It takes a sacred community to raise a rabbi

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by By Sofia Zway

There is an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. I am not a parent, so can’t testify as to whether that statement is true or not. What I can say for sure, is that it takes a community to raise a rabbi.

Five years ago I never would have guessed that today I would be about to embark on a five year journey towards becoming a rabbi. Perhaps it has been in my DNA for ever (turns out my great, great, great-grandfather was an esteemed Rabbi in Jerusalem in the mid-1800s), but when I think about it, this choice and this calling towards the rabbinate has been profoundly influenced by the extraordinary community that is Temple Israel, Cape Town.

I am so blessed that my childhood at Bet Menorah in Pretoria and my teenage years at Netzer opened my eyes and my heart to the wonders of Progressive Judaism. When I was a child, I was not interested in being Jewish. When pushed to attend shul and start cheder, I was reluctant and resistant. It wasn’t until I attended Netzer summer camp at the age of fifteen that something shifted for me. It was here, during a tallit-making workshop led by Andrea Kuti and Rabbi Greg Alexander that I realised that Judaism could be (and should be) engaging, meaningful and deeply personal. I returned home from machaneh that year determined to have a Bat Mitzvah ceremony, which I did a year later at the age of sixteen. I then participated in Shnat Netzer, Netzer’s gap year programme in Israel, in 2011 (some hesitance again here). When I returned from Israel to start my Drama studies at UCT, I found myself at Temple Israel, the Sacred Community that has really raised me as a young Progressive Jewish leader and Rabbi-to-be these past five years.

In my interview at Hebrew Union College — the school which will be my home and training ground for the next five years — I was asked what my favourite Jewish ritual object is. Looking back on my journey, of course it has to be a tallit. A tallit is what started this journey for me; it’s what showed me that Judaism could be fun, interactive, creative, meaningful and personal. More than that, though, I realised that a tallit represents everything that I love about Judaism and that I discovered in these past five years at Temple Israel: ritual and community. Ritual, the stuff we all need to acknowledge significant moments in our lives, or to add significance and meaning to the quotidian ones. Community is something we all search for. We long to belong; to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves. Communities are important because they bring those rituals to life; they bear witness to those significant moments – good and bad – that inform our lives. Ritual builds community and communities together create ritual. That’s what it means to be a Sacred Community.

Writing about Sukkot in The Tapestry of Jewish Time (quoted in The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary), Nina Beth Cardin reflects on the significance of Sacred Communities in our individual journeys:

“Sukkot is about the journey. It is the holiday that best symbolises where most of us are most of the time: somewhere in between, midway, sometimes moving, sometimes stuck, always heading — we hope — in the right direction. It reminds us that the way we get somewhere, what we do and learn along the way, where we detour and where we pause, whom we meet and whom we travel with, are as essential to the journey as is the arrival.”

Sacred Communities like Temple Israel are rare. Some people search for a lifetime and never find one. How blessed I feel that I found myself at Temple Israel and ended up finding myself in the process. How privileged I have been these past five and half years to detour and pause in Cape Town; to learn with and from three extraordinary Rabbis; to be mentored by an exceptional team of Jewish professionals; to be part of a remarkable team of madrichim, creatives, lay-leaders, educators, music-makers, transformation seekers, and inspirers. This is the village, the Sacred Community, that has raised me into the rabbi I hope to become. So, to my beloved family at Temple Israel, I need to say thank you for inspiring me. Thank you for believing in me, for supporting me and challenging me. Thank you for holding me and witnessing me, for guiding me and shaping me these past five years.

Now it’s time to think about what kind of rabbi I want to be. My sojourn at Temple Israel has informed my sense of purpose so profoundly: I want to be a Sacred Community-builder. I want to build socially-conscious, socially active, ritual-rich, spiritually-connected communities. I’ve always been a people-person, and I want to use that strong suit to connect people with G!d, with themselves and with each other. I want to connect people within the Jewish community and across other communities through the sacred rituals, principles and values of Progressive Judaism that have brought so much meaning and connection to my own life.

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