Chief Rabbi’s Report : UOS Conference August 2013
This is the sixth report that I am submitting on behalf of the Office of the Chief Rabbi to the National Conference of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues.
At the end of 2013 it will be, please G-d, nine years that I have had the privilege to serve as Chief Rabbi and ten years since my appointment was announced in December 2003.
The duty to report to the National Conference of the UOS is important because it involves providing an open account for how public resources have been used for the benefit of the community as intended.
2. South African Society
An important part of the responsibilities of the Office of the Chief Rabbi is to represent the Jewish community and Torah values in the context of the broader South African society. This interaction is multifaceted and takes place at many different levels.
In the area of government and politics since our last conference, I have attended a number of State functions, such as the Opening of Parliament and the Launch of the National Planning Commission, and others.
I have also delivered prayers on various occasions. From time to time requests to deliver a prayer come from a specific political party and the policy is to honour the request irrespective of the political party concerned, or if I am unavailable, to make every attempt to ensure that there is a Rabbi representing our community. For example, at the ANC’s Manguang’s Conference on 16 December 2012 I delivered a prayer together with other religious leaders.
My participation in these events is symbolic of the important standing of the Jewish community in South African society. It also reflects the centrality of the South African ethos of unity and diversity which seeks to involve all South Africans from different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds.
A very important area of interaction is that of interfaith relations. As Chief Rabbi, I am a member of the Executive of the National Religious Leaders Council (NRLC), which is the official interfaith organisation of South Africa and I attend regular meetings, at which I engage with my colleagues from other faiths. The NRLC is involved with and publishes statements concerning important events taking place in South Africa or abroad. I highlight as examples of my engagement with other religious leaders two in which I participated. I was part of a delegation of religious leaders who visited the Marakane Mines at the time of the violent clashes between union workers and the police. We met with mine management and visited injured miners at the nearby hospital. I participated in the launch of an anti-corruption campaign in Cape Town that took place in Khayelitsha in August 2012. From time to time the NRLC meets with cabinet ministers and President Zuma.
Apart from NRLC meetings I have regular separate bi-lateral meetings with senior religious leaders in the country. These relationships are very important to our standing and the contribution we make as a community in South Africa. For example, during 2012, I met with Bishop Lekganyane, the Head of the Zionist Christian Church, as well as Professor Nelus Niemandt, the Head of the NG Kerk.
Included in the purpose of my interaction with senior religious leaders is the broadening of an understanding in South Africa of the Jewish community, Jewish values and our connection to Israel. For example, in June 2013 I hosted senior religious leaders and other members of society for a breakfast which was addressed by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and Ambassador Yehuda Avner. Chief Rabbi Sacks spoke about religious values in a modern society and Ambassador Avner spoke about Israel.
It is important that the South African Jewish community continues to play a relevant and dynamic role in South African society. Torah values require us to pray for the welfare of the government. Prayer is an articulation of our connecting to the hopes and aspirations of the society in which we live. It is, of course, our responsibility to contribute to the best of our ability to the welfare of that society. This is also part of the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem – sanctifying G-d’s name and pursuing ‘darkei shalom’ (ways of peace) with the nations of the world.
In order to facilitate our community’s engagement with the broader South African society, to understand the issues and to contribute to the debate that is taking place in the country, I established a new public platform called “Looking Forward”. This year’s event took place on 21 February 2013 at Investec in Johannesburg and was broadcast live to Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. In Johannesburg more than 600 people attended and there were many hundreds who were turned away as a result of the lack of space. The event was addressed by Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, who is the newly elected Deputy President of the ANC and a prominent South African leader, businessman and social activist. He addressed the gathering about the future of South Africa as well as the role of the Jewish community. I spoke about a philosophy of leadership in and contribution to South Africa; the two addresses were followed by an interactive question and answer session with the audience. The entire event was video-recorded and placed on the internet and has had more than 3 800 views thus far.
The intention is to have an annual “Looking Forward” event, each time with a different prominent South African leader, where we can engage with the current ideas and issues of South Africa. These efforts and initiatives are also part of the philosophy that the Torah applies to every aspect of life and Hashem’s wisdom has a message for South Africa today and that it is part of our responsibility to bring that into the public debate. These objectives are also achieved through writing regular op-ed articles for the South African press, which I continue to do.
