I have used this column in the past to extol the virtues of one of the
most successful educational experiments in the Jewish world in the past
20 years – the Limmud conferences held every winter vacation on a
British UK campus, and which are attended by some 3,000 participants.
week-long festival of Jewish learning for young and old, religious and
secular, who come together for no other purpose than the age-old desire
to “study for the sake of it” (limmud lishma).
And now I have experienced the international expansion of Limmud as it
has moved beyond the British Isles, to almost every place where there is
an organized Jewish community. This past week in Johannesburg, Durban
and Cape Town, I witnessed the coming together of 1,000 members of the
South African Jewish community to taste the diverse learning
opportunities which local and international presenters have offered. The
lecture halls have been full from early morning until late at night,
with discussion spaces for secular, traditional and orthodox to share
and debate their ideas, and the enthusiasm displayed by teachers and
students alike is something that all professional teachers, lecturers
and rabbis can only dream of.
Each limmud program is tailored to the needs of particular communities.
Given the fact that no limmud outside Britain lasts for an entire week,
the diversity of topics on offer at the South African weekend – shabbat
programs – are by nature more limited. But it still offers enough
opportunities for wide-ranging discussions on Judaism – in all its forms
and textual variations – Israeli politics and Zionism, global
experiences, anti-Semitism and Jewish history – to name but a few major
themes – for everyone to find something of interest.
Beyond the conference itself, by far the most impressive encounter of
the week was the visit to the Africa tikkun program, where members of
the Jewish community have become deeply involved in programs aimed at
African youth in the townships, promoting day care and extramural
education for those not yet of school age, or who have been unable to
gain access to basic education. Originally put together by the former
chief rabbi of South Africa, Cyril Harris, community activist and limmud
organizer Viv Anstey and the Jewish businessmancum- philanthhropist
Bertie Lubner, this program demonstrates the very best of Jewish values
in helping those in need (tzedaka), as they attempt to make their own
little corner of the world a better place through a practical commitment
to the basic Jewish value of tikkun olam.
A visit to a smaller project, Ikhayalami (an NGO which assists Africans
who remain stuck in the squalor of the township shacks, (it is estimated
that some 15-20 million out of the 45 million residents of South Africa
are still in the townships), also throws up the commitment to tikkun
olam. The head of the project, Andy Bolnick, explains to visitors that
it is her traditional Jewish upbringing with its focus on assisting
others, which has brought her to devote her life to this project.
The role of Israel in tikkun olam and humanitarian aid is highlighted by
one of the Israeli participants in the Limmud conference, Jerusalemite
Micha Odenheimer, whose own NGO Tevel Betzedek brings Jewish students
from Israel and the Diaspora together to work on social improvement and
construction projects in Nepal and Haiti, and is also seeking to branch
out into Africa. While Israel is the recipient of much foreign aid and,
in times of need, charity from elsewhere, it is always incumbent upon
the Jewish state to give aid to those who are in even greater need,
leading to a mutual understanding that we share the same planet.
The Jewish community of South Africa has moved beyond the apartheid era.
While the community as such was somewhat reticent about making a public
display of its opposition to apartheid, the numbers of Jews involved in
the antiapartheid campaigns were disproportional, similar to the number
of Jews involved in the civil rights campaigns in the US during the
1960s. This has not always been remembered by the African communities,
especially as they have adopted stances highly critical of Israel, but
it is something that the Jewish communities can be rightfully proud of.
One of the great civil rights heroes of the twentieth century, South
African Jewish politician Helen Zussman, is now recognized as one of the
more important Jewish figures of that period, even if she was shunned
by the Jewish establishment during the apartheid period.
It is not, and never has been, an easy juggling act for Jewish
communities to be critical of the country within which they live while
desiring to be accepted.
Much of the community left for less politically sensitive pastures
during the past 30 years, reducing the size of the community from
120,000 to approximately 65,000 – but those who remained are still part
of a strongly cohesive group.
The recent debate in South Africa concerning the attempted boycott of
Ben- Gurion University by the University of Johannesburg has raised many
of these fears, but the community has demonstrated a resolve to fight
back and reject all comparisons with South African apartheid.
A community which can display these dual concepts of limmud (lishmah)
and tikkun olam (not only toward fellow Jews but also toward the less
fortunate “other”) is, by definition, a strong community, regardless of
its physical numbers. And while we would prefer it if the South African
Jewish community were to immigrate, en masse, to Israel, the pride they
take in their outreach to others is a model which Jewish communities
throughout the world would do well to copy.
The writer is Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University.
The comments expressed are his alone.