Shifting my perspective of what it means to be Jewish

By Brad Gottschalk

Sometimes in life we are confronted with things which completely shift our perspective of what it means to be Jewish. 

Falling into the comfort in our ideas of what a Jew acts like or how a Jew looks can feel quite easy at times. But I recently had one of those ‘shifting’ moments while visiting small Jewish communities along the coast with Habonim! 

Why go on such a trip? After dealing with Covid for the last 27 months, with all the cancellations and heartbreak, we are confidently in a year of rebuilding. The energy we are experiencing now is similar to that of the stories we have always heard about from Habo in the early 2000s. Those years saw the movement on the brink of closure, but its resuscitation came in the form of a group of maddies who combatted the problems of their time with creative solutions and much heart. Their exploits were even written into a book (Like a Phoenix from the Ashes by Doron Isaacs and Wayne Sussman). 

Fast forward to today, and their creativity and drive has become the stuff of legends. One such adventure was a trip along the coast connecting with small Jewish Communities. Today being in a similar period of rebuilding, we decided to take a page out of their book! Having lived in both Cape Town and Joburg, and having access to our plethora of Jewish institutions, seeing what these small communities looked like absolutely fascinated me. The reason I am part of Habo is because I really do believe in the importance of having an informal space for South African Jewish youth to engage with each other and the world around them. I am used to connecting with the ‘big city’ kids on (at least) a weekly basis. But what about the Jewish kids who don’t have the same access to these spaces (where they can just be around other Jewish youth)? 

The perks of Glenhazel or Sea Point are evident; one such advantage is that we need only look down the road for community. But on this trip I learned a disadvantage: we take our de-facto Jewish lives for granted. It is easy to become a ‘passive’ Jew when you are in such environments. This realisation seeped in quickly on our first stop in Mossel Bay, where the much of the Jewish community of their city is situated in one house. There were diverse reasons for wanting to move away from our bigger cities (the calm and nature are compelling reason enough). But as a Jew, it does seem to come with a sacrifice. That isn’t to say that the Garden Route community don’t live ‘as Jewish’ lives as the broader population — tradition and Jewish education just happen at the home. I am definitely biased in my views of community, but growing up in a large community is not the norm. Jews from every era and corner of the world have managed to exist within small outposts (there is a joke that Neil Armstrong was taken aback after finding a Chabad when he made his first steps on the moon). But what we found was that we were so welcomed by families who were ready to connect with other Jews. Another lesson: being Jewish is about connecting. It was hard to find Jews in these places…many do not want to be bothered. However, there are those who make effort to connect to community. Whether it was meeting with Lauren Pelser, who somehow gathers scattered people from every corner of the garden route for chaggim (her face lit up when speaking about an annual seder held in her restaurant attended by dozens); or the group of three families in Oudtshoorn who still manage to create a minyan; not for a specifically religious purpose, but rather to keep together. Lesson 3: no matter the size of the community, there will always be those who give of themselves. 

It wasn’t hard to break the ice with those who we met. It did throw me off at first when a Jewish kid had an Afrikaans accent rather than a Sea Point one, but those barriers quickly fell, because: lesson 4 — a Jew is a Jew is a Jew… 

We will always share a bond with each other. No matter how foreign the culture, no matter how deep the faribel — like it or not — we are, always have been, and always will be connected. 

I want to end off on a particularly touching moment which, for me, captured the Habo magic of the trip. We were meeting community leaders in George, who decided to contact a 16-year-old boy and his mother to join us for coffee last minute. Somehow the meeting fell into place, and we managed to all meet (right before leaving for Knysna). We were all talking about the standard things, machaneh, what it’s like to live in George, etc… when his mother mentioned that he has yet to have his Barmitzvah. It was a lightbulbs moment! Soon we were messaging Rabbis and caterers… and on the spot had planned a machaneh barmitzvah at Onrus Shul. His mother started to tear up, and what started as a 20-minute meeting, turned into an hour and a half of emotions, connecting, and what I can only describe as magic.

A grueling but supremely worthwhile 20 hours of driving later, I feel like the torch has been passed down. Paradigm shifts have always been what Habo is about — from Cape Town, Mossel Bay, George, Knysna, Plett, Gqeberha, Outdshoorn, and beyond, we will continue to spread the magic further for many years to come. עלה והגשם — Rise up and fulfill!

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

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