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Op-eds

Forget the hole – what about the doughnut?

  • ZenKrengel2
Those inclined to take a pessimistic view of the South African Jewish community and its long-term future would have done themselves a favour by attending last weekend’s Limmud in Johannesburg.
by ZEV KRENGEL | Aug 22, 2019

The excellent turn-out, across-the-board enthusiasm, and impressive range of local talent on show was itself indicative of the continuing vibrancy of Jewish life in our country.

Remember that Limmud is just one event on a communal calendar that this year includes, among other things, Sinai Indaba, the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards, Miracle Drive, the weekly Avos u’Vonim (father and son) learning programmes, and the Shabbat Project. That doesn’t include the regular events organised by, to give just two examples, the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town and the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre in Johannesburg. If you consider this, you start to realise just how much we still have to be positive about.

Two decades ago, Dr Barry Kosmin began a report on the results of a survey of South African Jewry he had led with the words, “You are the super Jews of the world.” He backed up his statement by detailing the high levels of Jewish identity and involvement and correspondingly low rates of assimilation and intermarriage. He spoke about the superb network of communal organisations that literally do provide “womb to tomb” services for the community, whether it be providing religious facilities, welfare, education (both for youth and seniors), Zionism, culture and heritage, social outreach, and other relevant areas.

Kosmin’s upbeat views on the achievements of South African Jews have been echoed by our international counterparts, who see us as a model diaspora community in many ways.

There is another plus factor that cannot be under-estimated, namely the consistently low rate of anti-Semitism in our country compared to so many other parts of the diaspora.

In South Africa, annual anti-Semitic incidents are counted in the dozens, whereas elsewhere including in other English-speaking countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, they are counted in the hundreds and in several cases, even the thousands.

Local anti-Semitic activity seldom takes the form of serious violence against Jews or Jewish property, which is sadly not the case in Europe or North America.

Only last week, a planned attack on a synagogue in the US was discovered. This is in the wake of two previous attacks on Jewish places of worship in the US that claimed 12 lives. Taken as a whole, South Africa is a country where, by and large, Jews can feel safe and accepted.

I’m not suggesting that, Pollyanna-like, we bury our heads in the sand and pretend all is well. Of course, South Africa is wrestling with serious problems, and this inevitably has a negative impact on our community.

It has meant, among other things, that as a result of financial pressure, many of our communal bodies, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies included, have had to look at ways to restructure and where necessary cut back to ensure continued viability.

It has also resulted in increasing emigration, or at least many seriously considering doing so. Understandably, we are all affected by the high levels of stress and anxiety in our society. We can only hope, along with our fellow South Africans, that our country is at least in the process of getting things back on track, even if a great deal of work still lies ahead.

That being said, as a community, we remain remarkably well organised, active, with a strong Jewish identity. We are also – and this is one of the great strengths of South African Jewry – markedly tolerant and non-judgemental when it comes to those who differ from us. This includes our attitude to other beliefs and practices. That’s why I can wear a kippa sruga (knitted kippa) and still feel welcome and comfortable in any shul in which I choose to daven. Make no mistake, this often isn’t the case elsewhere in the world, including in Israel.

Times may be tough at present, yet we must not lose sight of how much we still have to be thankful for. We often fail to give ourselves credit for what we have accomplished and continue to accomplish. This is perhaps especially relevant in challenging times like these. In tough times, the resilience and creativity that has always been the hallmark of our Jewish community tends to come to the fore.

We need to start appreciating what we have while also continually looking for ways to make things better for ourselves and for those who will one day succeed us in ensuring the continuation of the South African Jewish success story.

  • Zev Krengel is national vice-president of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies.

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