The African Jewish Congress — survival or extinction

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Letter to the editor by Ann Harris

In the past three months, the South African Jewish Community has been almost submerged by the avalanche of words, both spoken and written, about the so-called restructuring of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ Country Communities Department.

The Board seems unwilling to explain coherently how it has fallen into the financial position which has given rise to this manoeuvre for which it seems unwilling to provide a proper plan or to acknowledge its legal and moral obligations to the communities affected. The Board has also contrived to ignore the African Jewish Congress which is affiliated to it.

When prizes are awarded for public relations and communications, it will get 0% for transparency and a gold medal for insensitivity. 

How does the African Jewish Congress come to be involved in this drama at all?

In 1994, the late revered Mervyn Smith z”l, former President of the SAJBOD motivated the creation of the AJC for several reasons. His aim was to unite isolated communities spread throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. He was a firm believer in promoting the Jewish identity of our coreligionists all over Central Africa; many formed part of small to medium communities in ten countries and some were simply ‘lone rangers’.

Mervyn wanted to place African Jewry firmly on the map of the World Jewish Congress for the benefit to both of mutual support. The new organisation quickly became one of the warmly recognised members of the 100 strong family of the World Jewish Congress and brought valuable ideas and votes to the table.

He was also passionate about the preservation of African Jewish history, the very bedrock of traditional European communities forced to settle far from their countries of origin. The passing years have proved that their descendants have spread their warmth and traditions throughout the Jewish communities of the world.

Two years after the inception of the African Jewish Congress in Harare, Zimbabwe, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the South African Rabbi already employed by the SAJBOD to minister to the country communities within South Africa, was appointed CEO and spiritual leader of the Jewish communities in the ten Sub-Saharan countries. It appears to have been arranged that the AJC should be affiliated to the SAJBOD and that Rabbi Silberhaft would use its premises in Johannesburg as a base. His time was, and still is, divided two thirds/one third between the country communities of SA and the AJC.

The countries he guides are Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mauritius, Mozambique, Kenya and Uganda. And so Rav Moshe has become the much admired ‘Travelling Rabbi’. 

This letter does not need to chronicle his sterling work over the past twenty-five years. The sheer outpouring of indignation and distress at the notion that his position might not survive the restructuring is testimony to how his widely scattered congregants regard him. There is no doubt that in Sub-Saharan Africa he has cared for every soul of Jewish origin with pastoral work stretching from the cradle to the grave; from Chaggim to Fast Days; from support for Israel and for local charities; and for outstanding efforts to preserve heritage and traditions stretching back more than 100 years.

The writer, as current President of the AJC has been privileged during her term of office to visit every member community and confirms the depth and breadth of the AJC’s positive effect on these small outposts.

Every country has its own highlights and challenges: the twinning of the  medical schools of Tel Aviv University and the Copperbelt University in Ndola, Zambia; the moving story told by the Holocaust Detainees Exhibition and Cemetery in Mauritius; the history of Central African Jewry chronicled in the Museum in Livingstone, Zambia; the rebirth of the Maputo community in Mozambique with its rebuilt synagogue including facilities for a new generation of children: and the superhuman efforts of the communities in Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to continue to run viable shuls despite the many difficulties which surround them.

And not to be ignored, the sterling efforts of all the communities, even the smallest, to befriend and assist their fellow citizens, to fight antisemitism and to speak out fearlessly for the survival of the State of Israel — their courage and love for their roots is admirable and outstanding.

Despite all this successful endeavour, it is now quite obvious that the AJC is to be disowned and ignored by the Board and allowed to slip away into the annals of history. If there is a future for the African Jewish Congress, what is to be done to help it continue its sterling work?

Should it sever its connection with the SAJBOD? Should it cultivate independence or join whatever association of country communities emerges from this debacle?

Should it continue in its attempt to strengthen its ties with the World Jewish Congress, an alliance which itself has challenges, largely born of distance and economics?

Will it be possible for Rabbi Silberhaft to continue his pastoral and organisational work for the AJC adequately supported financially and administratively?

None of these questions can be satisfactorily answered without strong lay leadership sadly lacking in these organisations.

If the African Jewish Congress is to survive, there has to be an attempt to harness the enormous goodwill and sympathy the current situation has exposed.

All over the Jewish world, there are Jews, formally affiliated or not, whose Jewish roots came from Sub-Saharan African communities. The way forward can only succeed with the support and cooperation of all who can look back to their earlier years and to the memories of their parents and grandparents. 

We ask them to acknowledge their very special history. 

Click here to visit the African Jewish Congress website

Click here to download a PDF of the April edition of the Chronicle

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