175 years of Jewish life in South Africa, from the first-ever prayer service in Cape Town in 1841 through to the vibrant, diverse community we have today, was celebrated at Monday’s SAJBD Gauteng Council conference. Milestones like this do not come our way very often, so when they do we can be forgiven for a little self-praise and mutual backslapping. South African Jewry has achieved much in the course of its history, both in specifically Jewish terms and in the extent to which its members have contributed to the development of the country. One of the benefits of reflecting on this is how it firms up our self-belief in terms of how we meet the challenges that lie ahead. As my colleague on the Gauteng Council, Mark Pozniak, expressed in his closing remarks, just as we can look back on the past with pride, so can we look ahead to the future with confidence.
In the course of the evening, a number of themes came through in the presentations made by the various speakers, including by our special guest Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. One was that of the Particular versus the Universal, that is, the need to combine addressing our internal Jewish communal needs with playing our part as identifying, contributing citizens of South Africa. That to date South African Jews in South Africa have been successful in balancing these two imperatives is, according to Rabbi Mirvis, one of the key reasons why our community is so highly regarded, both locally and in the wider Jewish world. Nevertheless, we need to guard against becoming too insular, even as we look to maintain and grow our own community. To counteract such tendencies, the SAJBD has been extremely proactive in recent years in terms of participating in broader national events. Amongst our initiatives over the past year are our 60th anniversary of the Freedom Charter event, participation in commemorative events in Sharpeville and Soweto on Human Rights Day and Youth Day respectively, our ‘Make Us Count’ election campaign and, most recently, last week’s visit of a Jewish women’s delegation to Boipatong to engage with survivors of the massacre that took place there in 1992.
Another important theme was the need for both inter- and intra-community bridge building. We should continue on the one hand to forge relationships and partnerships with other communities (our collaboration with the HIP – Hellenic Italian Portuguese – Alliance has been especially pleasing , as has our involvement on the Hate Crimes Working Group). On the other, we need to foster unity and understanding within our own community, regardless of where people might stand on religious, political or social justice issues.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate my warm congratulations to the chairman, Shaun Zagnoev, and the members of the last Gauteng Council for all they have achieved over the past two years and to wish the incoming Council all success for their upcoming term of office.