South African leadership at the World Jewish Congress

Mary Kluk meeting the Pope

Among the semigrants settling in Cape Town from other parts of South Africa in recent years is Mary Kluk, who moved here from Durban. Mary’s move brings huge benefits to our community since she comes armed with significant leadership experience both within the South African Jewish community and internationally. 

As regards her work in South Africa, Mary has for many years been involved in activism on behalf of the Jewish community here, having served in many leadership roles in the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. She is also the founder of the Durban Holocaust Centre, which she continues to serve as Director. 

As for her role internationally, the Cape Jewish Chronicle spoke to Mary about her current role as the President of the Africa & Australia Region of the World Jewish Congress (WJC), an organisation she has worked with for the past ten years. Through her prominence at this level on the global Jewish stage, Mary certainly puts our relatively small community on the global map.

According to Mary, “The WJC serves a crucial role around the world as a global mouthpiece for Jews. It works closely with Jewish communities and organisations in over 100 countries in all regions of the world.” Our SA Jewish Board of Deputies (BoD) is one of these organisations, and it is owing to her position as National Chair of the BoD in 2011 that Mary was brought into the WJC fold. She followed closely in the footsteps of the late Mervyn Smith from Cape Town. He was the Chair of the WJC’s Policy Committee in a prior period, and kept the flag flying for South Africa at the organisation.

Established in 1936 in reaction to what was happening to Jews in Nazi Germany, the WJC has developed into a body that protects the rights of Jews all over the world. Much of its work over the decades since its inception relates to the Holocaust – the restitution of stolen property, and assisting survivor communities to re-establish themselves – but it has also played a crucial role in lobbying for the establishment of the State of Israel, and in fostering interfaith relations. “In essence, the WJC is the representation at diplomatic level for Jewish people,” Mary explains. “Its platform is based on the unity of the Jewish people and it is driven to act on matters of common concern.”  

Today, with the hatred against Israel and the Jewish people globally, the Congress again plays  a vital role in protecting Jews and their institutions and in ensuring the survival of Israel. “In fact,” Mary comments, “we met for urgent discussions in Zagreb, Croatia, soon after the October 7th attack, plotting our response to what has subsequently become a major war.” 

At this point, South Africa’s Jews are perhaps more reliant on the support and guidance of an international body like the WJC because our government’s stance is so contrary to what the wider South African Jewish community believes. Our leaders here can tap into the best Jewish leadership anywhere in the world, and we gain access to resources we would not otherwise have. 

Mary is a great supporter of the current President of the WJC, Ronald Lauder, whom she believes has taken the Congress to a new level. She is particularly impressed by his work among young Jews, especially as regards his efforts to grow young leaders. “Lauder introduced the Junior Diplomats programme,” she explains, “and it has brought in strong leadership among people in their 30s and 40s, ensuring that we have a strong pool of leaders available for the future.”  

Another initiative geared to develop young leaders is the Lauder Fellowship, which is “an international network of top Jewish student leaders seeking to represent and advocate on behalf of the global Jewish community.” This year’s group of Lauder Fellows includes Cape Town’s own Erin Dodo, a columnist for the Cape Jewish Chronicle.

Other current focus areas for the organisation are training people on the use of social media and support for students in the battle against antisemitism on university campuses. 

As head of the region, Mary works closely with Jewish leaders from a number of countries. “What has stood out for me,” she says, “is that, despite coming from quite different countries and cultures, the issues we face are similar.” In addition to South Africa and Australia, the Africa & Australia group includes a number of small communities, such as Dubai and Mauritius.

Mary also chairs the Security Committee of the WJC. With so many safety concerns for Jewish communities all over the world, many communities need advice and resources to provide suitable security, a need filled by the Security Committee.

We are indeed privileged as Capetonians to have someone like Mary living amongst us. Her vision and her insight into world affairs are certainly valuable assets for our community. 

It’s interesting to see the range of countries that are linked to the WJC – the only continent with a limited number of countries involved is Africa. Take a look at this map to see the extent of affiliation. 

•  Antisemitism
•  Supporting Israel
•  Holocaust Legacy
•  Interfaith Dialogue
•  Jewish Unity
•  Community Affairs
•  Jews from Arab Lands
•  Iran & Global Terror

• Published in the April 2024 issue – Click here to start reading.

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