Your way, my way: The tightrope of being Jewish ‘enough’ in this world


SA Jews – a different future? Jewish South African politician Jack Bloom in a shanty town near Johannesburg where he spent time after a devastating fire. He chronicled his experiences in his 2015 book, “30 Nights in a Shack.” In an interview, he says the experience prodded him to return to his Jewish roots. He was inspired by legendary Jewish anti-Apartheid politician Helen Suzman (photo Times of Israel)

WARNINGS of alarming schisms threatening the Jewish people’s future have come in the last two months from two international Jewish heavyweights: Ronald Lauder, right-wing billionaire, Donald Trump supporter, and president of the World Jewish Congress; and Naomi Chazan, left-wing professor of politics at the Hebrew University and former speaker of the Knesset. Their views also challenge South African Jewry.

Lauder’s article in the New York Times last week described rising rifts between the world’s two largest Jewish communities, America and Israel. Young Americans compare Israel’s ethos on human rights and similar issues to theirs, and are becoming alienated. This is exacerbated by domination of Israel’s government by ultra-Orthodox parties, and PM Netanyahu’s apparent disregard of how his policies are perceived by Diaspora Jewry.

Examples of the past year include the government withdrawing from an agreement to create an egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, proposing a strict conversion law impinging on non-Orthodox Jews’ rights, and a law denying equal rights to same-sex couples.

Lauder says the vast majority of the world’s Jews are not Orthodox, but traditional, secular, Conservative, Reform or unaffiliated. Orthodoxy should be respected, “but we cannot allow the politics of a radical minority to alienate millions of Jews worldwide.”

Chazan’s equally sombre warning in July in a Times of Israel blog said two Jewish worlds are being created: A progressive, open, liberal and pluralistic mindset among most American Jews; and a conservative, particularistic, introspective and much less tolerant worldview in contemporary Israel.

She quotes American Jewish Committee polls: 73 per cent of American Jews support a mixed-gender prayer area near the Kotel, but only 42 per cent of Israeli Jews; 80 per cent of American Jews favor allowing non-Orthodox rabbis to perform marriages, divorces and conversions, but only 49 per cent of Israeli Jews. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict shows similar divisions: 85 per cent of Israelis applauded Trump’s decision to relocate America’s embassy to Jerusalem, but only 46 per cent of American Jews.

Does South African Jewry fit this American-Israeli split? South African Jews have extensive links to both America and Israel, but contrary to America, this tiny community of 70,000 is largely Orthodox-dominated – the Reform component is tiny, and many Jews have chosen to be unaffiliated. South African Jewry at large has a reputation of being conservative on Judaism and Israel, and the violence-ridden South African society also creates a tendency to be inward-looking, although with some notable exceptions of people who engage deeply with the society in political and social activism.

There are indications of a different trend, however, even in the mainstream of the community, towards a more open attitude along the lines of the American Jewish mindset, exemplified by the phenomenal growth of the annual Jewish liberal conference, Limmud, a concept which is hosted worldwide. When it was launched in South Africa in August 2007, senior Orthodox rabbis would not participate – as was the case almost everywhere in Jewish communities worldwide, even though Limmud does not oppose the principles of Orthodoxy.

On 25 October 2013, the SA Jewish Report reported: ‘In 2008, the Southern African Rabbinical Association discouraged members from participating, referring in a resolution to its “existing policy toward the upcoming Limmud learning programme, which is that no (Orthodox) rabbi will accept an invitation to participate”.’

This policy is still largely in place but it has not dented Limmud’s growth, and relationships between the Orthodox establishment and other streams are generally characterised by goodwill and tolerance. This month’s hugely successful Limmud was packed to the rafters with Jews of every stripe.

But still, reported the Jewish Report in the same issue of 2013, among South African Jewry, the issue regretfully sits like the proverbial “elephant in the room” particularly in the light of “the stunning success of recent projects emanating from the Orthodox establishment, such as Sinai Indaba and the Shabbos Project.”

Taking a cue from Chazan: Will South African Jewry develop in the future according to the open, liberal and pluralistic American Jewish ethos, or the Israeli model of a conservative, particularistic, introspective, less tolerant worldview?

It will be neither. It exists in a very different environment to both. This corruption-ridden, unstable South Africa, with its ethnic and racial pressures and hostility towards Israel, influences how the community defines itself in a different way to both America and Israel. And the needs of SA society will make radically different demands on it in political and other ways. In whatever manner things develop in the relationship between Orthodoxy and other streams of Judaism, there are a multitude of other tough issues South African Jewry will have to deal with, and its resources will have to work together and evolve to be unique to the situation here – a challenge as great anything else.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: