Creating a conscious community

By Craig Nudelman

It was a similar feeling boarding the plane to Frankfurt that I had when I travelled to Mexico in 2016. 

Once again, I was going to the International Nahum Goldmann Fellowship (NGF), but this time it was in the small provincial town of Klingenthal in the Alsace region of France, a land of wine and cheese, instead of the Mexican town of Cuernavaca, one of mezqual, tequila, and tacos. I was met by 32 other fellows from 16 different countries, from Tallin to Tel Aviv, Majorca to Mexico City. These incredible individuals brought with them their own leadership styles, skills, and desires to learn. 

To recap the purpose of the NGF, for those who have not had the time to re-read ALL of my columns since 2015, its description is as follows: 

The Nahum Goldmann Fellowship is a special institute aimed at nurturing a new generation of Jewish communal leadership across the world. The programme provides an intensive experience of Jewish learning, living and leadership for young men and women from around the world between the ages of
25-40, who show serious interest in Jewish culture and demonstrate a potential for individual growth and communal leadership.

I am in a very different headspace from where I was in 2016. First, this time I am lucky enough to be part of the NGF’s Network Leadership Seminar, where myself and 11 others from around the world meet once a month for a year to discuss different issues around leadership and its values in a Jewish context. This enabled me to really dive in to the intense nature of the programme, its theme being ‘Community, Continuity, and Consciousness’ (more about that later). This time, I also came with a new understanding of the Jewish community, having re-joined the Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies in a professional capacity last September. And so, at the rather quirky Hotel des Vosges, I embarked on a new challenge to engage with my Jewish identity (and all the incredible kosher food and more wine than we could drink). 

Community, continuity, and consciousness

This year’s theme was difficult to grapple with, especially coming from a South African perspective. Currently, our community faces many challenges. We are dealing with an ageing community. In particular, many young Jews are either leaving the country or distancing themselves from a community in which they do not feel acknowledged. 

Jewish continuity has been debated for centuries. During the period of the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) between the 1770s and 1880s, the Maskillim, including Moses Mendelssohn, the composer Felix Mendelssohn’s grandfather, sought to pursue moral and cultural renewal in the modern world in which they lived. This saw reforms in education, culture, and community. The Haskalah succeeded in creating political engagement and a reconnection with individuals’ Jewish identity in a time of increasing nationalism in Europe. 

In Jewish South Africa, we find ourselves in a similar predicament. Our traditional communal systems, in place for decades, need to include the youth, or as we have been named, the ‘missing middle’. Those who travelled to France for NGF are young and have mostly been included in their communities; their professional development embraced to ensure there will be a place for future leadership. How can we do this in South Africa? How can we achieve this? One way is to become a conscious community: communally, locally, and globally.

We, as South African Jews, must embrace the times in which we live. We must all be aware of the threat of climate change, one of the main themes of NGF this year. We must be mindful of ‘othering’ individuals with whom we do not agree. Issues such as sexual identity, Zionism, and religious denominations, among others, are heated topics, whose debates are often dominated by the left and right, the conservative and the liberal. How can we continue as a community if we do not look at the issues at hand and actively engage with those in the centre, not just the extremists? 

When Chief Rabbi Mirvis spoke to the fellows at NGF, he said there were three ‘A’s which threaten Jewish peoplehood: Antisemitism, Assimilation, and Apathy. With regards to a South African context, apathy is the biggest issue we face. We need to address it by accepting there is limited voice for the youth; limited acceptance of their varied Jewish identities and acknowledgment of their place in Jewish society. 

In Pirkei Avot (1:6) it says, ‘Make for yourself a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend; and judge every person on the positive side’. Let us learn from those who feel they are not heard and judge all in a positive light. I believe that we can change our society and ensure it continues and grows, but only if we acknowledge that there is a ‘missing middle’. We can engage with them and learn from them. We can acquire their friendship by investing in them. 

I left Klingenthal inspired by so many individuals, including my fellow participants, the faculty, and Rabbi Dr Jeni Friedman and David Jacobson, to change the community and create positive change. Let us all be participants in this project to revitilise and revive our beautiful, diverse, and unique community.

Craig is a writer, Jewish professional, and tour guide extraordinaire. His deep bass voice has graced stages, synagogues and studios. He is an obedient husband, father to two spectacular daughters, and is known for dad jokes and trivia.

• Published in the August 2022 Digital Edition – Click here to read it.

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