Meeting my cousins

By Gwynne Robins

Seeing an ad offering free DNA testing, I joined hundreds of others including Helen Zille and Albie Sachs to have a swab stuck in my cheek, and some months later got my results.

My mtDNA matched people who came from the Middle East (not surprising seeing that I am Jewish) but also indicated that 60 000 years ago, I had come from Africa. It does not matter what colour your hair, eyes or skin are, or where, how or if you worship, everybody comes from Africa originally — whether your direct ancestors came from South America, South Africa, South Korea or even ‘Aryan’ Germany.

What this meant to me is that we are all related, and if siblings disagree, one can expect people not so closely related to disagree as well. This does not mean that we cannot be taught to accept our differences and benefit from learning about them. Hence my involvement through the Board in establishing relations with other communities.

Soon after I joined the Board, Dayan Gross (then Executive Director) called me into a meeting and introduced me to a Muslim man and an Anglican priest. They were worried that the intifada would have repercussions on the streets of Cape Town, and Dayan asked me to find six children — the boys in the group to wear kipot. We came together in a hall where a small Chinese nun, looking like a doll, took the assembled Jewish, Christian and Muslim children and taught them to make origami doves of peace. The children returned and were told to give their dove to an adult they did not know, except for one Jewish boy who burst into tears saying that it was his dove and he was not going to give it to anyone. The next day there was a large picture on the front page of the Cape Times showing a boy with a kipah giving a dove of peace to a woman in a hijab. Unfortunately, the paper published their names and the Muslim women contacted the Board in a panic. She had received death threats and the Board had to arrange security for her for a few weeks.

Dayan was due to emigrate and asked me to take over his interfaith work. Mickey Glass and he had been involved in the Parliament of the World Religions. The first Parliament, held in Chicago in 1893, had only included Christian sects. 100 years later it was revived with hundreds of religions and the decision was taken to hold one every five years. As South Africa was going through a miraculous transition, Cape Town was selected for the next Parliament in 1991. At its conclusion, some participants wanted to continue the work and met in a side room to discuss this. In the room was Mr Van de Merwe, an old man selling homemade ice cream. They did not realise he was listening until he interrupted to say he had always been interested in interfaith. Developers wanted to turn his Rondebosch house into a multi-storey apartment block, but he wanted it to become an interfaith centre. The garden shed where he made his ice cream had been a church in the mid-19th century. With his house and hall and leftover tables, chairs and computers from the Parliament, a steering committee was put together to form the Cape Town Interfaith Initiative (CTII) and I became the secretary. I continued as such for more years than I care to remember, seeing it become an NPO with a proud record of making Cape Town aware of, and accepting of, religious diversity, but always short of funding as no faith community wanted to support an organisation that would dispel the idea that only they possessed a ticket to heaven. Tragically the CTII hall burnt down one cold winter afternoon when the spiritual dance group lit the oil heater.

Through CTII, I met amazing people — members of the Baha’i, the Ananda Kutir, the Brahma Kumaris, Sunnis, Shiites, Ahmadiyyas, Hare
Krishna and many others. I was invited to religious festivals, even a funeral and spoke in temples, ashrams, mosques and churches.
I attended these recognising that as there are so few Jews, I might be the only one they know, so let them get to know a friendly face.
One amazing experience was when a Moslem colleague and I were invited to be among the 50 people from 20 cities brought together by the Goldin Institute for International Partnership and Peace to share experiences in working in inter-religious dialogue and to learn about community building strategies. We stayed in comfortless cells in a Chicago priory where white-robed Dominican monks padded silently along the long corridors and snatches of Gregorian chants floated out from its church. Pre-packaged flavourless kosher food was supplied, frozen and reheated for each meal, swimming in the water from the melted ice. I was asked to give the Institute’s opening message, ending this by handing over a copy of the Board’s poster ‘No One is Born Hating’, as well as on a televised panel in a Presbyterian Church (the only event open to the public) together with a Buddhist abbess, a Jain biochemist, a Muslim attorney and a Christian pastor. My colleague and I both learnt a great deal.

Funding from the Western Cape Government was available to feed 6000 people, five days a week in areas identified as the poorest in the province, together with skills development and capacity building programmes if three different faith communities were involved. After a meeting in Worcester, I became the Jewish face and a Director of the Faith-Based Alliance for Social Development, an NGO we set up. The three-year promised funding lasted for nine years.

Believing that ignorance is a major contributor to prejudice, I initiated fund-raising Religious Heritage Bus tours for the CTII where we took people to a mosque, church, synagogue and temple with a vegetarian lunch along the way. We cannot always hold these Heritage Day tours on the 24th of September as this date frequently clashes with Shabbat or chagim. I also suggested that our Reconciliation Day walk from church to shul to mosque included a Jewish speaker in a mosque, a Christian speaker in the Gardens Shul and a Muslim speaker in St Georges Cathedral. With that change, the participant numbers grew each year, with even Patricia de Lille and Helen Zille arriving. It came to an end when a new Dean took over who did not like Jews or Israel and we moved the event to District Six where we walked prayerfully to different sites with different events focussing on the painful memories of forced removals.

United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week events were also major events I organised, including involving a Khoisan chief dressed in skins and porcupine quills, a representative of the first people whose DNA we all share. With the 16th of April being the UN International Day of Living Together in Peace, can we not all make an effort to live together in peace with our diverse community and with our cousins, the people who populate this threatened planet? Every day, not only on April 16th!

Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies website:, Instagram, and Facebook page.

Published in the PDF edition of the Pesach/April 2022 issue – Click here to get it.

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