During President Nelson Mandela’s on-going and very severe illness, I drafted a prayer for his well-being which was distributed to our community, but also published on the front page of The Star, accompanied by an op-ed article about the significance of Madiba’s leadership for the world. I have been in regular contact with Dr Makaziwe Mandela to offer support to the family on behalf of our community.
3. Shuls and Rabbis
The most important network in our community is that of our shuls and rabbis. Indeed, this organisation, the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, philosophically, politically and halachically draws its legitimacy from the fact that it is the representative body of our network of shuls. It follows that a top priority of the UOS, and by extension the Office of the Chief Rabbi, is to support and strengthen the work of our shuls in serving the members of our community.
This support takes many forms aimed at strengthening the work of our community’s dedicated rabbonim. I host regular rabbinical luncheons. This has been mentioned in previous reports but it is worthy of repeating. At each of these luncheons a different one of our local rabbis delivers a short shiur on an area of halacha that is relevant to our work; this is followed by a discussion relating to selected communal matters. These regular luncheons serve to unify the rabbinate and also to provide a space and opportunity for rabbonim to meet to discuss matters of mutual concern, as well as to draw strength from one another.
These very important objectives are also achieved at our Annual Rabbinical Conference. This year’s conference took place this last week at the new Jewish centre, Izinga, in Umhlanga. I would like to thank Rabbi Ron Hendler for his incredible and dedicated efforts in working with me on the conference. Matters of national importance are debated and there are a number of sessions to sharpen the skills and thinking of our rabbis. The conferences also provide an important opportunity for the rabbinic leadership of our community to bond on a level of friendship. The unity we enjoy is, of course, one of the outstanding features of the South African Jewish community, and these rabbinical interactions are also so important in strengthening that.
The luncheons and the conferences strengthen our shuls by strengthening our rabbonim.
The Torah Platinum Card continues to be of much appreciated financial support to the rabbis of our community.
I attempt to give support to our shuls by visiting as often as practicably possible, as well as by supporting their functions and events. My visits also allow for personal interaction with the congregants. As many of our shuls as possible recently had made available to them this year’s Sinai Indaba’s guest speakers from overseas at no cost to the shuls concerned.
Support is provided for shuls in dealing with problems, such as conflicts between rabbis, committees, choirs, chazzonim etc. (not that they ever occur!). This occurs regularly and I am often approached to help and become involved in discussions with members of various shuls. Obviously, given the sensitive and confidential nature of these issues, I am not able to give any details to conference today concerning them; but it is important to record that the institution of the Chief Rabbinate provides an important service for our community in this area to ensure that there is a neutral place to assist in resolving contentious communal matters without resorting to a Din Torah. I should mention in this context that Rabbi Kurtstag and I often work together on some of these problem areas of our shuls. We co-operate very well together and share the responsibilities in this area in a very open and positive way. I also assist shuls and schools with Rabbinic recruitment when vacancies arise.
The partnership that exists between the Office of the Chief Rabbi and our shuls and rabbis is very important in achieving any community-wide project. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the rabbis and the gabboim of the shuls for working with me on our community projects, such as Sinai Indaba and Generation Sinai. This assistance involves sending out e-mails, making announcements and distributing leaflets and posters at our shuls. So many people have remarked that what is particularly powerful about the projects is all of our shuls seen to be working together in unity.
4. Beth Din
The Beth Din this year celebrates the milestone anniversary of one hundred years of service to the South African Jewish community. During this centenary year we celebrate and recognise that the Beth Din provides the basic religious infrastructure, administration and leadership for our community to live a full Jewish life in South Africa in accordance with the halacha. This conference is an important opportunity to reflect on, and express gratitude, to the generations of dayanim and Roshei Beis Din who have served this community with such distinction, dedication and excellence. The Beth Din provides the vital halachic infrastructure, without which our community could not function : kashrut, gittin, geirut (conversion), dinei Torah, and many others. In particular, let us all pay tribute to our Rosh Beth Din, Rabbi Moshe Kurstag and the other Dayanim, for their dedicated and outstanding leadership over so many years.
