The Jewish Community of South Africa has Moved Beyond the Apartheid Era

by David Newman

I have written in the past to extol the virtues of one of the most successful educational experiments in the Jewish world in the past 20 years – the Limmud conferences held every winter vacation on a British UK campus, and which are attended by some 3,000 participants.

A week-long festival of Jewish learning for young and old, religious and secular, who come together for no other purpose than the age-old desire to “study for the sake of it” (limmud lishma).

And now I have experienced the international expansion of Limmud as it has moved beyond the British Isles, to almost every place where there is an organized Jewish community. This past week in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, I witnessed the coming together of 1,000 members of the South African Jewish community to taste the diverse learning opportunities which local and international presenters have offered. The lecture halls have been full from early morning until late at night, with discussion spaces for secular, traditional and orthodox to share and debate their ideas, and the enthusiasm displayed by teachers and students alike is something that all professional teachers, lecturers and rabbis can only dream of.

Each limmud program is tailored to the needs of particular communities. Given the fact that no limmud outside Britain lasts for an entire week, the diversity of topics on offer at the South African weekend – shabbat programs – are by nature more limited. But it still offers enough opportunities for wide-ranging discussions on Judaism – in all its forms and textual variations – Israeli politics and Zionism, global experiences, anti-Semitism and Jewish history – to name but a few major themes – for everyone to find something of interest.

Beyond the conference itself, by far the most impressive encounter of the week was the visit to the Africa tikkun program, where members of the Jewish community have become deeply involved in programs aimed at African youth in the townships, promoting day care and extramural education for those not yet of school age, or who have been unable to gain access to basic education. Originally put together by the former chief rabbi of South Africa, Cyril Harris, community activist and limmud organizer Viv Anstey and the Jewish businessmancum-philanthhropist Bertie Lubner, this program demonstrates the very best of Jewish values in helping those in need (tzedaka), as they attempt to make their own little corner of the world a better place through a practical commitment to the basic Jewish value of tikkun olam.

A visit to a smaller project, Ikhayalami (an NGO which assists Africans who remain stuck in the squalor of the township shacks, (it is estimated that some 15-20 million out of the 45 million residents of South Africa are still in the townships), also throws up the commitment to tikkun olam. The head of the project, Andy Bolnick, explains to visitors that it is her traditional Jewish upbringing with its focus on assisting others, which has brought her to devote her life to this project.

The role of Israel in tikkun olam and humanitarian aid is highlighted by one of the Israeli participants in the Limmud conference, Jerusalemite Micha Odenheimer, whose own NGO Tevel Betzedek brings Jewish students from Israel and the Diaspora together to work on social improvement and construction projects in Nepal and Haiti, and is also seeking to branch out into Africa. While Israel is the recipient of much foreign aid and, in times of need, charity from elsewhere, it is always incumbent upon the Jewish state to give aid to those who are in even greater need, leading to a mutual understanding that we share the same planet.

The Jewish community of South Africa has moved beyond the apartheid era.

While the community as such was somewhat reticent about making a public display of its opposition to apartheid, the numbers of Jews involved in the antiapartheid campaigns were disproportional, similar to the number of Jews involved in the civil rights campaigns in the US during the 1960s. This has not always been remembered by the African communities, especially as they have adopted stances highly critical of Israel, but it is something that the Jewish communities can be rightfully proud of. One of the great civil rights heroes of the twentieth century, South African Jewish politician Helen Zussman, is now recognized as one of the more important Jewish figures of that period, even if she was shunned by the Jewish establishment during the apartheid period.

It is not, and never has been, an easy juggling act for Jewish communities to be critical of the country within which they live while desiring to be accepted.

Much of the community left for less politically sensitive pastures during the past 30 years, reducing the size of the community from 120,000 to approximately 65,000 – but those who remained are still part of a strongly cohesive group.

The recent debate in South Africa concerning the attempted boycott of Ben-Gurion University by the University of Johannesburg has raised many of these fears, but the community has demonstrated a resolve to fight back and reject all comparisons with South African apartheid.

A community which can display these dual concepts of limmud (lishmah) and tikkun olam (not only toward fellow Jews but also toward the less fortunate “other”) is, by definition, a strong community, regardless of its physical numbers. And while we would prefer it if the South African Jewish community were to immigrate, en masse, to Israel, the pride they take in their outreach to others is a model which Jewish communities throughout the world would do well to copy.

David Newman is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.