Why we’re staying in South Africa
Since becoming life rabbi emeritus of Sydenham Shul in 2021, my wife Rochel and I have been travelling extensively. I’ve been invited to speak in more than 30 different communities around the world, including North America, South America, Europe, and Israel.
We’ve visited communities big and small – from New York with nearly two million Jews; Los Angeles, with 700 000; Buenos Aires with more than 200 000; and little Spokane, Washington with only 700. London has 160 000; while Malmo, Sweden has only 1 500 souls.
In Los Angeles, once considered the Garden of Eden, people are moving in droves to more politically conservative states like Texas and Florida. Homelessness is a serious problem, and with California’s “woke” ideology, the police are powerless to protect people’s private properties, even their storefronts.
I’ve lost count of how many mass shootings have taken place across the United States (US). Frighteningly, it’s almost a weekly occurrence. And the scandalous discrimination against Jews at America’s great Ivy League universities borders on the unbelievable.
Antisemitism has spiked across the world, whether in the streets of London, Toronto, outside the shul in Sweden, or even in peaceful Ra’anana. Whereas, with all the African National Congress (ANC) government’s anti-Israel policies, the fact is that there’s still much less antisemitism here than in any other Jewish community in the world.
The South African preoccupation of sitting on our suitcases goes back 75 years from when the apartheid regime came to power. But though it’s a sign of our own historic insecurity, please forgive me for suggesting that there may be a degree of fickleness here too. Consider this, after 9/11, did New York Jewry even think about leaving New York? Did Australians leave their country after runaway wildfires? Did Floridians move north after being battered by hurricanes? The answer is no. Every place has its own set of problems, but people don’t necessarily pick up and move because of them.
Back in 1976, when we came to Johannesburg on shlichut from the US, it was just before the Soweto uprising. People told us we were mad to come here. “We’re sitting on a volcano,” they said. For decades, people have been saying South Africa has five years left. First, there was the fear of a bloody revolution. Then, there was a spiralling crime problem. And now, it’s our current government’s gross incompetence and corruption, failing infrastructure, and crippled services. And, of course, today, the cherry on top is the ANC’s chutzpah to take Israel to The Hague and to drop our Jewish cricket captain. I fully understand the anger.
But while I don’t minimise our problems for one minute, there are still many reasons to stay in South Africa.
Do you really want to be a displaced person for the rest of your life? South African emigrants still miss this place terribly. On a past visit to Melbourne, the Springboks were there for a rugby Test series. I asked the South Africans there if they were supporting the Wallabies or the Springboks. They looked at me like I was meshuga, saying, “Of course, the Springboks!” Many have settled well and done well, and many more still feel like displaced persons.
Let me try and distil some of the main reasons I oppose emigration.
Our way of life
Even in our current situation, we’re still able to enjoy a more relaxed and much less frenetic lifestyle than almost anywhere else on earth. People overseas work much harder, especially our wives. To replicate the quality of life most of us enjoy here internationally requires a fortune of money.
Our Jewish community
Don’t mistakenly think for a moment that the Jewish communal infrastructure is the same all over the world. Ours is a unique Jewish community with a plethora of shuls, schools, and kashrut facilities that aren’t necessarily found elsewhere. For those who haven’t had the opportunity to travel far and wide, let me assure you that, for our size, there’s hardly a community like ours in the whole wide world. Just one example, in the US, there are cities with more than 100 000 Jews which have only one or two kosher restaurants. Our own, much smaller, Johannesburg can boast 15!
Neither is your favourite shul easily replaceable. Why else would our emigrants have created South African-style shuls in Australia, Canada, America, and even Israel?
Your grandchildren will be Jewish
So many have said that they are emigrating for their children’s well-being. “Far di kinder.” But elsewhere, we expose our children to foreign influences and cultures which threaten their very survival as Jews. Intermarriage is rampant overseas. Ours is still a relatively sheltered community.
Keeping the family together is worth some sacrifice. And the fifth commandment, “Honour thy father and mother,” still applies. Thou shalt not abandon them, dump them, nor leave them bereft of support or nachas.
Almost every Jew in this country is familiar with the blessings and assurances given to our community by my saintly teacher and mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He sent us all his personal message which was, “Don’t be afraid. It will be good in South Africa until Moshiach comes!”
What would the Rebbe say now after our government’s disgraceful shenanigans?
The Rebbe was asked on a number of occasions whether he still held by his promises. And each time, he responded unequivocally that he did indeed.
So either Moshiach is around the corner, please G-d, and if G-d forbid not, then we’ll still be all right until he does come. I can tell you from experience that in all his decades of leadership, the Rebbe was never wrong on these kinds of judgement calls.
At the end of the day, please remember that G-d Almighty runs the world, not Cyril Ramaphosa. Our government is, frankly, ineffectual and irrelevant. Please G-d, things will improve here economically, politically, and on every level.
While black economic empowerment and other local political considerations have made doing business more difficult for many, the confident entrepreneur can still find huge opportunities here and throughout Africa.
In March, my wife and I will have been living in South Africa for 48 years. Thank G-d, we have no regrets. So, for those of you who really want to stay in sunny South Africa but may be struggling with peer pressure, know that you’re not alone. We’re still here, and we’re not going anywhere. I hope you’ll stick around and keep us company.
- Rabbi Yossy Goldman is life rabbi emeritus of Sydenham Shul, Johannesburg, and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.