As I have mentioned in previous reports, I meet regularly with the Beth Din and we work in partnership on many areas of common responsibility. For example, we worked very closely on the recent shechita issues. At the regular meetings with the Beth Din, we discuss many matters, both halachic and communal. On a personal level, I would like to thank Rabbi Kurstag for his ongoing support, advice and partnership in so many areas.
At our national conference it is important to take the opportunity to reflect on the importance of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues to our community. It is the most representative Jewish organisation in the country in that we have more paid-up members and constituents, through the grass root membership of all our member UOS shuls, than any other organisation. This achievement is important not only from a political point of view, but from a halachic and a legal point of view because it gives the UOS legitimacy and authority to create one community of the many communities that make up South Africa and to create the vital institutions required to provide the Torah infrastructure of our South African Jewish community, such as the Beth Din, Kashrut infrastructure and the Office of the Chief Rabbi.
I would like to thank the current Executive Council and especially the Chairman, Mr. Jonathan Levitt, for their support, encouragement and leadership over the last two years. I would also like to use this opportunity to thank Darren Sevitz, the CEO of the UOS, who for more than a decade has served the UOS and, by extension, the South African Jewish community, with great loyalty and dedication.
I would like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to the memory of Mr Jackie Sifris, who passed on last year. Jackie Sifris exemplified the highest values of Jewish leadership : integrity, honesty, humility and responsibility. Jackie Sifris served in many communal positions, and most notably as Chairman and President of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues. In all these positions, he made a lasting and profound contribution to our community. We all sorely miss his warm personality, kindness and energy.
It is also important to note that although the UOS is a national organisation, the UOS Cape Council is constitutionally a separate organisation from the UOS Federation Council, the latter of which has authority in Gauteng, Kwazulu/Natal, Free State and the Eastern Cape. The Office of the Chief Rabbi and that of the Rosh Beth Din are joint institutions of these two councils, and so an important part of my work involves Cape Jewry. In this regard, I would also like to thank the Chairman of the Cape Council, Mr Ivan Klitzner, and his Management and Executive Committees for their support and leadership, as well as Mr Eric Berger, who is the Executive Director of the Cape Council, for his dedicated service.
6. Community Active Protection (“CAP”)
In November 2013, CAP will celebrate its seventh anniversary of protecting people from violent crime. From its inception seven years ago I have been very involved, together with a team of outstanding volunteers and professionals, in the establishment and subsequently the operations of this organisation. Baruch Hashem, CAP has successfully and measurably reduced contact crime by between 80% and 90% across its fifteen regions encompassing about 150 000 people in Johannesburg. It continues to consume my time and effort because the success of CAP remains a vital part of the continued vibrancy of the South African Jewish community. Without protection from violent crime, our community suffers greatly, and ultimately is not sustainable. I sometimes encounter people who question how it is that a rabbi gets so involved in the fight against crime. The answer to those questions is actually very simple : the responsibility of a rabbi, and indeed of any Jew, is to care for people in situations of distress and to find ways of alleviating suffering. Furthermore, as Chief Rabbi, I have a responsibility towards ensuring the continued success of the South African Jewish community. So both from a mitzvah and a chesed point of view of protecting people from suffering, as well as from a community sustainability point of view, CAP is an absolutely vital project.
Here are some of the highlights of what CAP has done:
The Graph above illustrates the number of contact crimes which occurred per month, per CAP area, in the given periods. A contact crime is a violent crime where the victim comes face to face with the criminal(s) who is usually armed, and force or threat of force is used.
The statistics for 2006, prior to the launch of CAP, are actual or estimated figures based on the information we were able to obtain from the residents in the areas. This graph illustrates the drastic reduction in crime from the pre-CAP figures of 2006 to those in 2011 and 2012. These figures have generally stabilised with some areas seeing a slight increase and others a further decrease in the number of contact crimes perpetrated per month.
CAP have also been able to develop our capabilities further and aim to eradicate contact crime completely within the areas we protect getting these figures right down to 0.
