Chief Rabbi’s Report : UOS Conference August 2007
Since our last conference on the 31st July 2005/ 24 Tammuz 5765 we have mourned and continue to mourn the loss of our beloved Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris of blessed memory. He led our community with such distinction and inspiration for so many years. The longer that I serve the more I appreciate his awesome contribution to our community in so many areas ranging from our Shuls and communal organisations to government and media. His Yahrtzeit 11 Elul will be take place Wednesday night of this week. On behalf of the community we wish Mrs Ann Harris and her entire family long life. May his memory be a blessing for us and in the merit of his good deeds may Hashem continue to look after us all.
Community Active Protection – CAP
Towards the end of 2005 it became clear that the significant increase of contact crime in the city of Johannesburg posed a serious threat to the wellbeing of the community and the sustainability of its future. At that stage I worked very closely with Bradley Sifris, the National Vice Chairman of the CSO in developing a communal response to this threat. Bradley Sifris had designed a security model that could ensure the protection of residents of Johannesburg. The first area for implementation was designated as greater Glenhazel for a variety of reasons, including the high density of a well integrated communal presence as well as highly motivated groups of residents reeling from a number of high profile very violent crimes. In a partnership between the Office of the Chief Rabbi and the CSO we worked with the Glenhazel residents on a fundraising model and a security model. The Glenhazel residents organised themselves into an association call Glenhazel Active Protection (GAP). We then established an Incident Comand Control Centre (ICCC) which was funded centrally and not from the Glenhazel residents. The plan went live in November 2006 and had an immediate and dramatic impact with an 85% reduction in contact crime in the greater Glenhazel area, which includes Glenhazel, Percelia, Talboton, Fairmount, Glensan, Fairvale, Sunningdale, Silvamonte and parts of Lyndhurst. Since then I have established CAP Central Committee which is chaired by Mr. James Teeger. The CAP central committee has since then overseen the roll out of this program in Sydenham, Savoy, Waverley, Oaklands, Orchards, Gardens, Cheltondale. The method is to establish a community of residents who then, with guidance and support from the centre, implement the plan. We have active committees working in many areas of Johannesburg and in the near future we should see roll out in Houghton, Senderwood, Linksfield, Highlands North, Sandringham and other areas. Bradley Sifris continues to direct the security operations of this project and he has been absolutely brilliant.
Our intention is to cover as much of Jewish Johannesburg as possible in as short a time as possible realising that violent crime poses a threat to the very foundation of our community. We are grateful to G-d for the success of this project and I have been personally inspired to see the level of talent and commitment from our community members who are leading this project from various areas in Johannesburg. What has also been very positive has been the cross cultural and religious cooperation. For example in Houghton, the committee under Jewish leadership comprises of prominent Muslim and Hindu leaders and in Senderwood/Linksfield it comprises of prominent Italian and Greeks leaders of the community. The CAP project works together with the South African Police Service and I have briefed the Minister of Safety and Security on the core elements and he supports it.
Community visits are a very important part of the responsibilities because they afford the opportunity of direct face-to-face connection with the members of the community. Obviously the top priority is to visit our UOS shuls. At the office we have a comprehensive list of all our shuls and I am continuously working through that list. On average I visit Cape Town about once a month and have been very involved with many communal matters there involving the shuls and, for example, the Sea Point Eiruv. In the case of the latter I would like to commend the sterling work of Rabbi Anton Klein who has recently taken responsibility of eiruvin and other duties as part of his appointment by the UOS to the panel of the Beth Din.
My wife and I attend many of these functions hosted by a variety of different organisations. Most of the time I deliver a short message at the beginning of the function which takes the form of a Dvar Torah linked to the theme of the evening. So for example at the Maccabi dinner I spoke about the Torah approach to sport and health. These functions are an important part of the work because they are an opportunity to engage with many people on a one-to-one basis and they are an opportunity to spread Torah messages to our community.
An important part of the work of the office Chief Rabbi is to be a source of Torah guidance and input on all of the affairs of our community. Therefore, by office the Chief Rabbi sits as a member of many communal committees such as the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the South African Zionist Federation, the South African Board of Jewish Education, MaAfrika Tikkun and the Holocaust Centre.
