Gender equality golden discussion thread

Women in religious leadership came under the loupe in a panel discussion towards the end of last year at Hillbrow’s historical Women’s Jail, hosted by the SA Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity (SACRED). Community stalwart and deputy chairman of the SAZF Reeva Forman (pictured left), was MC. It featured Zaakirah Akram of Cape Town’s Open Mosque; Reverend Lutz Ackerman of the Lutheran Church of Peace in Hillbrow; Rabbi Julia Margolis from Bet David, Sandton; and Ba’hai representative Khwezi Fudu Cenenda


Rabbi Margolis said: “Why do we need women rabbis? What does it say about the community in which a female is encouraged to hold such an office? If we ask such a question, we need to ask why we need women doctors – remembering that only a hundred years ago in England, Parliament considered it absolutely a breach of professionalism.

Cenenda, diplomatic liaison for the Ba’hai community added: “G-d created all of mankind with no distinction between male and female. G-d judges human actions, not actions as they are performed by a man or by a woman.

“When women are suppressed there is injustice. Until the world realises this, there will not be peace. I pray for the time where it doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman when you achieve things. I pray for the time when it doesn’t matter when you are ‘the first black’, ‘the first woman’. I pray for the time when humanity can identify itself as humanity.”

Reverend Ackerman is proactive in projects between his community and the Union of Jewish Women. In South Africa since 2001, he was ordained in Bavaria. With affiliation credentials in Lutheran and Anglican dogma, he said: “Transformation of theological thinking is nowhere near complete.” He itemised the growing number of women in Anglican and Lutheran church leadership as he interrogated Roman Catholic canonical principles.

“What is religious leadership based on? Education? A divine calling? And what’s the laity’s role? Sometimes it’s not only a question of legality but one of citizens making decisions.”

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RIGHT: SACRED’s Chairman, Leah Livni, with Reeva Forman, deputy chairman of the South African Zionist Federation; and Bet David’s Rabbi Julia Margolis – PIC ROBYN SASSEN

Akram, a lawyer, said: “When you think of a Muslim woman, what do you expect? Someone like me?” Dressed in a tailored suit, she grinned at the audience’s perplexity. “The current stereotype for Islam is not about non-judging. It’s about terror. We, at the Open Mosque officially celebrate our second month,” she alluded to threats the establishment has weathered, before proceeding to examine the Qur’an’s exegesis regarding women.

“At the Open Mosque, women are treated as equals to men and access the mosque through the main entrance. We pray in the same area as our fathers, sons and brothers. We encourage women to empower and educate themselves through teachings in the Qur’an and by extension, teaching their male and female offspring they are equals.

“Women are actively involved in the Open Mosque, where they are encouraged to participate in a formerly male-dominated society. Gender equality cannot be achieved without active participation. We need to focus on not drawing attention to ourselves,” she emphasised.

Netzer Mitzvah Day at Westpark Cemetery

Inspired by the idea of the Torah portion, Terumah, that an offering which comes from the heart is creating and sustaining a Jewish community infrastructure, Netzer South Africa organized, in co-junction with the progressive synagogues Bet David, Sandton, and Beit Emanuel, Johannesburg, a cemetery clean up at the Johannesburg’s Jewish Westpark Cemetery.

The Netzer Mitzvah day was held last Sunday for the first time. “The idea of the day is to connect the learning about Mitzvot with a concrete action”, explained Rabbi Adrian Michael Schell from Bet David, “and we wanted to give an example that giving doesn’t require a lot of money or materials. Time is one of the most precious things we can offer, and by which we can change more in this world than many of us can imagine.”

Steven Adler, President of the Chevrah Kadisha, who welcomed the group at the cemetery, thanked Netzer and the children for this wonderful idea and their dedication. At the Wall of Remembrance, Simon Hochschild gave a short introduction to the place, before the youth learned, in a Peula (learning session), more about the origin of Mitzvot and the idea of Tikkun Olam. As part of the program, all participants cleaned the memorial plaques and the area around of the Wall of Remembrance. Rabbi Margolis (Bet David), Rabbi Shaked (Beit Emanuel) and Rabbi Schell (Bet David) were moved by the engagement of all the participants and the Netzer Madrichim, and the contribution the youth movement is making to the Jewish community in Johannesburg.


