Stepping down but not leaving town – Sydenham Shul begins a new era
“Thirty five years ago, I had to contend with lubo-phobia – Jews afraid of the ‘black hat’. I had to show people I was normal,” jokes Sydenham Shul’s life emeritus rabbi Rabbi Yossy Goldman. “But, with thousands of people in shul every Friday night [in those days] – any rabbi would give his black hat for that.”
Goldman, who is passing on the Sydenham Shul congregational baton to Rabbi Yehuda Stern after 35 years of leading this iconic Johannesburg shul, was speaking at a special Sydenham Shul webinar commemorating the passing of his and his wife, Rochel’s, leadership to Rabbi Yehuda and Estee Stern.
Goldman certainly succeeded in the task he set himself, building the shul into an institution that has led in many areas – religiously, musically, intellectually, intergenerationally, and across genders.
He has handed over the lectern to Stern, whom he mentored for 13 years after hiring him as an assistant rabbi with a mandate to serve the shul’s shtiebel community and develop its young adult division.
His time at the helm of the shul spans generations and eras, from the depths of apartheid, when the park bench outside Goldman’s Chabad workplace in Berea was race segregated, to today’s South Africa, and all the communal change that has gone with it. During that time, Sydenham Shul became “one of the great synagogues of the English-speaking world”, in the words of the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
Following almost two years of COVID-19 and a great deal of emigration, this shul – like all others – is facing some real challenges. Innovation, dynamism, and sustainability in the future is a tough ask when its most pressing challenge is how to keep in touch with a community that has mostly stayed home through the pandemic and eventually bring congregants back. Another is how to engage with a youthful generation which seeks relevance and meaning. It’s also tough to be a “big shul” that needs to cater for a diverse congregation rather than a tiny shtiebel. But, the Sterns, with their fresh ideas and on-the-ground experience, are well placed to realise these ideals.
“Rabbi and Rebbetzin Goldman have done the thing all good leaders do – ensure transition,” said Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, although he pointed out, “A brilliant rabbi and rebbetzin cannot, on their own, ensure a flourishing shul. A shul is a community, and a community is a partnership. Shul is a world of kindness, learning, mitzvahs, and prayer. We create that in partnership with Hashem and each other.”
Interestingly, both Goldman and Stern are immigrants, Goldman from the United States, and Stern from Australia. They describe South Africa as a “culture shock” and “love at first sight”. In the case of the Sterns, the shipping company in Melbourne laughed when they asked it to transfer their belongings to Johannesburg, saying it did business only in the other direction.
“South Africa is the best place for a rabbi to work,” Goldman says. “It’s a warm Jewish community which has yiddishkeit – not secular and assimilated like in the United States. Shuls, infrastructure, schools, kashrut, we have so much going for us.”
Rebbetzin Rochel Goldman created programmes over the years which attracted hundreds of women, aiming to nurture women and promote a positive South Africa. Her challah baking classes were legendary. “Rochel taught more women in South Africa to bake challah than anyone else,” mused the rabbi.
“If a woman is nurtured, the family, community, and world is nurtured,” said the rebbetzin.
“I would never have become a leader if not for the [Lubavitcher] Rebbe’s inspiration,” she said. “In 1976, we didn’t know what we were coming to. It was ‘dark Africa’. The Rebbe encouraged us to go out and share the vision G-d had for the world.”
The Sterns share the rebbetzin’s focus on women, believing that “the woman’s role is the most important in the community”. “Men come to shul by default,” said Stern, “it’s the women we have to tap into.”
Sydenham Shul has focused on the youth for years, realising that young adults “were getting lost, and wanted their own events with their peers – conversations not lectures”. In three areas: Sydkids; Sydyouth; and Young Adults, the focus is on youth-led minyans, education, and inviting speakers on various issues. Indeed, as head of the shtiebel and young adult division of the shul, Stern could be described as an expert in this area.
“These days, belonging to a shul doesn’t necessarily mean attending services, it could be by attending shiurim, through involvement in welfare or chesed projects, or outreach with the wider community,” Stern said.
The legendary Sydenham Shul choir was one of the casualties of moving on to a new generation. Formerly one of the shul’s main attractions, a decision was made to downsize, to make the music “more happy clappy”, in Goldman’s words, though music is still central.
Ultimately, although Goldman is stepping down, he’s “not leaving town”.
“He’s an incredibly powerful and important leader,” said Discovery founder and Chief Executive Adrian Gore. “He leaves a legacy of a shul with modern corporate governance and succession planning.”
He and Rochel will continue to have a presence at the shul and in the community, and say they are looking forward to being with it at events and simchas.
“I ask you to embrace change, be a part of the new generation. The world is changing, and so are we,” Goldman said.