A few months ago I started hosting a monthly luncheon for Rabbonim. An invitation goes out to as many Rabbis as possible. Over the last 3 luncheons, there have been on average more than 35 to 40 Rabbis in attendance, and most of the senior Rabbis come. At each luncheon I invite a different Rabbi to present a 15 – 20 minute shiur in halocha following which we discuss a particular issue in the community, for example the problem of shidduchim. This forum is vitally important because it provides me with the opportunity of engaging regularly with the Rabbis in our community upon whom the entire success of our community rests. Of course there is the Annual Rabbinical Conference which is organised by the Office of the Chief Rabbi and has been named after the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris. Rabbi Hendler and his staff do most of the work for the organisation of the conference and I would like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to him for his work in this area and all areas in our community. Rabbi Hendler has been released from some of his responsibilities in the Office of the Chief Rabbi to enable him to head up the new and exciting project of Community Development in the UOS. I am grateful that Rabbi Hendler still has some time available for the Chief Rabbinate and apart from organizing the Rabbinical Conference he, for example, continues to represent the Chief Rabbinate on a variety of inter-faith fora where his long-standing respect and relationships serve the cause well. I would like to use this opportunity of thanking Rabbi Hendler for his support and important work for the Office of the Chief Rabbi.
Government and South African Society
The South African Government has great respect for religious leaders and for the Jewish community and as a result I am invited to numerous Presidential functions, including the national awards ceremony as well dinners for visiting heads of state. These are important occasions which have enabled me to establish for the benefit of our community a number of vital relationships with Government leaders. Also through my role as an executive member of the National Religious Leaders Forum, I meet with the President and senior Cabinet ministers about twice a year together with other religious leaders. If a matter of great urgency and importance to our community arises then a direct meeting with the President can be arranged like in fact occurred on the issue of crime when I met with the President and the Minister of Safety and Security to inform them of the level of crisis on the ground in Johannesburg.
Also I try to meet with key editors, opinion makers and leaders in the South African context so that as a community we are well connected and part of what is going on in the country.
Guest Speakers and Special Forums
One way of strengthening our community and linking to Jewish world is through hosting top Jewish leaders. This last year we hosted Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks who visit was a great benefit to our community on many levels. At last years rabbinical conference we brought out Rabbi Hershel Shechter, Rosh Yeshivah at Yeshivah University. Next week we will be hosting, please G-d, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, Rosh Yeshivah of Philadelphia Yeshivah, and one of the gedolim of the Jewish world today. He will be a guest of our rabbinical conference as well as speak at many communal venues. His visit came as a result of my visit to America for a geirus conference and I flew to Philadelphia to meet him. It was at that meeting that he offered to come to South Africa.
Once a year, a special youth leadership forum is hosted by the Office of the Chief Rabbi. It brings together young leaders of a wide variety of organizations for a debate with the Chief Rabbi about current and relevant issues. The first one was held last year and it was very enthusiastically received. I have an active involvement with the youth movements and try to visit some of the year-end Camps.
The face-to-face communication of physical visits to the community is very important but not sufficient. Mass communication with our community is vital and expected. In this regard my weekly radio program Chief Rabbi on Air is playing an important role and has an average listenership of between 14 000 and 17 000 per week according to the last official statistics available from SABC. The content of and advertising for the programme is directed to the Jewish community. I have also begun a twice yearly distribution of a special Yom Tov message for Pesach and Yom Kippur which takes the form of an essay printed on a beautifully designed hard copy leaflet that is distributed throughout shul on pews on first night Pesach and Kol Nidrei: the two nights which have the highest attendance of the year. These essays are in addition to the numerous Yom Tov messages which I write for the UOS magazine, the Jewish Tradition as well as other community publications such as the Cape Jewish Chronicle, the South African Jewish Report and the very many shul publications. Over and above Yom Tov messages within the Jewish community I have begun publishing Yom Tov messages in the general press for example the Star and the Independent group as well as special Televised Rosh Hashanah message with the SABC. In general, an attempt is being made to deal with the Jewish and general media in a more pro-active and strategic way.
The area of mass communication is one that I will be concentrating on even more in the coming months, with the launching of two new mass communication initiatives. The one is a newly designed website that will contain the archived material about the speeches that I give at functions amongst others, also the intention is to launch a monthly email message to the community to a database of which is currently being built. Ryan Davis has joined the team on a part time basis at the Office of the Chief Rabbi to drive this area of operation. Already he has done very good work in building data bases of the various constituencies that we have to communicate with. He has also been helping with various other special projects, where his skills and experience as a youth leader have been important.
