Forty years ago Jewish Johannesburg was a very different place. The community was largely “Traditional” in observance, which meant that they drove to an Orthodox Shul on a Friday night and made sure to not consume a milkshake with their non-kosher burger on Saturday. Pessach adherence meant removing the bread from their Cheeseburger and Yom Kippur ended with a Yom Kippur Dance that required preparation from mid afternoon. Hardly a woman covered her hair (or pretty much anything else) and satin kippot had a firm and noticeable pocket crease.
Today things are more than slightly different. Despite tremendous political and economic uncertainty (as well as criminal), the community is thriving. Multiple Jewish Day schools, Yeshivot, shuls, aged homes, a sophisticated and caring welfare system, Jewish Newspaper, its own Jewish radio station Beth Din and Hatzola all thrive. A spirit of inclusiveness is what defines of the community. And although everyone still complains about the cost of kosher chickens, there is a sense of pride of what has been established at the tip of Africa. What began with a group of bedraggled and tired survivors has culminated in strong and dynamic force that is in many ways an example to the world.
There are many reasons why Johannesburg has seen such a strong return to Jewish Observance. One of them was the approach of the Rabbinate who had to make “Compromises” that they might well have not been comfortable with. The fact that many Jews drove to shul on a Friday night (filling the parking lot) could not have been easy for them. And yet no one stood on the pulpit demanding that they cease to do so. The Rabbis knew full well that if their members didn’t drive to shul then they would drive elsewhere and that the link to Judaism would be severed. They were encouraged to attend and were not made to feel “less than” for having done so. Rather, many shuls introduced a “Kiddush” after shul on a Friday night, rosters for Shabbat Day attendance, classes in prayer and made sure not to berate members who might not adhere to the strict letter of halachik law.
The Shabbes Project is a South African Export. And it could only be. Brainchild of South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, the concept is one of inclusiveness. It is designed for non Shabbat observant Jews to “keep it together” with those who already adhere to the laws of the day. People are encouraged to invite neighbours and streets are blocked for Shabbat dinners. An alternate approach of course could have been to close off roads and to throw stones at cars driving through the area whilst screaming “Shabbes!” but it takes no expert in human behaviour to know which will yield more results.
Which makes the Kotel debacle so frustrating to watch. The fact that a compromise for an egalitarian prayer area was “Frozen” because of ultra orthodox pressure, will no doubt result in more damage than it will good. It will keep members of the Conservative and Reform communities away from the holiest places open to Jews and in doing so send a message that they have no place in community. It tells a large number of Jews that rather than “Not driving to shul” on a Friday night, that they should find something else to do.
What makes it more puzzling is that even if the goal of those objecting to the egalitarian minyanim is to ultimately make the attendees more “Orthodox”, then surely, having them at the Kotel where they might engage and educate would be way more fruitful. Surely it’s obvious that there is more to be achieved by inviting someone to Shabbat dinner than by throwing stones at them.
The Johannesburg Jewish community is imperfect. There are multiple challenges that exist, and that would exist within any community that strives for cohesiveness. But what counts above all, is that at its heart beats the desire to bring fellow Jews closer to each other. And not further apart.