The Role of Women in Religious Leadership

SACRED—the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity—returned to its roots at the Women’s Gaol at Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill , presenting a programme called “The Role of Women in Religious Leadership.” Representatives of Protestant, Baha’i and Cape Town’s Open Mosque joined Rabbi Julia Margolis.

In her keynote address, Rabbi Margolis pointed out the difficult road to acceptance as a Jewish leader—a path made easier by the role-model provided by her mother, Rabbi Ylena Rubinstein and earlier women Rabbis including Regina Jonas. Rabbi Margolis and her mother are the first known mother-daughter rabbinic dynasty.

Zaakhira Akram, a practicing lawyer, represented the now two-month old Open Mosque. She spoke with passion of the shifting social norms the innovative Mosque represents, in which females enter, pray, study and lead alongside men. Her mention of a perceived obligation for practitioners of Islam to blend into their surrounding society, showed a close resemblance to the beginnings of Progressive Judaism in the 19th century.

A common theme amongst the three main Abrahamic religions was that many of the obstacles in the path of full acceptance of female religious leaders derive, not from foundational texts, but from later interpretations. Another theme was the vital importance of female education, which was particularly highlighted by Khwezi Fudu Cenenda from the Baha’i Office of Public Affairs. The session revealed that each of the represented faith communities has reached a different stage in the roles women take and the acceptance if female leadership.

Other participants included Reeva Forman as facilitator, a musical meditation by Rabbi Saar Shaked and Rev. Lutz Ackermann (Lutheran Church of Peace, Hillbrow).



From left to right: Desmond Sweke – chairman of Bet David Progressive Synagogue, Zaakirah Akram from the Open Mosque, Rev’d Lutz Ackermann from the Lutheran Church of Peace in Hillbrow, Rabbi Julia Margolis from Bet David Current Chairperson of SACRED, Reeva Forman – MC, James Lomberg – executive director of the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity (SACRED), Khwezi Fudu-Cenenda from the Baha’i Office of Public Affairs and Leah Livni – Past Chairperson of SACRED.

South African Union for Progressive Judaism Report for the year ending 2014

Our SAUPJ Biennial meeting took place in Cape Town during June 2014. This was the last event chaired by Steve Lurie, who had served as our National Chairman for the past 10 years. The following people were elected to our National Executive:

  • Alvin Kushner (National Chairman)
  • Prof Antony Arkin (National Vice-Chairman) East Coast and (Arzenu Chairman)
  • Linda Thorn (Regional Chairperson} Western Cape
  • Lynton Travis (Regional Chairperson) Gauteng. (Reeva Forman was subsequently appointed following emigration of Lynton Travis.)
  • Rabbi Greg Alexander (Chairman) SA Association of Progressive Rabbis
  • Lewis Kaplan (Chairman) SA Foundation for Progressive Judaism
  • Giddy Lief (President) Women of Progressive Judaism SA
  • Kendyll Jacobson (Mazkir) Netzer South Africa
  • Leah Livni (Chairperson) SA Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity
  • Hayley Brown (Administrator)

The year marked the retirement of 2 of our Rabbis in the Gauteng Region, Rabbi Robert Ash and Rabbi Robert Jacobs. They were replaced by Rabbi Saar Shaked and Rabbi Adrian Schell. Our 2014 highlight was the ordination of Rabbi Julia Margolis, the first South African female rabbi, and currently the only female rabbi to hold a pulpit in this country.  We were honoured to have had a visit by Rabbi Joel Oseran, Miriam Kramer as well as Rabbi Shoshana Gelfand. Rabbi Shoshana was the keynote speaker at the annual Rabbi Sherman Memorial Lecture.

This year the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation reached their 70th year. This event was celebrated at a well-attended function at a unique beach club venue in the Cape Town harbour.

Beit Emanuel, Johannesburg celebrated its 60th anniversary. Their event was feted at a lavish gala dinner which was held at their Synagogue venue. An excellent glossy Jubilee publication was distributed to mark the occasion.

We also saw Temple Israel, Hillbrow, our mother Synagogue in Johannesburg, being honoured with the prestigious status of being declared a National Heritage Site. A plaque was presented and unveiled during November. A dedication ceremony was attended by members and civic dignitaries.

