More than two thousand South African Jewish women converged on a street in Johannesburg’s Glenhazel neighbourhood two weeks ago to learn the intricacies of preparing challah – the bread Jews customarily eat on Friday nights when saying Kiddush to mark the onset of Shabbat.
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The street had been closed Thursday evening, with permission from the city council, and the scene was set for the women-only challah bake, where they learnt to knead and shape the dough before taking it home to bake for their Shabbat.
Their degree of religiosity ranged from secular to committedly frum. The event had the feeling of a festival, but with a serious intention.
The challah bake was part of The Shabbos Project, brainchild of Orthodox Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein to entice Jews, regardless of their degree of religiosity, into observing at least some aspects of Shabbat, without finger-wagging them to keep the full package of ritual.
South African rabbis are cock-a-hoop at the results. The project fell on fertile ground and the massive turnout exceeded all expectations.
South African Jewish leaders look askance at their American counterparts, wringing their hands over the increasing numbers of United States Jews who feel no Jewish identity at all, as exposed in the recent Pew survey.
By contrast, all indications are that Jewish ethnicity and religiosity are alive, well and strengthening among South African Jews, who number a miniscule 70,000, compared to the six million Jews in the U.S.
In a nation of 50 million with strong ethnic consciousness, the Shabbos Project was a demonstration of Jewish cohesion. Virtually the entire Jewish mainstream – secular and religious – was set abuzz by the prospect of observing that Shabbat, collectively and individually.
Marketed with extreme professionalism, with the help of an advertising agency, the project's light-hearted tenor generated excitement countrywide. Even secular Jewish celebrities endorsed it – like cricketing supremo Ali Bacher, comedian Nik Rabinowitz, sports administrator Raymond Hack and Benita Levin, news editor on Radio 702, one of the country’s premier radio stations. Jewish groups, including Modern Orthodox, Chabad and Ohr Somayach, teamed up in support.
The Shabbat toolkit
The several weeks of build-up included a free Shabbat “toolkit” of user-friendly cards with instructions and explanations, newspaper adverts, a vibrant website and Facebook page and mass emailings to Jews.
The dedicated events included closing another Johannesburg street – two-thirds of SA Jewry lives in Johannesburg – near the large Great Park shul, where long tables were set up for a mass open-air Friday night dinner. Special discounts were offered in hotels near shuls for people who lived far away to stay and walk to shul on Shabbat. Provision was made for Jews to spend Shabbat in an artists’ precinct in downtown Johannesburg, before participating in Nike We Run Jozi, a 10km night run through the city. Post-Shabbat concerts took place with well-known performers like Shlomo Katz and Yonatan Razel.
Rabbi Goldstein characterized the project’s ethos as people “owning” their experience of Shabbat by doing it themselves, rather than just attending a pre-arranged community event. It worked. In a mass email the following week, he thanked the community for making the project “so much more than we could ever have dreamt possible.”
South Africans have experienced nerve-wracking times over several decades during the country’s struggle from apartheid to democracy. Along with other groups, many Jews, concerned for their personal safety, immigrated to what they thought were safer shores – Australia, the U.S. Israel, etc. SA Jewry today numbers just over half what it was in the 1970s. Its morale fell amidst the tumult of the country's post-apartheid struggle to find its feet.
Things have improved in recent years. The community is less restless, its numbers have stabilized and a new, robust sense of South Africanness has developed. A 2005 survey of SA Jews by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Cape Town found that 79 percent believed they were ‘very likely to continue living in South Africa for the next five years,' compared to only 44 percent in 1998.
There is also a clear trend of increasingly strict Orthodox religiosity, particularly amongst 18-34 year olds, indicating growing communal religiosity in the future as less religious, older sectors die off. When asked by the survey to identify their religious lifestyle, 66 percent answered ‘traditional,’ meaning mildly Orthodox with strong Jewish identity. Some 14 percent called themselves ‘strictly Orthodox’ and 7 percent Reform. Approximately 12 percent were minimally Jewish. Other indicators revealed strong ethnicity – for example, 95 percent of Jews with spouses or partners were with Jewish ones.
In the small SA Jewish community, rabbis play key roles. The charismatic, late former Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, who arrived from London in 1987 as apartheid was waning, was crucial in leading SA Jewry into the new dispensation. He developed a personal friendship with former President Nelson Mandela, spoke at his induction ceremony as President and represented SA Jewry at the faith-group hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, where 41 groups gave representations. He apologized for Jewish communal acquiescence during apartheid – a factor shared by most groups, who buckled under the brutality of the regime.
This is not to say there is total unanimity among SA Jews. For example, the Orthodox rabbinate’s resistance to the annual Limmud conference is a divisive issue, though increasing numbers of kippah-wearing Orthodox Jews attend year-by-year. And some Jews are simply unmoved by The Shabbos Project or anything like it. As in any community, there are people on the margins, disconnected from the mainstream for political, religious or social reasons. Some are indifferent to things Jewish, others are uncomfortable with what they view as the excessive influence of Orthodox rabbis.
How does one measure The Shabbos Project’s success? Commentators ask whether in three months’ time, it will be viewed as a one-off, communal party unique to South Africa, or a model which could be replicated elsewhere to solidify Jewish identity – in the U.S., for example.
To return to the international scenario: American Jewry’s condition is of theoretical concern to South African Jews, but their own reality differs starkly. When an entire community gets excited about Shabbat observance, its cohesion looks likely to remain strong in coming years.