SUMMARY OF CAP OPERATIONS
The operational control room for CAP operates 24/7/365 days a year. The control room is the central data repository for all information pertaining to CAP including calls from the community, alarm and panic activations and dispatching CAP Tactical officers as well as other resources when necessary. The control room therefore allows for the online, real-time assessment of threats, holistically across all CAP areas. There are between 4-6 control room operators on shift at a given time; this is dependent on peak times and days. The operators are handpicked from within the areas we protect, ensuring that they have a both a vested interest in the community and a wealth of local, area-specific knowledge. All control room operators undergo rigorous theoretical and practical training before being allocated shifts within the control room. These control room operatives have constant access to the central data repository system, ensuring that they are fully aware of any flagged data such as suspicious vehicles, individuals, or criminal groups operating within the areas. CAP’s Control Room receives on average 8 000 calls from the community a month and over 30 000 emergency alarm activations. On average, a call to the CAP control room is answered in under 3.6 seconds and the average response time to a call is under 3 minutes 5 seconds.
The Tactical Debriefing Department is responsible for gathering pre-, during and post- incident information on every violent crime or attempted violent crime. A CAP debriefer is dispatched immediately to the scene post an incident to interview the victims in order to gather as much information as possible. This includes obtaining victim and witness statements, understanding both infiltration and exfiltration routes used by suspects, sourcing and scanning CCTV footage, following up on threads of information and liaising with SAPS. The information obtained assists CAP in understanding who the enemy is, who they are targeting and how to prevent further incidents from taking place. On average, the response time of a debriefer to a scene post incident is 10 minutes, and a thorough debrief takes up to ten hours to complete.
Central Intervention Unit
The Central Intervention Unit (CIU) is a specialised and highly trained unit within CAP. This specialised task team is deployed on disruption operations which will have them deployed into hot spots and/or areas based on our predictive intelligence model. The predictive intelligence model indicates/warns of potential spikes in crime based on trending information which allows us to deploy the CIU team to counter these threats with clinical precision.
On average the CIU team can spend over 1 000 hours per month conducting area, collection and disruption operations. Collections operations entail collecting information on potential targets and liaising this with SAPS.
This department is responsible for liaising with the South African Police Services (SAPS) daily and allows CAP to work closely with SAPS on operations to combat crime in CAP areas and ensures that all information collected by CAP is handed over to SAPS. Joint operations are conducted on a regular basis. In excess of 190 hours a month is spent working with SAPS on operations, meeting and dealing with arrests.
The Legal Department carries out a watching brief over all incidents of arrests for violent crimes within CAP areas from the time of arrest to conviction, ensuring the following:
All information necessary to assist with a case is collected
Bail is opposed
All legal technicalities are complied with
Dockets and witnesses arrive at court for all hearings
The victim is assisted throughout the process.
Any problems are flagged and escalated
The legal department is currently monitoring 56 cases relating to incidents which have occurred within CAP areas. Since the department became active in May 2011, 33 cases have led to guilty convictions.
The Legal department has recently broadened its scope to include logging cases with the Asset Forfeiture Unit (AFU) of the National Prosecuting Authority. Where the possibility exists that a criminal has procured assets directly as a result of being involved in illegal activity this is flagged with the Asset Forfeiture Unit for investigation. This allows us to weaken the ability of known criminals by getting the State to confiscate their assets. Whilst the cases flagged with the AFU have not yet been finalised, we are confident that positive progress will be made in this regard.
This high-level team is responsible for analysing data collected from all CAP departments and affiliates for potential patterns or linkages between past and current criminal incidents. When a pattern is identified, the threat analysis team uses information gained to predict and pre-empt criminal activity through targeted deployment of CAP tactical units and planned operations. This data is stored in a state-of-the-art central data repository system.
From mid 2012, CAP established a project centred on identifying criminals, liaising this information with the SAPS to ensure that criminals were arrested prior to them launching their attacks on residential areas. In other words, the CAP system to date has been largely defensive in nature. It was built on the premise of disrupting criminal elements once they were in a CAP area through residents reporting suspicious activity and having tactical units respond to these calls. CAP has now embarked on an offensive strategy, where information on potential criminal elements is obtained, liaised with SAPS to ensure that arrests can be made prior to them launching their attacks.
