The world had changed and so had the attitudes of the ANC to Israel. Mandela had retired and been replaced by Mbeki and his AIDS-denialism. The Cape Town Jewish population had dropped from a peak of 25,000 souls to a little more than 15,000. Nevertheless, the community was extremely vibrant. It was held in high regard by World Jewry and could be justifiably proud of its commitments. G&SPHC member Gerald Kleinman[i] who was the director of the United Communal Fund, submitted an article on the importance of the donations, which were the lifeblood of the community. He pointed out demographic realities. The Cape Jewish community was dwindling, not so much because of emigration but because the days of large families existed no longer. Their parents and grandparents, mostly from Lithuania and Eastern European countries, had come from families of six or seven siblings. Today the average was two or three, other than in the extremely Orthodox section of the community.
Young people were moving away from traditional religious observance in large numbers, synagogues were facing the same problems that were troubling Jewish communities everywhere - ageing congregations, costly infrastructure, and an upcoming generation that was making far less money than their parents did. It was understood that congregants had multiple interests apart from Judaism and the parsha, and it was necessary for the synagogue to become more like a community centre, a place that would provide educational, cultural, social, Jewish identity-building, and recreational programmes for people of all ages and backgrounds, as Solly Kessler had proposed and as Rabbis Rosen and Steinhorn had wanted to institute. Then it was a nice-to-have, now it was a must-have. Congregations were now looking for rabbis who not only had a thorough understanding of the Torah and Talmud, but also would be a charismatic programme organisers and cultural convenors.
Accordingly, the Rosh Hashanah bulletin started running articles of more general Jewish interest. For example the 2005 bulletin [ii] contained an article by Rebbetzin Jolleen Hayon on Afrika Tikkun, by Marlene Silbert on the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, by Sonia Shapiro on ecology, and by John Simon on Moses Maimonides. They offered programmes with more variety, with the shul becoming more of a community centre, not just somewhere to pray on Shabbat. Events were organised to attract people to come on days other than on Shabbat or chagim – there was a shabbaton, an arts, crafts and hobbies exhibition, a communal dinner for seniors, a Purim carnival, and they were looking for a piano for the shul.
Their rabbi was Rabbi Hayon, who Rene Kleinman described as a wonderful teacher and a lovely man, but not strong enough to manage such a large congregation.[iii] As part of the “caring campaign”, Rabbi Levi Silman had joined as Youth rabbi to work with people from eighteen to thirty-five. Rabbi Silman introduced separate youth services on Fridays in the Small shul. He introduced children’s services and developed a close relationship with Weizmann School and hosted Grade Dinners. Seniors also fell into the ambit of the “caring campaign” and the shul had close relationship with their seniors and introduced fully sponsored bus trips for them – the one to view the Spring Flowers being the most popular. The only congregation in Cape Town that supported the Highlands House Shul’s brochah fund was the G&SPHC.
Caring also involved being there for others because we are our brother’s keepers. Wired into Jewish DNA is knowledge of thousands of years of experience as refugees from wars, expulsions, pogroms and xenophobic violence, so it was not surprising that when xenophobia hit Cape Town in 2008 with about 20,000 foreign immigrants seeking safe shelters, the Jewish community reached out to help. As Rabbi Hillel has said, “In a place where there are no humans, one must strive to be human”.
Judith Cohen[iv] from the SA Human Rights Commission reported that nobody had been prepared for the scale or spread of the violence and the refugees were housed in more than 100 ad hoc shelters in community centres, churches and the city’s six safe zones until they were able to be reintegrated into their communities. One of these temporary shelters was the newly refurbished Weizmann Hall.
Haylen Lewin reported that
During the horrific xenophobic crisis we as Jews were aware of the need to reach out to the persecuted communities, Rabbi and Mrs Hayon were instrumental in accommodating and feeding these people in their hour of need, the appreciation shown by these refugees was heart-warming.”
Rebbetzin Hayon was no stranger to relief work as she worked at Afrika Tikkun, established by Chief Rabbi Harris as an agent of positive change. The Jewish Board of Deputies through its outreach portfolio chaired by G&SPHC’s member Li Boiskin and Solly Kessler’s daughter Viv Anstey co-ordinated refugee relief efforts, specifically in relation to what became known as the Caledon Square Group. This was a group found huddling for safety in the Cape winter, sleeping outside the Caledon Square Police Station in the rain and who were brought into the Weizmann School Hall. The outpouring of goodwill and kindness was phenomenal - parents brought in toys, food, clothing, and blankets - one parent even hooked up a television set.
It wasn’t long before the Jewish community and the Treatment Action Campaign were sheltering over 200 in the Weizmann Hall and toilet facilities were becoming strained. When the mayor and premier would not agree to move them into the Sea Point Civic Centre, despite a petition[v] by over 400 people - friends, parents and students of Weizmann School, funds were raised to house the Caledon Square Group temporarily in the Train Lodge.[vi] After many months of offering on the ground support including housing, feeding, legal and medical assistance, provided with a stipend and support on the ground, the majority of Caledon Square Group refugees were helped to reintegrate and 20 Burundi nationals were assisted to return to their country[vii].
Richard Freedman, director of the Cape Town Holocaust and Genocide Centre published an article on South African Jews and Xenophobia in the G&SPHC bulletin in which he quoted Rich Mkhondo[viii] saying “Bigotry, xenophobia and unrestrained national ambitions led to two world wars in the last century and produced the Holocaust and other genocides. Today’s world is more complex but the same deadly strain of human emotions remains extant. We owe it to the victims of xenophobia to help prevent new horrors.” Only through involvement and caring can we create a South Africa which values the right to respect, dignity and life itself.
The G&SPHC showed by their response to the xenophobia crisis that they were playing a part in creating just such a South Africa while behaving in a way that was integral to Jewish values, treating one’s neighbour as one would like to be treated by others. As the Talmud teaches, he who devotes himself to the mere study of religion without engaging in works of love and mercy is like one who has no G-d.
[i] Kleinman, Gerald. “The lifeblood of the community”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 2005 – 5766, 30
[ii] G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 2005 – 5766
[iii] Interview with Rene Kleinman, 8.1.2018
[iv] Cohen, Judith, Briefing to SA Human Rights Commission Report on Investigation into issues of Rule of Law, Justice and Impunity arising out of the 2008 public violence against non-nationals, Report on 2008 violence against non-nationals: SAHRC
[v]“ Zille being callous, racist”, Statement issued by Treatment Action Campaign, Politicsweb, 11.6.2008
[vii] Helping the Stranger, Cape Jewish Chronicle, December 2008, 13