’t need a survey to tell us that the South African Jewish community has an emigration problem, but these numbers are certainly a wake-up call,” said one of the event’s speakers, Professor Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies. He was referring to the Kaplan Centre survey of the South African Jewish community that took place in 2019, which showed that 43% of those surveyed indicated they had considered leaving South Africa permanently in the previous 12 months.

“There are now more South African-born Jews born outside of South Africa than within South Africa,” noted Mendelsohn soberly. This means that even more South African Jews may join families and networks overseas. At the same time, the aging nature of the community may put a break on migration, as the older people are, the less likely they are to leave. But he believes that South African Jewry may soon dip below 50 000 people, a truly “psychologically significant milestone”.

Delving into the discoveries made by the Kaplan Centre’s survey, Mendelsohn highlighted increased levels of Jewish education over the past 20 years as a reason for Israel being the preferred destination for emigration for South African Jews, as opposed to Australia, the top choice 20 years ago. Also, with the South African Jewish community being an aged community, Israel is a destination that accepts older immigrants.

The survey reveals that a startling 51% of those surveyed would move to Israel if they left. Though the community will always see aliyah as a positive move, there is equal concern about shrinking numbers within South Africa. So, what can we do about it?

Two young people emphasised that it wasn’t all bad news. Community member Ashley Fischhoff says her Jewish identity is one of the reasons she chooses to stay. She is a South African research chairs initiative fellow of the University of the Western Cape through the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies.

“Being part of a youth movement was significant for me,” she says. “It made me challenge what it means to be a Jew in the diaspora. Our history of displacement and dispossession made me feel a greater connection to South African history, and a greater sense of responsibility to work towards justice. I feel like South Africa’s my home, and my Judaism is a strong reason why I feel so committed.”

JDI director and incoming Cape Town co-chair for Limmud South Africa, Gabriella Saven, says “staying for good – as in forever” also needs to be about “staying for good – as in making a difference”. As a young person, she’s concerned that South African youth don’t feel connected to wider society. Anecdotally, she has seen peers emigrate because they feel they cannot escape the “Jewish bubble” in South Africa, but overseas, they can see themselves living in a more integrated way.

“Young Jews want to find inclusive communities. They also lack a socio-cultural connection to South Africa,” which means they are less committed to staying and feel less of a sense of belonging to South Africa. In contrast, a strong Jewish education may mean that they feel more of a sense of belonging in Israel. Though this is positive, Saven believes that ties to South Africa need to be strengthened if young Jews are going to have the incentive to stay.

In addition, there’s a “level of disconnection from the Jewish community for those who don’t fit a narrow mould”, she says. These include LGBTQI+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex) Jews or Jews in interfaith or interracial relationships. With our numbers shrinking, we cannot afford divisions and not allowing every identifying Jew inside our tent. Ironically, these divisions often get deeper the smaller a community gets.

“Democratisation of society needs to include our own democratisation process,” says Saven. “In some ways, we are very progressive, in some ways not. If we don’t open our institutions to varying identities, then we will be left behind as young people choose Jewish communities that do offer these things.”

Fischhoff says being a young Jew in South Africa today isn’t easy, and the community needs to acknowledge the many complexities young Jews face as they think about their place in the world. “We are living in an era dominated by identity politics, and that needs to be addressed. It’s really challenging to be a young South African Jew. Having been victims of persecution, living in a country built on apartheid injustice, and being criticised that your other homeland is a perpetrator of injustice all leads to a lot of internal conflict. Not engaging with that and the youth meaningfully is setting us up for failure.”

In addition, “comprehensive succession planning”, as is being done in Cape Town, is crucial for a stable communal future. In addition, “we need to encourage and facilitate engagement with South African identity from a young age”.

