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Where to go to daven?

I have always been a bit of a talker. Which is why one of my earliest memories of shul is of being forced to remain silent while seated on a hard, wooden pew at the Yeoville or Berea Synagogue. It felt austere and unfamiliar, and I needed to entertain myself as the choir droned.

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Voices

HOWARD FELDMAN

It was before the days of the eruv, which meant I could not carry any toys to shul. I recall being told repeatedly to stop swinging my legs as I attempted, in vain, to reach the seat in front of me. I also recall the relief that I felt when I heard the announcement to turn to page 81 in the blue Singer Siddur, because it meant that it was all nearly over.

Those were very boring early days.

It didn’t improve much for me. The most repeated line that I heard as a teenager in shul in the ’80s was: “If you come to shul to talk, then where do you go to daven?”

I didn’t want to be rude or anything, but I wanted to answer that surely prayer should be a little bit of a celebration. I wanted to say that we are told to serve G-d with joy and if this was happiness, then I didn’t want to see misery. But I was still respectful back in the ’80s. And so, I perfected the guilty look, spent a moment or two in respectful silence and then went back to talking.

There are those who naturally adore shul. I have never been one of them. And although I would be classified as a “shul goer”, for me there needs to be something else other than the service to encourage me to get there.

This is no small admission as we are deeply schooled and deeply guilted into believing that we are somewhat deficient as Jews, and more than somewhat shallow, if this is our approach to the service of G-d.

That said, I have little doubt that there are many more just like me and that shul attendance fluctuates, based on factors that community leaders might or might not understand.

I believe that many people don’t go to shul purely for the active prayer segment and that there are other factors that draw them there. Identifying what those factors are for each community is critical for the sustainability of not only that community but also the shul attendance in general.

I believe that there has been a shift and that to re-engage members of the community, there needs to be a recognition of the following points:

•     Social media has given people an alternative sense of belonging. The reality is that these environments are shallow and unfulfilling. However, there is a danger that the fiction allows people to replace their understanding or notion of what a real 3D community has to offer.

•     Rabbis are no longer securely fastened atop their pedestals. In recent years, the number who have fallen off (unceremoniously) has underscored this. This, in my view, is a significant shift, and a failure to comprehend this and adjust accordingly is a significant threat.

•     Communal rabbis need to recognise that respect is no longer available to anyone with the title (I am not debating the merits of this), and the reality is that there are fewer and fewer who still see the title as denoting perfection in any way.

•     Authenticity and imperfection is the “new black”. Fail to recognise this in any aspect of life (not only communal leadership) at one’s own peril. Perfection is not viewed as aspirational. It is viewed with suspicion.

In a snap survey I conducted; consisting of me, my one son and three of my friends, I noticed an alarming trend emerging. Shul attendance is not what it used to be.

It might be the cold winter days or it might be that people are tired. It might be that no matter the age, we are all becoming spoilt millennials for whom it is a struggle to get to shul. And many shuls are empty.

But it also might be that communities have shifted and that there is dissatisfaction with what shuls, rabbis and the community have to offer. It is real that that some of us do attend shul for reasons other than purely prayer. The sooner that we identify what that is, the better.

There are shuls and there are rabbis who have already recognised this. They are thriving.

What this means for those who have not is that we urgently need to consider what our expectations are from our communities and from our rabbis. We also need to consider if they are reasonable and if it is possible to meet them.

We need to consider what our responsibility is in all of this and what is the responsibility of community leadership.

Our rabbis need to perform the same exercise not from a precariously balanced position atop the pedestal. They instead need to climb off their pedestal so that they work together with those who need them, to rebuild communities.

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Voices

Don’t panic, but behave responsibly

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The announcement of the new Omicron variant and its dire impact on overseas travel continues to dominate the news. With the sharp increase in infection numbers in Gauteng, the Board on 28 November convened a meeting of the national leadership of the major communal bodies together with Professor Barry Schoub and Dr Richard Friedland, two experts in the field of communicable diseases who have guided and advised us throughout the COVID-19 crisis. At our request, Professor Schoub and Dr Friedland have prepared guidelines on how to reduce the impact of the impending fourth wave on our community. These can be found on our Facebook page. To watch last week’s “Midweek COVID-19 Update with Professor Schoub”, visit https://bit.ly/2VpwmKX. Those who have any questions for Professor Schoub can leave them in the comment section or email midweekcovidupdate@gmail.com.

Fighting the good fight

One welcome piece of good news over the weekend was that Miss South Africa, Lalela Mswane, had arrived in Israel in preparation for taking part in the Miss Universe contest. This was in spite of a sustained campaign by Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) factions to prevent her participation, characterised by intimidation, defamation, blackmail, and misinformation. The Board saw it as essential to have a voice in this debate as the intent clearly is to target the only Jewish state in a way intended to deny and demonise South African Jews’ historical, cultural, religious, and familial ties to Israel. We engaged in the debates and obtained significant press coverage to offer an alternative narrative to the hate-filled position of those calling for boycotts.

The Board was also called on last week to respond to various statements by organisations like Africa4Palestine, the Media Review Network, and the Muslim Lawyers Association on the death in a terror attack of former community member Eli Kay. Using the language of demonisation and incitement that led to Eli’s murder in the first place, these factions brazenly celebrated and sought to justify the atrocity. In an opinion piece for News24, South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) Vice-President Mary Kluk pointed out how such dehumanisation is an inevitable stage in a process that if left unchecked, can easily have deadly consequences. While not inciting violence directly, the hate-filled rhetoric of the BDS lobby is fostering an environment in which such attacks become that much more likely.