Here is a case study of how this works in practice :
The CAP’s ICCC threat analysis department identified a criminal group carrying out a significant number of hijackings. The majority of these cases were outside of the CAP environment. The group appeared to be part of a larger syndicate working out of Alexandra Township.
CAP’s ICCC worked closely with SAPS to identify and track down the suspects. CAP’s ICCC successfully collected information on possible suspects as well as probing the geographical environment where they were believed to be operating from. The group’s movements were closely monitored and frequent surveillance operations were conducted.
On the evening of the 3rd of February 2013, at approximately 21h00, information became actionable as the group was in possession of a hijacked vehicle and the location of a number of suspects was known. A nine hour joint targeted operation involving SAPS and CAP ICCC personnel was conducted, which resulted in several addresses being raided. Three suspects were arrested by SAPS, one unlicensed firearm seized and two hijacked vehicles recovered. The group have now been linked to more than four hijacking incidents.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Hashem for His amazing blessings and miracles throughout the last almost seven years of CAP’s against violent crime.
7. Sinai Indaba
Since our last conference there have been a further two Sinai Indabas – in 2012 and 2013. Baruch Hashem, Sinai Indaba has continued to gather strength in numbers, range of participants, and in quality. There has been a strong increase in numbers of attendants throughout the years :
Over the last three years we have had more than thirty of the Jewish world’s top thinkers and personalities speaking at the Sinai Indaba. This gives our community the opportunity to experience many of the world’s best speakers and personalities, and to be exposed to Torah learning at the highest possible level. When these leaders return to their communities they speak favourably of South African Jewry, and often write about their wonderful experiences here. They are all influential people, and so Sinai Indaba also helps keep our community very firmly on the international Jewish map.
Sinai Indaba learning continues via the website with all of the shiurim being recorded and available in audio and video format. The response has been significant; the Sinai Indaba YouTube channel, which was only established at the time of the 2012 event, has already had more than 30 000 views.
A significant majority of the funding of Sinai Indaba comes from our corporate sponsors, who receive great value for their money from the brand exposure that they have throughout the extensive marketing campaign and I record our grateful thanks to them.
8. Generation Sinai
Generation Sinai, which was established in 2011, has also continued to gain momentum on an annual basis in 2012 and 2013. Each year on Rosh Chodesh Sivan thousands of parents and children gather in their schools to learn the same section of Torah. In 2012 the designated Torah text was the Aseret Hadibrot – the Ten Commandments, and this year it was the first paragraph of the Shema. Source material is prepared and provided to the schools, although some schools also produce their own.
This year, for the first time, Generation Sinai operated internationally, and all of this was co-ordinated from South Africa. More than a hundred schools across thirty eight cities in the world participated. The range of cities was very wide, including London, Manchester, Sydney, Melbourne, Los Angeles, San Diego, Monte Video, Buenos Aires, Moscow, Odessa and very significantly, more than twenty cities in Israel.
The response here in South Africa and around the world has been enormously positive, with large numbers of parents turning out to learn with their children. It is significant to note that in Israel, secular parents came in their droves to participate in cities such as Ako, Nahariyah, Bat Yam and others.
The international expansion of this project was achieved by approaching key partner organisations, such as Seed in the United Kingdom and Ayelet HaShachar in Israel, who worked with the schools on the ground. The Ner Lelef organization assisted with its network of rabbis in South America and Eastern Europe. Learning material was translated from English into Hebrew, Spanish, Russian and Portuguese.
Apart from the important mitzvah of spreading Torah to as many Jews as possible, the international dimension brought great benefit to South Africa as well because it added a wonderful and exotic dimension to the program thereby adding to the excitement; and it also gave our community a sense of real pride that our South African Jewish community was leading an international project having an impact on the Jewish world at large.
9. The Philosophy of Sinai Indaba and Generation Sinai
These two projects share much in common. They both take place once a year, focused on mass Torah learning in a spirit of inspiration and unity.
It is important to explain the philosophy of these two projects. Powerful events can impact profoundly on society. We learn this idea from the Torah institution of Yom Tov. Hashem has given us holy days throughout the year which focus on specific themes and values. Thus, for example, teshuva (repentance) is important throughout the year and, nevertheless, one day a year, Yom Kippur, is dedicated completely to confession, resolutions and other aspects of teshuva. Remembering the going out of Egypt is important every day, and yet one day a year (and in the diaspora, two) has the Pesach seder which is dedicated to educating us about this experience. Similarly, the revelation of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is an important concept, and one day a year in the Festival of Shavuot (two days in the diaspora) is dedicated to remembering this event.
From all of this we learn an important lesson, which is actually the philosophical model of Sinai Indaba and Generation Sinai, and that is that through high profile mass unity events which are emotionally, spiritually and intellectually powerful, a society is impacted in a profound way. Sinai Indaba comes once a year to share a vision with our community about the inspiring nature of Torah and its message for every aspect of life. As the mishna says, “Turn it over and over for everything is in it”. This is the philosophy of Sinai Indaba. Torah is indeed the blueprint for every facet of human existence. Through His Torah, G-d teaches us a way of thinking and living that transforms and sanctifies all human endeavours, as diverse as nurturing loving interpersonal relationships, running a modern judiciary and economy, raising balanced children, connecting to the ultimate truth, giving generously and earning a living with ethics and integrity.
It also reaffirms the importance of unity. Jews of every kind gather together to share the same space, hear the same lectures, eat the same food and, most importantly, connect with each other, transcending the barriers that usually lead to fragmentation in the Jewish world. Sinai Indaba belongs to all of us, and represents a wide, unified and strong alliance of individuals and families, shuls, schools and rabbis, communal organisations, leaders and businesses, who are all partners in this great convention of South African Jewry.
Generation Sinai comes with a strong and powerful vision about the importance of parents and children learning Torah together and the importance of handing the legacy of Torah from one generation to the next.
This is also why great effort is put into the marketing of both projects, not only to ensure that the attendance numbers are high so that the maximum of people can benefit, but also as part of a campaign to communicate a vision of what Torah can and should be – inspiring, unifying, exciting, illuminating and vital for our lives.
There is another dimension to both Generation Sinai and Sinai Indaba, and that is the international network. Both projects have an important component of connecting South African Jewry to world Jewry. This is important because we all need to have a sense of what it means to be part of Klal Yisrael. We are not just the South African Jewish community on our own; we are part of Klal Yisrael. This is an important Torah value and helps define our community’s sense of identity.
It also has the great benefit of promoting the image and standing of South African Jewry around the world, which has multiple benefits for our community. The international Jewish media – Jerusalem Post, Mishpacha, Hamodia and others have reported on both of these events extensively. It has certainly given South African Jewry its rightful place of pride within Klal Yisrael.
10. New Book Published
This year The Legacy – Teachings for life from the great Lithuanian Rabbis, which I co-authored with Rabbi Berel Wein, was published by Maggid, a Division of Koren Publishers. In it we explore the worldview and life teachings of the great Lithuanian Rabbis, and seek to outline the ideas and deeds, the values and ethics of Jewish life. Intertwining history and life lessons for contemporary society, the result is a presentation of a moral and spiritual vision for Jews today.
This book obviously has special significance for South African Jewry, the overwhelming majority of whom are descended from Lithuanian Jewry. However, the book is not about ethnicity or where we come from, but rather about the universal Torah values that were taught by the great rabbonim of Lita. These values are vital for every Jew in the world because they are eternal Torah values, emphasised and taught by the great Lithuanian Rabbis, and especially by the great thinkers of the mussar movement.
The values articulated in the book are important cornerstone values for our South African community – values such as derech eretz, menschlikeit, dedication to Klal Yisrael, learning Torah and taking responsibility for Jewish destiny. The book was launched here in South Africa at Sinai Indaba and Rabbi Wein came especially for that purpose. The two of us discussed the book in public with Rabbi Paysach Krohn, who interviewed us about it.
This year, I also attended and spoke at launches of the book in Israel, America and England. These overseas trips have been of great benefit for our community because I use the occasions to meet with the key leadership of other Jewish communities so that we can maximise co-operation for mutual benefit and support. And so, for example, in America, I met with the leadership of the OU and, in England, with the dayanim of the Beth Din as well as the incoming Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. In Israel I recently met with Rav David Lau, who has just been appointed the new Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi for Israel.
These international connections are very important because, as explained above in the context of Sinai Indaba and Generation Sinai, they ensure that the South African community never becomes isolated from the rest of Klal Yisrael. Our connection to our fellow Jewish communities around the world is a crucial Torah value and of important strategic value to the future of our community.
11. Beit Midrash Program
The Beit Midrash program at the high schools of King David Linksfield, Victory Park and Herzlia began almost five years ago at the beginning of 2009. It continues to be successful, with at least half of all high schools students choosing to learn in the Beit Midrash program.
I meet with the heads of the Beit Midrash twice a year to discuss curriculum and how the program is working. A very exciting dimension of this project is the new approach and method which we are developing to teaching gemara and chumash to beginners.
The students continue to respond well to it. The vision of this project is to provide a positive and stimulating Torah learning experience for the students, which will inspire them with a desire to continue Torah learning even after they have left school. This vision is achieved through active engagement with the original texts of the gemara and chumash, depending on their choice. The idea is for the students to be exposed to authentic Torah learning during their school careers in such a way that it will inspire them to continue learning Torah throughout their lives.
12. Teaching Torah En Masse
One of my key responsibilities is to teach Torah to as many people as possible. There are many platforms which I have established in order to fulfill this objective. There is my website and weekly e-mail which contains a podcast and an edited transcript of the talk. The talk is also broadcast on Chai FM.
There is the Sinai Indaba website on which all the Sinai Indaba talks are available, and then there are regular publications, such as the Yom Kippur booklet, which contains a lengthy essay about a particular topic, and which is distributed to all the shuls.
I write a regular column for the Jerusalem Post, which is also then made available to the community here on my website and also through some of the local publications.
During the last two years I have published a video message combining the music of Yaakov Shwekey with Torah ideas. Just before Pesach 2012 I put out a video about the meaning of Vehisheamdah and the miracle of Jewish survival. It has received more than a hundred thousand views. Just before this year Pesach I put out a video about the relationship between parents and children and that has had more than twenty thousand views.
As mentioned in previous reports, I write regular articles for all of the Jewish magazines, particularly around Pesach and Rosh HaShana, and so there are constant opportunities to spread Torah ideas and values to our community through the multiple platforms that exist.
I also use any speaking occasion at communal events to share words of Torah and view these as opportunities to spread Torah learning as far and wide as possible. As mentioned in my previous report, this is a key dimension of my philosophy as Chief Rabbi, and that is to teach Torah as far and wide as possible and to allow the light of Hashem’s Torah to reach as many people as possible.
13. The Shabbos Project
At the end of Sinai Indaba a new initiative was launched called “The Shabbos Project”. Here is the Manifesto of this project :
Together we will keep the Shabbat of 11/12 October from sundown to stars out.
We will keep it in its entirety, in all of its detail and splendor as set out in The Code of Jewish Laws.
Its rhythm will unite us with each other, with Jews around the world and throughout the ages.
On this day we will create a warm and loving space, holding our families together.
On this day we will lay down the burdens, distractions, demands and pressures of daily life.
On this day we will renew ourselves, emerging spiritually, emotionally and physically invigorated.
On this day we will own our precious heritage, wearing it as a badge of pride and honour.
Together we embark on this great adventure to rediscover our G-d-given gift of Shabbos.
The preparations for this project are fully under way. In order to make this campaign work, written video and audio material providing the philosophy and ideas of Shabbos as well as the practical guidelines of how to keep it, will be disseminated to the community. We are also building alliances with various organisations to help support it and the idea is to get as many people as possible to sign up to keep the Shabbos.
The power of this project is that it gives thousands of people in our community the opportunity to keep a Shabbos completely – something many have never done before – and it really helps strengthen and raise the profile of one of the most important mitzvahs in the Torah. It was also be a powerful unity experience for our community.
Ideas for The Shabbos Project were brainstormed at the Rabbinical Conference during this last week and, once again, our shuls and rabbis are the key partners in an important project for the sake of our community.
Israel continues to be a major issue that affects our community here in South Africa, both because of the strong Zionism of our community as well as because of how it affects the position of the Jewish community here in South Africa.
In this regard, I have written many articles which have been published in international and local press. One of the most significant of these was the Open Letter which I addressed to the Deputy Minister of International Relations, Ebrahim Ebrahim, after he made public comments calling on South Africans not to visit Israel as a sign of protest of Israeli policies and actions. The letter was covered extensively in the South African press and reports following it, both public and private, indicate that Ebrahim came under significant pressure from within the ANC to temper his position.
I signed an open letter together with Christian leaders representing more than ten million South Africans shortly before the ANC’s conference in Manguang. The letter, which was published on the front page of The Sunday Times, was a call from senior religious leaders to the ANC to adopt a policy of pursuing peace in respect of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and in light of that not to take sides by seeking only to blame and to punish Israel. The letter is a very important historic document as it is the first recorded instance of an alliance of religious leaders in South Africa speaking with one voice in support of a more balanced approach to the Middle East conflict.
15. Office Administration
An important aspect, which is very time consuming, is keeping up with correspondence. People from all across the community write to me on various matters and I try to personally answer each e-mail which is an onerous responsibility but, I think, an important thing to do because it allows for personal communication with the community.
I would like to thank and pay special tribute to Mrs Tracey Ribeiro, who works with amazing dedication and excellence in everything that she does. She manages my diary commitments, correspondence and oversees many administrative aspects of the projects that I am involved in. Tracey cares deeply about her work and often works after hours in order to make sure that things get done.
Since the last conference Rabbi Gideon Pogrund joined my office on a half-day basis in March 2012, and has contributed greatly to some key projects, such as Sinai Indaba, Generation Sinai, inter-faith relations and Rabbinic recruitment for shuls and schools. Rabbi Pogrund brings an array of wonderful talents to bear on his work and has played a major role in assisting with bringing these vital projects to fruition. He is profoundly dedicated to the cause and often works overtime to ensure that everything is done with excellence and with great wisdom. I would like to take this opportunity of thanking him for his wonderful efforts.
The CSO continues to provide for my personal security; a new team of protectors has recently been recently appointed. I would like to thank Liron Liberhoff and Jarred Berman for their hard work and long hours.
16. Batmitzvah Program
The Roots batmitzvah program is the national batmitzvah program of the Office of the Chief Rabbi, the director of which is Ronit Janet, and she continues to do an excellent job, administrating the entire program and ensuring the educational standards of the program throughout shuls, with regular communication with the teachers, as well as setting and marking the batmitzvah proficiency exams.
The program concludes with a breakfast ceremony at which the batmitzvah girls receive siddurim and certificates which I personally inscribe.
17. Internet Education Project
Part of the responsibility of the Office of the Chief Rabbi is to identify areas of communal problems and to find solutions to them. In this regard, a new project has been launched. The internet and its wide availability to children are posing more and more of a challenge to our community. Through smart phones children of all ages have access to information, imagery and connections with other people that are completely inappropriate and potentially enormously damaging from an emotional, spiritual, moral and halachic point of view. To address this need, I convened a group of the heads of the schools to consider various options. As a result of these meetings, I appointed Ilanit Gerson, to design curriculum for children in grades 7 and 8 aimed at giving them the life skills to be able to cope with the challenges of the internet. She worked for many months in conjunction with different representatives of the schools and a few weeks ago we launched the full curriculum with the hand-books made available to the teaching staff of most of the Jewish schools in South Africa.
The work that has been done is groundbreaking from an international point of view as well, and many schools around the world have already begun to express interest in it. The project is called “Surfing Safely” and I would like to compliment Ilanit Gerson on her outstanding work, intellectually and educationally.
I would like to thank the UOS for the honour and privilege of serving as Chief Rabbi and look forward, please G-d, to continue serving our special South African Jewish community with my best efforts. I would also like to thank Gina and our children for their remarkable support and commitment to helping me serve this community. I would like to thank Hashem for His constant blessings in all things.