Notes From Johannesburg
A visit to Johannesburg began with elation in the company of a thriving Torah community, and ended with a mussar shmuess from some refugees from Zimbabwe.
I’m not sure that there is anything like it anywhere else. Nothing in my experience. A full day of presentations, food, music, in the company of thousands of Jews, frum and not frum, all celebrating their Jewishness. All executed – maybe choreographed is a better word – with the precision and wizardry of a Hollywood production.
I had the pleasure and privilege of being one of the presenters at the seventh annual Sinai Indaba event in Johannesburg. It was the brainchild of the remarkable Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, who was also the originator of the Shabbos Project idea – the global celebration of Shabbos together with Jews of all stripes – and made that a reality despite everyone else telling him that it couldn’t be done. (Indaba is Zulu for a tribal meeting. I didn’t know that. Speaking to a gathering of Johannesburg rabbonim before the event began, I said that I assumed that Indaba was an acronym for the Chief Rabbi’s motto, which must be, “If No one else Does Anything ‘Bout it, Act!”) The event is modeled after Limmud, which began in the UK and spread. Limmud, however, is open to all sorts of positions and presenters, including those who reject Torah entirely. Many in the Orthodox world are extremely uncomfortable participating in a day of learning and study that puts heresy on the same footing as genuine Torah, and sit it out. (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks did not attend while Chief Rabbi; his successor has made peace with it.) Some participate, arguing that at least they have an opportunity to reach some unaffiliated Jews. South Africa enjoys a special position. There are no Reform or Conservative pockets of strength to speak of, and whose clergy would resist a day of purely “kosher” presentations. Rabbi Goldstein saw the opportunity, and ran with it.
My enjoyment began with taking in the Torah atmosphere of the Johannesburg community. I had last been there 45 years ago. At the time, it was on the cusp of a teshuvah revolution, spearheaded by people like Ivan Ziskind and the fledgling Johannesburg Kollel, and R. Moshe Sternbuch, who commuted at times between Yerushalayim and South Africa. It was a place in which people could be led back to Torah through exposure to learning coupled with rational persuasion, because the dominant Jewish flavor was Lithuanian, which placed a premium on a good argument. Other than Chabad, which was also engaged successfully in outreach, there was no chassidishe presence. Yekkes had a strong community in Yeoville. But most people were Litvaks, albeit non-observant. (One fellow I met at the time told me that he had asked his rebbi in Lita whether to follow his parents to South Africa. The rebbi told him that if he did, he would throw his observance overboard on the ship heading there. “How could I not listen to my rebbi?” he asked, in explanation of his non-observance.) Telz exerted an early influence through R. Avraham Tanzer, who still heads the large school system he has been associated with for decades, as well as R. Azriel Goldfein, z”l. The latter, first brought out by R. Tanzer, eventually began his own institution, the Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg, which trained the current Chief Rabbi, among others.
The Jewish Johannesburg I saw was nothing like the one I had left. The children and grandchildren of the original group of returnees coalesced around the Glenhazel neighborhood, which now sports dozens of shuls, kosher markets – really all the accoutrements of frum living. What would be smaller shteiblach in Flatbush are large, beautifully appointed buildings in the middle of residential streets. The kiruv groups like Ohr Somayach were so successful, that they turned into conventional shuls/communities, and kiruv is no longer what is done in them. (Realizing this, Ohr Somayach rose to the occasion by starting an spin-off division which does the kiruv work.)
Because of the outsize proportion of BTs – first, second and third generation – Johannesburg has been spared, at least till now, some of the less pleasant aspects of haredi life in large East Coast population centers. There is far less pressure to conform to strongly imposed communal norms that do not directly reside within halacha. There is far more openness to ideas coming from beyond a very narrow few overseen by assumed Protectors of the Faith. Secular studies are far better than in some cities we know. Traditional civility (which used to be part of what is called derech eretz) is very much evident.
Most importantly, people get along with each other. They have not yet been visited with the plague of avoiding/snubbing/dissing those who do not think and act exactly the same way they do. I got the very strong impression that most of them do not understand the value of this blessing, and how different this makes them from other Orthodox communities. I found it both exciting and depressing. Exciting, because it is the way things should be. Depressing, because it seems to be precisely because of their baal-teshuva history and their lack of more “mainstream” elements in the Jewish enclave that they have held on to this openness. (I suppose that an alternative explanation is an argument – offered by many of our commenters in the past – that the parts of haredi life that people complain about are at their worst in the largest population centers. They can be avoided by going “out of town,” i.e. to cities geographically removed from the herd mentality of large, insular communities.)
Before the large-scale activities began on motza’ei Shabbos, R. Goldstein had some of us speak in various shuls. Leyl Shabbos, I spoke in a large haredi shul about the great brachah of their communal unity, using a beautiful piece from Sefer HaParshios on Pikudei about two different kinds of “accounting,” one that inventoried how much a person had acquired, the second that determined how much he owed Hashem for His largesse. (I explained a bit about the author, R. Eliyahu Kitov, and the often-ignored masterpiece that he penned. After davening, someone came over and identified himself as his son-in-law!)
The next morning at Ohr Somayach I spoke about a more esoteric subject, acceding to the request of one if its rabbis, whom I had met on Thursday: determining the propriety and limits of trends and opinions that overlap with themes of secular society. The best fit was with a thought of R. Kook on matzah representing the creation of a Jewish nation in an instant (rather than over centuries), and that this was only possible because they were kept free at the time of all culturally foreign influences, i.e. chametz.