If we are here, we cannot live in an isolated and disconnected way, Saven says. Though the examples of Jewish involvement in wider society are admirable and endless, “we have a responsibility to demonstrate that we are committed to the longevity of the country as well as our own communal structures. Commitment to South Africa should be inseparable from a commitment to our own people. We have a lot of work to do if we are going to stay in South Africa. If one of the main ‘pushes’ is government instability, then what are we doing as a community to change that, to make it more safe and stable?” she asks rhetorically.

Mendelsohn says one startling insight from the Kaplan Centre’s research was that grandparents were encouraging grandchildren to leave. But he believes all hope isn’t lost, and “we aren’t at the tipping point yet. We are seeing many counter-currents and new initiatives that are helping the community prepare for the future.”

Audience member Dr Tony Lachman commented that after having lived overseas for 30 years and then returning to South Africa, he thinks that people need to look at emigration with their eyes wide open. He believes opportunity in South Africa is as great as anywhere else, and connectivity to community much stronger in South Africa.

“What happened on 6 January in the United States was frightening, and antisemitism is more blatant in the United States and the United Kingdom,” he said. “As a mentor once told me, ‘Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.’ If you’re not prepared to roll up your sleeves and get involved here, you’re not going to do it anywhere else.”

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1 Comment

  1. Karen Saltz

    Nov 20, 2021 at 9:50 pm

    I never felt as connected to my community in SA as I do almost 30 years later in Canada.

    Living in a country which is made up of immigrants, you are warmly welcomed into any strand of Judaism in the large centres. Being Jewish is our commonality, and becoming involved in and part of a community, fosters belonging and immersion in your adopted society

    Yes, you do take yourself with when you leave SA, but you also have the opportunity to re- invent and better yourself as you build a new life. We are constantly evolving, and your attitude will decide how far that goes, no matter where in the world you are located.

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New hechsher stirs the kosher pot

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Three disgruntled former mashgichim (kosher supervisors) this week launched their own kosher hechsher in a bid to compete with the Beth Din, the country’s foremost kosher certification under the Union of Orthodox Synagogues (UOS).

The three directors of Kosher Certified South Africa (KCSA) are Velvy Bokow, Akiva Mallett, and Aharon Bogatie. They have either had their mashgichim licenses revoked (Bogatie lost his this week following the announcement) or have given them up following ongoing tension and frustration which has led to a bitter souring of relations separately between them and the UOS.

KCSA purports to be a kosher certifying agency under the halachic supervision of Rabbi Avigdor Bokow, the father of one of its directors, Velvy Bokow.

This week, the company advertised itself via a colourful flyer sent to the community on WhatsApp. It features a smiling headshot of Rabbi Avigdor Bokow, formerly of Linksfield Senderwood Hebrew Congregation, saying that KCSA is under his rabbinical leadership.

It makes assurances of a quick certification process and response times, affordable rates, flexible payment plans, ongoing support, and other such commitments.

However, Velvy Bokow told the SA Jewish Report that the KCSA couldn’t commit at this stage to reducing prices before a full costing and pricing model was structured, developed, and tested. However, they hoped to alleviate the costs of kosher chicken and meat, adding that “only time will tell”.

Rabbi Bokow wouldn’t comment to the SA Jewish Report, saying, “Please speak to the directors. I’m a simple helper for the community. I’m truly not the face. They simply wanted to give the assurance that there was an experienced kosher supervisor. I’m a retired rabbi over 70 that will help the community and provide services in many different ways.”

The ongoing and messy saga that sowed the seeds of this “rebellion” began with the Stan & Pete treif chicken scandal, which placed mashgichim in the spotlight.

Bokow and Mallet were instrumental several years ago in setting up the Mashgiach Association in a bid to formalise the workplace and improve conditions of employment.

The directors insist that starting a new kosher certification isn’t about “sour grapes”, it’s about service delivery aimed at being “affordable, reliable, and available”.

Bokow lost his mashgiach license last year for contravening the mashgiach code of conduct after advertising his strictly kosher but not under the Beth Din kosher meat and chicken smoker. He claims he was unfairly discriminated against.

Mallett, the former owner of AM Dairy Products, was one of the first to break away from the Beth Din hechsher in favour of Montreal Kosher when the ongoing saga of kosher food prices reared its head once again recently.

He was called before a hearing last year for allegedly providing kashrut advice to a non-certified caterer, which is in breach of his license.

He refused to attend the hearing, and sent an email to Kenny Rabson, a member of the UOS board, and to the managing director of the Beth Din’s kosher department, Rabbi Dovi Goldstein.

In it, he accused Goldstein of being a liar, and said he had no faith in Rabson. “This from a religious organisation. The more I read books on the Holocaust, the clearer it appears Hitler didn’t want to kill all the Jews, just the bad ones, think if you fit in that category,” he wrote.

This week, Mallett told the SA Jewish Report, “We don’t want a mudslinging situation. This is about healthy competition and doing what’s in the best interest of kashrut and the consumer at the end of the day.”

Bogatie, until this week a mashgiach with the Beth Din, said he joined as a board member of the KCSA because he felt there needed to be “a higher kashrus authority” and that for him, “the best way to ensure that it was run and maintained correctly was to be in the middle of it”.

After launching, Bokow conducted a survey on social media this week, asking members of the community whether they would support a new kosher certifying agency in South Africa.

The board of UOS Johannesburg and the UOS Cape management committee issued a joint statement on 26 January, saying they were unable to comment on this new hechsher, given that there was “no track record or international acceptance to reflect on”.

“In addition, we don’t know what technical expertise and other resources the organisation has. We are, however, aware of the directors of the organisation, which were mashgichim for the UOS and were relieved of their positions in December 2021. We cannot comment on their knowledge of running a hechsher.

“We do, however, know what it takes to build a hechsher that’s internationally recognised and accepted by the OU (the largest hechsher in the world) and Badatz in Israel (which adheres to the strictest levels of kashrut) to outsource their inspections in southern Africa to us, which is a strong endorsement of the UOS kosher department.

“Importantly, the standards of kashrut in SA are certified by the dayanim of our Beth Din, with no hechsher being granted without their approval. These standards have been built up over decades. The depth and breadth of infrastructure and knowledge network is immense. A kosher system is complex and intricate, and requires adequately trained personnel and a competent halachic authority to conduct the assessments required to provide kosher consumers with the necessary reassurance a kosher certification offers. This includes highly trained rabbinic field representatives, food technologists, and database administrators with a depth of experience.”

The statement said that as an organisation, last year was “extremely productive” for the UOS. “We’re working hard to innovate continually in kashrut, to improve services to our customers and consumers, and to solve the market’s needs quicker.”

“I know nothing about the credentials of the KCSA, so it’s difficult to comment,” said Rabbi Yossi Chaikin, the chairperson of the Rabbinical Association of South Africa. “The Rabbinical Association supports the Beth Din of the UOS, which has an outstanding reputation locally and internationally.”

Though there was always room for improvement, he wasn’t sure that competition, given the South African context, was a positive thing or whether it would end up as more money in the pockets of the consumer. Once again, he said, “Time will tell.”

“We share concern that this may sow confusion in the minds of people. We have a unique situation in South Africa in that kashrut is so widely observed and one of the blessings is that we have one kashrut agency, which makes things very easy for the consumer.”

Ami Bolnick of Tenderchick, the only certified producer of kosher chickens in Johannesburg, said, “From my perspective, it’s an open market, and if they feel they can make a difference, they should try. I don’t dictate who decides to enter the kosher industry. I’ll remain faithful to my license holder, the UOS hechsher.”

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Lipskars celebrate 50 years of following their calling

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Fifty years after being sent as the first Chabad emissary to South Africa, Rabbi Mendel and Rebbetzin Mashi Lipskar are being recognised for transforming this community.

“They are an inspiration to me and Gina personally and to so many across our community,” says Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein.

