A South African report on the WUPJ conference

MY TIME in Jerusalem was like an epiphany. I experienced, for a few hours, the lifestyle of an ultra Orthodox family. The choice my nephew and niece have made is not one I would contemplate but I respect their decision to live their lives the way that makes them happy. Although I do not understand the concepts of men being the “masters”, and preceding every action with a bracha, they are happy and fulfilled.

Then I was privileged to have a guide the leading expert on Archaeology in Jerusalem, and to see that city through the eyes of a passionate man, whose knowledge of Israel as a whole and Jerusalem in particular is vast. From the walled city of Bethlehem and Rachel’s tomb, to the ruins of the first Church (inside the old city) my morning was filled with exciting new discoveries.

It struck me, quite suddenly, that here I was, a Jew, in the country of my forefathers – that I was standing on land where many thousands of years ago my people had stood. That I was not one of about 60,000 Jews in South Africa, but one of millions, some of whom had gone before me, others who are still with us today. It was a feeling of wonderful and wondrous belonging.

But while this was food for the soul the nourishment came from the conference itself.

The opening ceremony was an absolute joy and delight. All participating countries flags were paraded (the South Africans were by far the most vocal when our flag appeared) and we were treated to an evening of wonder. After the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, welcomed us to his city we were entertained by the Mattan Klein trio who entertained us with great jazz. Songstress Peri Smilow lifted our spirits and sand artist Evgeni Swerdlov overwhelmed us with his thrilling and imaginative creations.

Thursday found us gathered at the beautiful Beit Shmuel complex to listen to the controversial Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger who spoke on “A new inclusivity for Jews and Judaism – stepping out of the kosher closet.” One of things she spoke about was how, the Christmas period is one of difficulty for Jews. It was therefore decided that, in the UK, Limmud would be held during the period and this has proven to be extremely successful. The rabbi believes that with modern genetics it is not necessary to see the child come out of its mother’s womb to know if it is Jewish, but that it is how a child is raised and how it behaves that should determine if he/she is Jewish. She also believes that gay couples should be welcomed into Jewish communities.

Each region then presented verbal or electronic reports. Some points of interest – the Australasian region (Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Mumbai) donated approximately US$800,000 to the WUPJ in 2008, the FSU had 1200 children at their summer camps in 2008 and Chabad are closing schools in the FSU and the Progressive movement is planning to open its first kindergarten in the region. North America has about 900 congregations with approximately 1 million affiliated members. An “Ambassadors manual” has been launched by this region to get people excited about Reform Judaism.

The first real session of the day, that I attended, was “What do Jewish Women want?” Presentations were given by women from France, North America, the FSU and Israel. In France society is not equal although it is starting to be easier for women to have careers. There are differences in the way boys are educated and boys are often told “not to cry like a girl.”

In North America the main focus is on wanting to make a difference and to be accepted as equals in all aspects of life. The women in the FSU want everything but mostly personal fulfilment and they strive to be involved in the community. In Israel women want control over their bodies – for example some Rabbis now tell new mothers to only breastfeed for three months so that they can fall pregnant again. On the city councils men compliment the women who are silent and in a recent study it was found that women are seven times more likely to be interrupted than men. Some buses are segregated with men in the front and women at the back. Women ambulance drivers earn NIS 800 while their male counterparts earn NIS 2800. Women are forbidden from praying out loud at the Wailing Wall.

This session was followed by a lunch which was the inaugural meeting of WRJ-Israel. So far there are 16 Sisterhoods in Israel, some of which are twinned with Sisterhoods in the US. It was at this luncheon that I presented our gift of NIS1800 which was received with enormous gratitude.

Currently the various Sisterhoods are involved in Study, Philanthropy, working with B’nei Mitzvah students, working towards getting women called to the Torah, Care Committees, Rosh Chodesh groups and having mothers and daughters celebrate their Bat Mitzvah together. The following is their informal mission statement: “Do not let fear be your counsel. Learn to fail and let failure lead to making a difference. Choose your issues carefully. Do not steal another woman’s identity. Do not bear false witness. Do not covert. Do not choose projects that are unrealistic.”

Lunch was followed by the session “Women in Congregational Life. Using our power to affect change” This is the session at which I was the speaker and my speech is sent herewith as a separate attachment. Needless to say everyone present were totally gobsmacked by what we do with our limited numbers and resources. I will not detail anyone else’s presentation other than to say that what they do is really tiny in comparison to our involvement. As Rabbi Jacobs pointed out – we are the smallest community but do the most work.

The final session of the day was “The Torah – a Women’s Commentary” and here we had a brief study session and were given the opportunity to look at the Commentary, which some of us saw in Cape Town at the conference in 2008. The costs of this were funded by WRJ America.

