Tackling Jewish Illiteracy

Chairman Lance Katz

Five years ago, at the age of 34, I had two post graduate degrees and yet I was illiterate — Jewishly illiterate that is.

Although I could read Hebrew (badly), I did not understand a word of it. Although I knew of the Torah, I had no idea what was written in it. I had no knowledge of the existence of the Talmud, of Jewish history or the workings of the Jewish calendar.

I had no confidence in navigating my way through a Jewish prayer service or in fulfilling basic ritual obligations. As a self proclaimed intellectual I claimed to have an interest in philosophy and yet I had never read any of the great Jewish philosophical works. I was unaware that such works even existed.

The worst part of this sad state of affairs was that I was arrogant and apathetic about it. I didn’t think that there was anything intellectually worthwhile in Judaism. The Torah was an archaic text not read or followed by any thinking person — ‘bobba meisers’ — and that was the final word on the matter.

Having not gone to a Jewish day school as a child, I assumed that those who did go to a Jewish day school knew a great deal more than me about the ‘stuff’ that was irrelevant to me anyway.

Imagine then my dismay when I started to discover the remarkable depth and breadth of Jewish literature, the brilliance and diversity of Jewish thought through the ages, the incisive logic and argument of the Gemara, the beauty of the Jewish liturgy, the cyclical meaning of the Jewish calendar year and the miracle of the modern State of Israel in the context of Jewish history and two millennia of Jewish yearning to return to our land.

Imagine my feelings of pride when I read Paul Johnson’s ‘The History of the Jews’ and learnt of the remarkable impact that the Jews have had on all of mankind and history. Imagine my passionate commitment to sending my kids to a Jewish day school so that they could have the Jewish education I never had. Imagine my horror when I then discovered countless family, friends and associates who had gone to a Jewish day school were (almost) as Jewishly illiterate as me.

Jewish literacy is the key to a Jewish future and illiteracy levels in Cape Town are, in my view, of crisis proportions.

The Yeshiva of Cape Town, led by the inspirational Rosh Kollel, Rabbi Eitan Bendavid and his five dynamic bachurim, is playing a critical role in tackling this challenge head on for children, youth and adults. The Yeshiva team gives classes at Herzlia each weekday morning and learns one-on-one in different parts of the community on week nights.

The Yeshiva has also introduced new courses which tackle this burning issue, most notably ‘Jewish Literacy 101: a Journey through Jewish Intellectual History’, which meets in Sea Point and Claremont on Wednesday and Thursday night respectively, as well as an ‘Introduction to Talmud’ course on Monday night in Sea Point.


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