“Their leadership and service to South African Jewry has been a beacon of light and wisdom, of positivity and boldness, of compassion and kindness. Through their relentless commitment and love, they have made and continue to make an historic contribution to the flourishing of our community by bringing us all closer to Hashem and His Torah.”

This week marks half a century since the rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson of righteous memory, sent a young Rabbi Lipskar and his wife to South Africa. He was the first Chabad rabbi to be sent as a shaliach (emissary) to southern Africa.

“It’s been a wonderful 50 years, which is a lifetime,” says Lipskar. “We have seen tremendous growth and development. It wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say we’re exceedingly proud of what Chabad Lubavitch accomplished here in South Africa.”

The Lipskars were in their early 20s when they arrived in apartheid South Africa in 1972. They had never been to the country before, and the political system was completely foreign to them.

They immediately got started in turning the Chassidim Shul in what was then Harrow Road in Yeoville, Johannesburg, into a beacon of Yiddishkeit. Hundreds of Jews, young and old, went there for inspiration.

The first Chabad House, which the Lipskars opened in Harley Street, Yeoville, became a centre of Jewish activity and education.

Today, Chabad in South Africa has shuls, schools, and a Yeshiva Gedolah. There are 20 Chabad Centres and more than 60 shluchim of the rebbe in the country.

Lipskar is the head of Chabad Lubavitch in South Africa, the rabbi of the shul at Hyde Park, former chairperson of the Rabbinical Association, and the founder of Torah Academy. He’s known as a charismatic orator with the ability to inspire audiences with passion and purpose. He’s a husband, the father of nine children, a grandfather, and great-grandfather.

A few months before the Lipskars married, a position for a rabbi became available at the then popular Chassidim Shul on Harrow Road. Rabbi Koppel Bacher, a qualified Chabad rabbi living in Johannesburg, opted to work in his family business rather than become a congregational rabbi. But he was determined that an official Chabad office should be opened in this country. He made this known to the rebbe whenever he could.

Bacher had initially gone to the Chabad Yeshiva in New York in 1955 when he was just 14. Nine years later, he returned to South Africa with the intention of creating what he called “a Jewish environment” in Johannesburg. He saw his opportunity at the Chassidim Shul.

In the United States, the rebbe put word out that he wanted someone who was prepared for this challenge. Lipskar and his betrothed put up their hands.

“The rebbe told us, ‘With my blessing, you should go and establish and develop Chabad Lubavitch in southern Africa’,” says Lipskar.

Bacher brought them to the country and financed their start-up. “I used to go every year to the rebbe and I have since brought lots of rabbis here,” he says. In addition to the Lipskars, Bacher also brought shluchim such as Rabbi Yossy Goldman to South Africa.

Being an emissary of the rebbe isn’t seen as a job, Bacher says. Lipskar, who grew up in Toronto, comes from a Lubavitch family rooted in the tradition and history of Chabad, so he wanted to become a shaliach. “So I didn’t have to convince him much,” says Bacher. “The rebbe has 5 000 shluchim all over the world today because they are brought up with this desire to fulfil the rebbe’s wish to go to places and build Yiddishkeit.”

Lipskar says he was a bit worried about coming to South Africa where there were no Chabad rabbis and there was a political system in place that they didn’t understand. “Rabbi Bacher and a couple of other rabbis were here, so there was some sort of a presence. I was concerned that it was a different type of community. I had no idea what it was like before I came here.

“Though we didn’t understand the political system, we tried to improvise as best as possible within its limitations.”

“Mendel would walk the streets of Hillbrow,” recalls the rebbetzin. “We were so young. Hashem gifted us with wisdom, but one would consult with the rebbe and not make decisions on one’s own.”

Lipskar says it wasn’t too difficult to adjust to life in South Africa. “For a Jew, particularly an observant Jew, to come to a place and find other observant Jews is in itself immediately welcoming. The warmth of South African Jews is unique throughout the world.”