My presentations at the actual event motza’ei Shabbos and Sunday (one as panel participant; one on the need to reevaluate our relationship with non-Jews, particularly religious groups that strongly support Israel; one B”H on a “pure” Torah topic: how the Maharal approaches aggada) were eerie. Hundreds of people attended the smallest one. Impossible to see a single face at the largest one, because the lights trained on presenters were blinding.
Turning to non-Jewish Johannesburg, the contrast with the one I knew long ago could not be greater. Apartheid was in full force when I was there. The old Jewish-Black alliance in the US had crumbled before my formative years. I grew up in an atmosphere of escalating conflict between Jews and blacks in NY, at the height of identity politics. (I remember walking into a classroom building at Queens College, to be greeted by an exhibit from a black students’ group that bore the legend, “How odd of G-d/ To choose the Jews.”) Nonetheless, meeting up with apartheid at close range pushed me in a more liberal direction. That might have been helped along by the fact that I stayed at that time with the famous R. Norman Bernhard, z”l, who was an outspoken public opponent of apartheid as an Orthodox rabbi of a very large shul.
How much had changed since the fall of apartheid, and its replacement by a black majority government? Nelson Mandela steered the country away from a bloodbath and towards reconciliation. What happened since then? Cynics will point to widespread poverty, and little determination by the largely black government to do much about it. The ruling party, the ANC, besides being fiercely anti-Israel, also has within its ranks thugs and murderers. Corruption is widespread, leading to the recent departure of the late-lamented President Zumba. Societies of haves and have-nots live parallel to each other, maintained no longer by law, but by economics.
Yet, in one of those glass-half-full-or-half-empty situations, the turnaround on the social level has been remarkable. A half-century ago, whites and blacks did not engage each other much, save as master and servant. Today, they engage in casual banter as they greet each other in the street. At the University of the Witwatersrand, which was almost entirely white during the decades of enforced apartheid, blacks today outnumber whites by a three to one margin – and it remains an institution noted for its academic excellence. The unfortunate diehard racists among us might be cured by seeing what can happen to people released – at least legally – from oppression, but who were not stripped of their culture and identity in the worst of times, unlike the black experience in the US. They became hard workers at every profession and discipline imaginable, motivated in part by having no choice, since government entitlement programs were not going to keep them afloat. The Uber drivers I met were putting in sixteen hour days. They weren’t happy with the long hours and inadequate pay, but they weren’t calling for overthrow of the government either.
My last day in Johannesburg began with a presentation I made to a group of clergy who gathered at the Chief Rabbi’s office. All but one represented churches not known for strong pro-Israel sentiment. I spoke about the growing hostility to religion itself in the West, and how those who strongly believed in absolutes and a G-d who made normative demands upon people needed to band together to make the case for belief more strongly. It would have been inappropriate to use the bully pulpit to lecture them about Israel, but I was able to at least make the case strongly and passionately that accepting the alternative reality of the BDS movement about Israel was an immoral use of falsehood in pursuit of social justice. Side with the Palestinians, if you must. But don’t embrace falsehoods like the charge of apartheid, or the essential illegitimacy of the Jewish State. Surprisingly, all parts of the presentation were well received.
One of the attendees was a controversial Anglican bishop who is the only white man living in the slum of Soweto along with three million black people. An early, vigorous opponent of apartheid, he nonetheless aroused the ire of Winnie Mandela; the vendetta between them persists. He graciously agreed to show me around Soweto, and to introduce me to some of young people he currently assists. (His cell phone went off continuously with calls from strangers who appealed for his help. He took each call with patience and grace.)
A group of six men and women in their twenties agreed to speak with me. They had reason not to. They were all illegal immigrants, having fled the chaos in a Zimbabwe reeling from decades of abuse at the hands of dictator Robert Mugabe. The South African government takes the position that they have enough on their plate dealing with their own poor, and insist on deporting them. The bishop gives them and many others refuge, which has gotten him in trouble with his own church, as well as the government. None of the young people had ever met a Jew, let alone a rabbi, although they had heard about Jews and even about the Holocaust. I asked them for their stories, and then quickly cut to the chase. There are hundreds of millions of people who would like to flee their countries and go elsewhere. Did they believe that all borders should be erased? What would they respond to those in the South African government – and many others – that many countries struggle to deal with their own problems, and would be overwhelmed by an influx of immigrants?
I did not get the response that I might have gotten at a large American university campus, condemning all borders as xenophobic and colonialist. Two in the group were especially articulate – and upbeat, despite surviving harrowing experiences. One of them was memorable. “I don’t take the open borders position at all. That is not the cause of our resentment. Rather, for decades the situation was the reverse. People in South Africa were fighting the apartheid regime. The situation was much better in nearby Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was previously known). We were related to the people of South Africa by language, culture, and origin. We were asked to donate money each month to support the struggle in South Africa, and we did – regularly. Now that the tables have been turned, and we are the ones in need, they turn a deaf ear to our plight. We feel betrayed.” I thought of all the heartache and pain that people feel – spouse, parents, neighbors – for similar reasons. The Chayei Adam’s expansion of the Yom Kippur vidui comes to mind. “Bogadnu: We acted treacherously, one man to another, rewarding good with evil.”
Returning to less lofty matters, the best perk of the visit was the food. Great meals, great company. Biltong. (The hosting was so perfect, that saying anything more about it would be a classic case of avak lashon hora!) Because my physician and wife warn me to watch calories, I checked all the labels. None of them said anything about calories, so I assumed I could eat as much as I wanted. I did, however, ingest quite a few of something called “kilojoules.” Someday, I’ll have to to learn what they are all about.