Friday morning started on a fun note with all participants to the IMPJ (Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism) being given chewing gum, so that we could feel like real Israelis. They chew gum like it is going out of fashion. In 2007 research was conducted re the potential of Reform Judaism in Israel. This was designed to identify the attitude of secular and traditional Jews towards the Reform movement. (Traditional Jews constitute approximately 30% of the population). The results were interesting to say the least:

  • 75% secular and 42% traditional Jews support our movement;
  • 56% secular and 39% traditional Jews are willing to support our activities;
  • 71% secular and 48% traditional Jews will accept a liberal Jewish education;
  • 7% secular and 3% traditional Jews have been exposed to a Reform ceremony of some kind;
  • 51% secular and 72% traditional Jews have never been exposed to a Reform ceremony of some kind;

When asked what they think of Reform Judaism the following responses were received:

  • 28% secular and traditional Jews know nothing about our movement however
  • 46% were positive about our movement
  • 20% were negative
  • 27% were neutral.

The 15 year plan of the IMPJ is to double the number of Reform communities, to ‘brand’ Reform Judaism, to expand their activities and to identify and promote philanthropy.

Rabbinic salaries in Israel – 30-40% are paid by the congregation, the balance comes from the IMPJ. The workers on the Reform vineyards are handicapped in some way or another and therefore the wines cannot be declared kosher.

We then travelled by bus to Tel Aviv and I went with a group to Beit Daniel where we spoke to people either undergoing conversion or newly converted. Many of these tried the Orthodox route first and two of the more bizarre responses were:

  • One woman was told that because she was an actress the Orthodox could not convert her because theatre is Greek in origin.
  • Another response, this time to a child adopted by Romanian Jews. She must attend an orthodox school. We will convert her, but if ever she leaves the school her conversion will be revoked.

Such incidences are why many come to the Progressive movement for conversion.

On Sunday it was back to work, and another keynote address, this time regarding Israeli politics. The issue of whether Israel is a Jewish state or an ad hoc place was raised. There is reason to be concerned because whilst the US is breaking barriers, Israel is building them. Issues around marriages were also raised.

I then attended the session on “Raise the Ruach” which should have been attended by every Progressive Jew in South Africa, because we really need it. Just to go back to Kabalat Shabbat – the service I attended at Beit Daniel was so wonderful – lots of singing, guitar playing and great Ruach. I left feeling totally uplifted.

But – back to the session: some of the ideas were to give each member a name tag, so that they can be identified. If this is not an option then at least members of Management should wear a name tag. At least 2 members of management should be on hand with the Rabbi to greet congregants before services. We should do a lot of communal singing. We need to get members to participate in the service and to make all members and visitors feel welcome.

I then attended a session on Tikkun Olam and it was a pity that South Africa did not participate although I did manage to tell those present about what we do during the question/answer session, focussing on our project “Put God on your guest list. Once again all were impressed and some said they would take that theme home with them, and institute it in their countries. In Australia Netzer have decided to go vegetarian for ecological reasons. They plant trees in the Netzer forest in Israel and work in indigenous schools in Cairns.

Other speakers felt that the Orthodox spend too much energy on things like putting on Teffilin, building Sukkot and lighting candles; the Reform way is to repair, to be involved in social action and to make concrete social changes. In Barcelona on Tu Bishvat they plant trees where they are needed, invite the poor to Pesach Seder and help the needy on every Jewish holiday. On Yom Kippur food is given to those in desperate need and on Suckot they help the homeless. In the Ukraine Netzer clean and maintain abandoned cemeteries. Prisoners are taught and 11 of these are studying through the Hebrew Open University.

After lunch (another wonderful meal, as they all were) I went with a group to see what the youth (machinot) in Tel Aviv are doing in the field of Tikkun Olam. 45 young adults, 10 months before their army intake, stay together and learn about their identities. They discuss moral dilemmas that they face, take turns in being responsible for duties in the house and do volunteer work.

In Jaffa the school system is integrated. About 60% of the learners are Jews. Approximately 80% of the Arabs are Muslim. After school those children who need extra tuition or assistance visit a learning centre where 2 of the machinot give one hour lessons. Other machinot visit an old-age home which is mainly for Jews from the FSU and they are entertained. I went to both these facilities and they are unbelievable. We were royally entertained by some of the residents at the old age home. The machinot also do other things to give them a feeling for what others suffer – one young lad lived as a blind person for three days, another lived in a Bedouin village.

From there it was unfortunately to the airport to come home. Due to pressures at work I was unable to stay for the closing ceremony which I am sure was as wonderful as the rest of the conference.

Once again, my gratitude to all who made it possible and to those in Israel who made it so special.