“The other beautiful thing when we first came here in 1972 was the fact that there was no television. Social interaction was the order of the day. We made a lot of good friends relatively quickly, and that helped us to settle in.”

Just before the Soweto uprising in 1976, Lipskar was joined in South Africa by his friend from the Yeshiva in New York, Rabbi Goldman. The rebbe had chosen to send Goldman to South Africa. Lipskar had already been encouraging Goldman about coming to the country.

“He said it’s a beautiful community with tremendous potential for spiritual growth,” recalls Goldman.

When Goldman arrived in the country with his wife and their two sons, most South Africans thought they were mad. “But the rebbe was telling people there was no need to panic or emigrate, and he backed up his reassurances by sending his students here with their families,” says Goldman.

South Africa’s political situation was becoming more tense, and the rand was depreciating, meaning overseas rabbis were reluctant to come to the country. “Chabad filled that gap most significantly,” says Goldman. “Today, thank G-d, we have many home-grown rabbis and rebbetzins.”

Goldman worked closely with Lipskar for 10 years. “I was the director of the first Chabad House in Yeoville,” says Goldman. “We both had our offices there. He gave me lots of space and room for initiative, but I always valued his insight and advice.”

When Nelson Mandela’s release from prison was imminent, the South African Jewish community was nervous about how the country might change.

“Rabbi Bacher visited the rebbe in New York and mentioned this,” recalls Lipskar. “The rebbe said, ‘It will be good there till Moshiach, and better after Moshiach comes.’ Although there were tremendous challenging moments, such as in 1976, the rebbe kept on reassuring the community and part of our role was to deliver that message. Though many people decided to emigrate to different parts of the world, some making aliya, many remained because of the rebbe’s reassurances.”

Lipskar says the Jewish community has certainly became smaller over the years. “One doesn’t feel it as much as one would in other places where you don’t have the infrastructure that you have here. For instance, you have the Chevrah Kadisha, Hatzolah, many shuls, and Jewish schools.

“Fifty years ago, South Africa was a very different place, not only because the community was larger, but it was a very different type of community. It was an extremely traditional community. People went to shul on a Friday night a lot more than they do today. There was a natural respect for religious observance. The tragedy was the tremendous ignorance about things Jewish. We felt that one of the first things that we had to do was to create an awareness of those things.”

The Lipskars dedicated a lot of time towards contacting young people, inviting them for Shabbat. “We had classes and we had all sorts of activities,” recalls Lipskar. “We had Lag B’Omer parades. A thousand people would come to the giant Chanukah menorah.”

This all became part of the revival of Jewish life, says Lipskar. “We soon brought out shluchim to Cape Town. We started a play school which developed into Torah Academy. The rest is history.”

“In South Africa, the vast majority of the Jewish community comes from a baal teshuva environment [secular Jews who return to religious Judaism],” says Lipskar. “We were involved in bringing that into being. Young and old were brought into a passionate, vibrant, and committed Jewish way of life that the country didn’t have before.”

But the Lipskars aren’t resting on their laurels. “The emphasis isn’t so much to reflect upon the past – which we do with tremendous pride and joy – but to look to the future and see what else needs to be done,” they say.

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Eastern European Jewish culture revived in massive archive

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As an archivist at the National Library of Lithuania was opening boxes to show off some recent discoveries, she pulled out a Yiddish theatre poster to the amazement of visitors there.

“That’s my principal from Melbourne, Jacob Waislitz!” exclaimed Australian visitors to Lithuania, Irene Kronhill and her friend Onella Stagol.

Kronhill and Stagol were on a Yivo Study Trip to Poland and Lithuania two summers ago. Founded in 1925, the goal of Yivo, the Institute for Jewish Research, is to preserve, study, share, and perpetuate knowledge of the history and culture of Eastern European Jewry.

They were both stunned to be so suddenly connected to their own past by the poster. Waislitz, a world-renowned Yiddish actor and director, had been the principal of the Yiddish school they attended on Wednesdays and Sundays during their childhood in Melbourne.

