By Rabbi Greg Alexander
Coronavirus has opened up as much as it has shut down.
And one of the things that have been highlighted to the world is how so much of the society that we lived in daily pre-COVID was founded on the privilege of the few and excluded the vast majority. In South Africa we have known this for ever and despite nearly three decades of democratic government we still see how divided our country is into those who can and have and those who can’t and don’t.
This lockdown made it all the more important that we use this time to look inward at how we can be part of the solutions and even more urgently how we ourselves are part of the problem. Temple Israel has led the Jewish community for more than
75 years in open, welcoming Judaism and so it was the right time to turn the spotlight on ourselves and see just how open and welcoming our own congregation is. We began a process of actively auditing our congregation with regard to equality, diversity and inclusivity, and this is what we found:
We can rightly be proud of how our Jews-by-Choice programme has opened the doors of Judaism to so many seekers. Our classes are filled each year with people who long to be part of Am Yisrael, and we are the doorway in. Our Pride Shabbat and LGBTQI+ outreach has made clear to the Jewish community that who you love is your choice and that the Jewish people is made up of individuals and families of all orientations. We have reached out to the many different faith traditions in Cape Town to join forces, speak with one voice where possible and partner on issues of mutual concern, and at the same time to reassure interfaith couples and families that their Jewish home is in our shul.
Recognising that gender is not binary but fluid, we set in motion a process to ensure that all three of our campuses in Cape Town have gender-neutral bathrooms. Our Torah teaches us that every person is born with dignity and humanity, and that includes their gender expression. We practice that belief by creating welcoming and inclusive spaces, and the bathroom is a major part of that. This is important for parents or caregivers whose children are a different gender from them, and for people with caregivers or personal attendants who are a different gender from them. Also for those with sensitivities around body image or a history of abuse or who are gender non-conforming. Our bathrooms also have wheelchair access making it available to all congregants to use.
We found much that was positive and commendable. We also found much that still needed to be done. Our synagogue has already done much work to empower Jewish women. Our leadership boards and councils are populated by women and men, and we currently have one female rabbi (Rabbi Emma Gottlieb) and two student rabbis (Andrea Kuti and Sofia Zway) in our community. And yet, if you ask the majority of people in Cape Town to describe a rabbi, they will still tell you it is a man with a beard.
We used the BLM (Black Lives Matter) protests as an inspiration to begin an internal investigation into how our community makes Jews of Colour and their families feel at our services, in our buildings and passing through our security and found that there was much work that still needed to be done there.
And while all three of our campuses allow for wheelchair access there is still much to be done to make the experience of those who are differently abled as good as it could be.
We reached out to our sister congregations in the USA who have already done some work in this regard, and who launched a campaign they have termed “Audacious Hospitality”. Audacious Hospitality is rooted in the belief that we will be a stronger, more vibrant Jewish community when we fully embrace the diversity that is the reality of modern Jewish life. There is more than one authentic way to be Jewish and diversity is an essential component to making our communities whole.
They have developed an auditing tool that evaluates a synagogue on the basis of their diversity, equality and inclusivity (DEI) strategies, to help identify the steps needed to become a community rooted in principles of DEI. At the end of 2020 we assembled a working group of synagogue staff and members to begin working on the assessment as a way of identifying current areas of concern and also creating a vision of the type of community that we would like to be.
As I write this at the beginning of 2021, I look forward not just to the process that will continue this year, but to the decades of benefit that will come from the work done now. May we all be (safely) audaciously hospitable in 2021.
Temple Israel www.templeisrael.co.za
Published in the print edition of the February 2021 issue. Download the February 2021 issue PDF here.
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