Knowing and owning our story

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Knowing and owning our story

“We are a people of history and destiny. We embrace the values of the past to benefit humanity worldwide,” said Richard Joel in his keynote address at the Gala Opening of the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies Biennial Conference on 5 October, entitled ‘Safe Spaces — Making Room for Your Views.’

Richard Joel is the current President of Yeshiva University, a Modern Orthodox Jewish university with some 7000 students in New York City; and previously served as President and International Director of Hillel — The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Joel spent some of his early years in Cape Town, and was in Standard 1 at Herzlia in Hope Street in 1956. “My first memories are of going to the shul in Vredehoek, hearing LeChadodi sung on Shabbat,” he reminisced, even singing a few verses. “It is this community’s commitment to the chain of the Jewish story” that played a role in his journey to where he is today. Yet at the same time, he emphasised that memories and nostalgia are not enough of a reason for young people to hold onto their Jewish identity in the 21st century. In the past, “We were Jewish because we didn’t want Hitler to win; the antisemites were going to attack us; and Israel was struggling to survive,” he summarised.

Today, these are still important, but at least since Vatican II, “the world wants to marry us; antisemitism is rare, and Israel is thriving. For the first time in history, being Jewish is an option, not a condition. So why should our children choose to be Jewish?” he asked, adding that “because we like it” is not enough. “Our memories are their history. Children will choose to be Jewish if it adds ineffable value to their lives as a precious legacy and heritage.”

Joel felt that the younger generation needs to both “know our story and own our story,” if their Jewish identity is to have meaning in today’s world. To demonstrate “just how far away we are from the story,” he told of how he asked a Jewish audience if they know the name of Jesus’ mother, and many hands were raised. “What was the name of Moses’ mother?” he asked — and the audience were silent.

“It is such a rich story — one that teaches us about love, fear, kindness, responsibility and creating justice,” said Joel, describing Jewish history. “But there is no way it will survive without strong, excellent, inspired Jewish education. There are more Jewish Nobel prize winners proportionally than any other group because we have always prioritised education above all else,” he emphasised, adding that education must both “ennoble and enable” children; allowing them to both succeed and then to act on the values they have learnt. “This precious community has always embraced that message,” he said.

Deed, not creed “But we can’t just have a well-educated community,” Joel added, explaining that Judaism has always been about “deed, not creed.” To be Jewish is to do mitzvot — an action, a commandment. When he was working on Jewish campuses, their motto was to teach students to ‘do Jewish.’ “We need to celebrate our story — to experience it, to own it, to sing it — no matter what path of Judaism you follow. A barmitzvah is not just a fountain pen,” he quipped, “and Israel is not just a place but a home — it is a place to take our children. And we need to use what we learn to reach out to others.”

Continuing on this vein, Joel said how we know the story of when Hillel was asked to sum up the essence of the Torah while standing on one leg, he said “do unto your neighbour what you would want your neighbour to do unto you.” But not many people know the rest of the story — that he then said “now go out and do it!”

Bringing this back to the theme of the conference, Joel asked “what kind of safe space do we want to create?” Looking at the parsha of the week, Parshat Noah, he said how Noah “stayed in a safe place” — in Hebrew, HaMakom, which is a name of G-d. “We ultimately find a safe space in the Arms of the Transcendent. A space where we can pass on a rich Jewish heritage — the gift that our grandparents gave us. A space where our children will connect from across the world; with a sense of peoplehood, and pride, and a purpose.”

The Gala Opening also included a Havdallah service, addresses from Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, SA Jewish Board of Deputies National Chairperson Mary Kluk and Israeli Ambassador Arthur Lenk; a final Chairman’s Report from outgoing Chair Li Boiskin after four years in office; entertainment from Ivor Joffe and friends; and the presentation of the new Eliot and Myra Osrin Jewish Vision and Transformation Awards, which were given to Owen Futeran and Marlene Silbert respectively.

“You are not required to complete the task, but nor should you withdraw from it,” said Owen Futeran, quoting Pirkei Avot in accepting his award. “Joy and heartache; commemorating and celebrating with this community are the rewards of not withdrawing from the task,” he said. Indeed, the entire ‘Safe Spaces’ Cape Board Conference encouraged such engagement with difficult issues, bringing the community closer to knowing and owning our story.