The Batmitzvah program of the shuls has always been coordinated by the United Hebrew Schools (UHS), which is an organisation that ran inter alia the Cheder System for all the shuls. I was approached by the UHS to take over the running of the Batmitzvah program which I have done because it presents a very unique opportunity of reaching many Jewish families and bringing them closer to Judaism through innovative programming. I facilitated the hiring of a director for the UHS whose mandate it has been to redirect and reformulate the Batmitzvah course in such a way that it is made as exciting as possible and that it nurtures within the girls and their families an increased appreciation for and a love of Judaism. It is set it up in such a way that the new director reports to the director of the DIJE so that there is expert oversight as well as good synergy. This project has worked remarkably well. Rosy Hollender was appointed as director and her creativity and passion for the work has made an enormous contribution. She has also worked well with the current Batmitzvah teachers. The feedback on the redesign has been very positive. We are in the process of expanding to Cape Town an area where the UHS has never worked before. The future visions for the project are a continued expansion by bringing more girls into the Batmitzvah program who otherwise would not have had a Batmitzvah, as well as at some point in the future to work eventually on a revamped Barmitzvah program. All of this can develop into a powerful engine to drive youth involvement in our shuls.
Bill of Responsibilities
Earlier this year I presented an idea for a Bill of Responsibilities to the Minister of Education. The idea is to formulate a document which corresponds to the Bill of Rights such that for each right there is a corresponding responsibility. This document would then be promulgated in classrooms throughout the country and would be recited at special school occasions such as assembly. A detailed understanding of the responsibility would be presented to students as part of the Life Orientation curriculum. The purpose of such a document would be to create a culture of responsibility in South Africa on the basis that the youth of South Africa is the most important place to start. In the last conference report I mentioned a project of the Bill of Morals which was the precursor for the Bill of Responsibility. The Bill of Morals was intended to be a national document and not merely a schools document. From a practical point of view and especially given the Minister of Educations enthusiasm a project which begins in schools has a much better chance of success. The concept of a Bill of Responsibilities was presented to President Thabo Mbeki at a meeting at the National Religious Leaders Forum. I made the presentation together with the Minister of Education. The President supported it unequivocally stressing the urgency of the project. At the moment I have been working with the ministry on a joint draft document which will be released for public comment. This project has the potential to have an impact on the future of South Africa addressing as it addresses one of the core challenges of moral regeneration.
Response to Crisis
An important aspect of the Chief Rabbinate is that the community looks to it for guidance and reassurance during times of crisis, whether that crisis is an international one like the tsunami or an event affecting the State of Israel such as the disengagement. People look to the Chief Rabbi for a Torah response on these and other occasions. A variety of responses have been used whether it is a call for Tehillim, a written message or a special radio broadcast. Most recently for example, there were many attacks levelled against Israel in the media around the occasion of the anniversary of the Six Day War. May of these attacks were led by prominent politicians and organisations. I received numerous requests from the community for a response, as a result I wrote an article defending the reputation of the State of Israel and it was published in the Sunday Times. The response from our community was one of huge support and almost relief that someone had stood up in an unapologetic fashion to defend Israel. The article was also published in our local Jewish press, the Jerusalem Post and Internet sites.
An enormous amount of effort has been invested in ensuring that all public interaction with the Office of the Chief Rabbi be handled in a courteous and efficient manner. There are numerous and constant requests for meetings, functions, articles and all kinds of problems that pour through the office whether by email or telephone. We regard it to be a matter of utmost priority that a friendly atmosphere is generated around the office and people get responses to their requests as soon as possible. In this regard I would like to pay public thanks to Jodi Rakusin for her outstanding work in running the office. I constantly hear from people that her warmth and energy create a very positive image for the Office of the Chief Rabbi.
Beth Din and Chief Rabbi
I have also benefited greatly from working very closely with Rabbi Kurtstag and all the Dayanim of the Beth Din on many communal matters. We meet regularly and the partnership leadership of the Beth Din and Chief Rabbi is vital to the continued well being of our community. I would like to pay tribute to Rabbi Kurstag in particular who has recently marked 30 years of service on the Beth Din. His stature and leadership has held the community together for so long. We look forward to many more years of his leadership.
I would like to thank the outgoing chairman of the UOS Mr Rafi Bricker and the Executive Council for all their support over the last two years. We are all working in partnership for the wellbeing of our community and their dedication to the cause is an inspiration to us all. I would also like to thank Mr Darren Sevitz for his professionalism and dedication to the general running of the UOS which is so vital in facilitating all of the important work of the various departments of the UOS.