“We went there after school,” Kronhill told the SA Jewish Report. “We learnt Yiddish, literature, and history there.”

Some of the newly discovered material they saw in the library back then are now being digitised as part of the Edward Blank Yivo Vilna Collections Project.

This project comprises about 4.1 million pages of original books, artefacts, records, manuscripts, and documents. It’s the first of its kind in Jewish history, and is the single largest digital collection related to East European Jewish civilisation.

It forms part of an historic seven-year, $7 million (R106.4 million) initiative to process, conserve, and digitise the New York-based Yivo Institute for Jewish Research’s divided pre-war library and archival collections.

Material has been digitised into a dedicated web portal and is now accessible worldwide. The Edward Blank Yivo Vilna Online Collection was completed on 10 January.

Many of the documents were destroyed in 1941 when the original Yivo Institute in Vilna was ransacked. However, a group of Vilna ghetto workers (many of whom had been associated with Yivo) were forced to sort through the collections and select material to be shipped to Frankfurt for use in the Nazi Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question.

However, many of these ghetto workers, commonly known as the Paper Brigade, risked their lives by hiding material on their bodies to smuggle into the Vilna ghetto to preserve it.

In 1946, the United States Army recovered many of these documents and sent them to Yivo in New York. Then, the smuggled material was uncovered after the war and saved from the Soviets by Lithuanian librarian Antanas Ulpis in 1948. These remained hidden in the Church of St George (converted by the Soviets into the Lithuanian Book Chamber) until they were discovered in 1989.

In the Yivo archives, Kronhill also found a photograph of a protest march conducted by a youth movement from the 1930s. “I recognised a woman in the front because she was the mother of someone who I had gone to the youth movement with.”

A former United States ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Meryl Frank, also uncovered much in the Yivo archives. She discovered the facts behind the stories she had heard about her actress cousin, Franya Winter, and her cousin’s lover, Rudolf Zaslavsky, also an actor.

“I was stunned by the volume of information I was able to find,” she says. “I found that the stories told by my family weren’t exaggerated as I had earlier thought.”

Frank is writing a book about Winter, who played the role of Tzeitel in Tevye the Milkman. She had heard about Yivo’s archives while attending a Yivo class on the history of Yiddish theatre.

“Stephanie Halpern, the director of archives at Yivo, brought to our class artefacts from the Yivo collection including theatrical posters, one which featured Rudolf Zaslavsky,” Frank said. “I was told about the volume of theatrical artefacts and papers that it had, and was delighted to find information about my cousin that had been hidden by the Paper Brigade beneath the Vilna Ghetto and rescued by the Monuments Men [the art detectives of World War II] in Germany.

“All archives are special places, but these papers are particularly precious because they were meant to be destroyed, just as those who wrote them ultimately were,” Frank says.

Before using Yivo’s archives, Dr David Crossley, based in the United Kingdom, had just a vague idea about his paternal grandmother’s cousin, Nachum Lipovsky (1874-1928).

Lipovsky, the founder and first director of the Vilna Yiddish Theatre, has now been brought to life through his compendium of correspondence in the archives.

“Yivo has compiled Nachum’s collection, which comprises various hand-written manuscripts of plays and ephemera, mainly in Yiddish, which my sister has tried to decipher,” says Crossley. “Even her expertise in speaking and writing in Yiddish cannot do justice to reading or even understanding his written words.”

With a deeper reading of Lipovsky’s work needed, Crossley has printed out the archives so his future family can engross themselves in “translating their relatively famous predecessor’s works and gain pleasure in being associated in the rebirth of Yiddish as a still extant language of life and culture”.

Crossley cannot praise Yivo highly enough. “My experience of the archivists and researchers has been extremely friendly and responsive,” he says.

Dr Samuel Kassow, whose book Who Will Write Our History was adapted into a documentary film, has used the archives to find material on cultural life in Vilna between the two world wars.

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