As a former chairperson and long-serving SAJBD executive member, a much respected World Jewish Congress executive member, and in her capacity as director of the Durban Holocaust Centre, Kluk has for many years been at the forefront of defending Jewish rights while also promoting the kind of culture of respect and tolerance for diversity that’s so critical to South Africa’s future as a united, democratic, and non-racial society. To find out more about her career, see Wendy Kahn’s tribute in the latest issue of Jewish Life. A link to the article, as well as to Kluk’s News24 column, can be found on our Facebook page.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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Voices

Of doggie dreams and the kindness of strangers

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This isn’t a column about Daisy. It’s a column about kindness and appreciation. And even though Daisy, our beloved German Shepherd, is central to the story, she’s not the least of what it’s about.

Daisy died yesterday. It involved a Checkers Sixty60 guy, a motorbike, and the unfulfilled dream of a dog whose ambition was some day, before her dog years were up, to catch one. Yesterday she finally did it. Although sadly it didn’t end well. Not for Daisy or the bike. The Sixty60 guy was thankfully fine.

I was in a meeting when I started to receive calls. When they became insistent, I answered to hear the frantic voice of a woman I’d never met. She explained that Daisy, who had been taken for her daily walk by Prince, had been involved in an accident. She assured me that she, and a few others, would stay with Prince, who was distraught, and with Daisy (who wasn’t in a state to be aware) until help arrived. They had called CAP Security as well as the vet, who was apparently on the way.

Before anyone had had a chance to leave the house, she called again with an update. The vet had arrived and along with CAP were escorting Daisy to the vet for urgent care. She explained where they were going, and suggested that we go straight there. She also reiterated that what had happened was no one’s fault. Daisy had managed to get out of her harness and Prince was in need of a little TLC.

By the time we arrived at the vet a few minutes later, Daisy had passed away. It was that quick. And there was clearly little that could have been done.

We gathered at home in shocked silence trying to process what had happened when my wife received this message, “Hi Heidi, Zameer here from CAP Security. My deepest condolences for the loss of your Shepherd. We did our best to take her as soon as possible to the Orange Grove vet. We arrived on the scene three minutes after it happened. If there’s anything we can do for you at CAP, please let us know. We also offer K9 therapy to overcome trauma, with a friendly female dog called Storm. Kind regards Zameer.”

As if the kindness of strangers who sat with Prince as he cried over Daisy, who called us and made sure that we understood the situation, and who arranged for the vet and CAP to assist wasn’t enough, we now had this message to contend with.

It’s remarkable the difference these gestures made to us on what was a terrible day.

We knew of Daisy’s aspiration to one day catch a Sixty60 delivery guy, but as she hadn’t been well lately, we all assumed that her dreams would never be actualised. Until yesterday when, in a last burst of youth, she broke through her harness and finally did what she had dreamed of doing for all her dog years.

I have no idea if there’s a dog heaven. But if there is, it’s filled with kind people like those who sit with a dying dog, with people like Prince, with vets, and with people like Zameer who reach out to strangers to show they care. I guess there’s also an ongoing supply of Checkers Sixty60 guys who ride up and down to fulfil unrealised dreams.

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Voices

Killing of innocents can never be justified

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Our community was shocked and grief-stricken to learn over the weekend that one of its own young members, Eliyahu David Kay, had been fatally wounded in a Hamas-inspired terrorist attack while on his way to pray at the Kotel in Jerusalem. It’s always saddening when fellow Jews around the world fall victim to such hate crimes, but it strikes that much closer to home when the victim is one of our own. At the time of writing, we are working with other communal bodies to organise a memorial gathering for a much loved young man whose life was so cruelly and unjustly cut short. May his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

The widely differing responses to Eliyahu’s murder tell us much about how and why such tragedies occur in the first place. Though most people who commented online and in other forums expressed shock and heartfelt sympathy, we were appalled also to see comments from certain organisations and individuals justifying the atrocity. On the local front, an organisation formerly known as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions South Africa and now calling itself Africa4Palestine has been especially shameless in pushing this line. This is hardly unexpected given how over many years, this organisation has persistently sought to poison public attitudes not only towards Israel but towards the Jewish community for supporting and identifying with it. Of late, even non-Jewish supporters of Israel have become the targets of such hate-mongering.

The danger of extremist ideologies like those espoused by Africa4Palestine is that almost invariably, those who oppose them are portrayed as not merely wrong, but fundamentally evil. This in turn leads to them being regarded as so morally beyond the pale as to be undeserving of the basic rights that other people automatically enjoy, sometimes including even the right to life itself. Such dehumanisation is one of the essential first steps in a process that left unchecked, can easily lead to lethal acts of violence and in extreme cases, to genocide.

No amount of hyperbolic rhetoric about Israel’s purported misdeeds can justify the cold-blooded killing of unarmed civilians simply on the basis of their being Jews. This is the underlying justification that antisemitic fanatics claim for their actions, and we must be untiring in our efforts to confront and expose this evil. All genocides in history were justified at the time by what appeared to be righteous indignation on the part of the perpetrators. When examined more closely, however, their causes came down to simple, unadorned hatred. Nor can we ever feel pleasure over the death of innocents, even when suffered by our avowed enemies. When we lose our sense of empathy at the loss of any life – and how much more so when such tragedies are perversely celebrated – we lose our very humanity. In taking a stand against the constant vilification that Israel and our community are subjected to in certain quarters, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies is always careful not to itself descend to such depths. I urge those wishing to respond to such attacks, whether online or in other contexts, to similarly be careful as to how they express themselves.

  • Listen to Charisse Zeifert on Jewish Board Talk, 101.9 ChaiFM, every Friday from 12:00 to 13:00.

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