Our Johannesburg synagogues have, in spite of strong leadership, not experienced any significant growth during the past year, mainly due to the strong active Orthodox community in the region. The need for a pro-active membership recruitment campaign is well recognised. More will be done in that regard. During the past year the Johannesburg Progressive community has had no Netzer Shaliach, but has made an effort to ensure that Netzer remains active.

Cape Town has remained constant with just under 1000 families (20 % of Cape Town’s Jews) attending their 3 shuls. Effort has been made to upgrade shuls where needed and to encourage youth participation. High Holy Days and Friday night services are relatively well attended. Numerous shiurim as well as other communal activities are well attended. Education including lishma is prioritised. The annual Jews-by-Choice classes have been well attended.

East Coast has a smaller Jewish Community than the other regions. The large, impressive but obsolete, Durban synagogue building has been sold and a new site has been acquired to build a shul that would be more proportionate to the current size and needs of the Progressive community. The Durban Progressive congregation prides itself on the establishment by Durban’s Sisterhood of a hospice at Mavela, their award-winning crèche and education centre. The community received a visit by the Premier of KwaZulu Natal, Durban’s Mayor, and Catholic cardinal to Durban’s Temple David which sometimes serves as a centre of religious outreach.

I had the pleasure of visiting Temple Israel, Port Elizabeth (800 km from Cape Town) together with Rabbi Richard Newman for a Shabbaton during November. What I found was a well organised, happy community. They are particularly involved in ongoing community projects in the townships. We hope to visit them from time to time.

We have a small but committed congregation in East London. I understand that the breaking the fast function at the conclusion of Yom Kippur in East London, always includes the entire community. The smaller congregations need our support. I hope to visit each of them as soon as possible.

Netzer is active but there is a need for wider youth participation. They had a very successful annual summer camp in Simon’s Town, 30 km south of Cape Town, which was attended by members from throughout South Africa. The SAUPJ needs to be more involved with Netzer.

Women of Progressive Judaism (formally the Sisterhood). The WPJ has been active in all of our Regions. They have recently held their local AGMs and have some new blood in their management.

SACRED – the South African Centre for Religious Equality and Diversity. Their highlight this year was an inter-religious event that they held at the Women’s Jail at Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill recently presenting a programme called “The Role of Women in Religious Leadership”. Representatives of Protestant, Baha’i and Cape Town’s Open Mosque addressed the meeting together with Rabbi Julia Margolis. The meeting was competently chaired by Reeva Forman.

On the downside, we had a handful of vocal members who did not support Israel in the recent Israel-Palestinian conflict. As some of them are well known members in leadership positions the media elected to misconstrue their statements as representing the views of our Progressive movement. We had to counter the disinformation through Radio interviews and articles in the Jewish Report as well as other media. After finally putting in paid notices in the media and addressing Zionist Federation meetings in our different Regions, I believe that we made the Progressive support for the Zionist Program clear.

The SAUPJ’s running cost is totally dependent on a contribution programme calculated on a small amount per member. We are no longer subsidised for shortfalls as we were in the past. We have the vision to give the Progressive movement more exposure and to undertake various projects. Regrettably the funding of the SAUPJ is limited so many of our good intentions will have to be put on hold until we can improve our financial position.

We wish to express our appreciation to all our volunteers who serve our community whether in or out of the various committees. 6 of our 10 South African Synagogues have their own Rabbis, while others have to depend on our many capable volunteers. These volunteers willingly serve as lay readers who run services, and occasionally even officiate at lifecycle events when a Rabbi is not available. We cannot function as a South African Progressive community without these dedicated people.

Alvin Kushner, National Chairman, South African Union for Progressive Judaism

Parsha Toldot by Rabbi Julia Margolis

This week’s Torah portion is called Toldot, “Generations,” and it chronicles the history of our Patriarch Isaac and the generations that he and his wife Rebecca created through the birth of their twin sons Jacob and Esau.

We read about a dramatic and unsettling tale of family disharmony, a tragic story with Esau selling his birth-right to Jacob, who then turns around and steals the blessings that his blind father thought he was bestowing upon Esau on his deathbed.

We all have our personal chronicles of our own family, perhaps because I am an only child, sometimes its easier for me to see many families from a certain perspective, and to see how they are caught up in their internal fights, there is often no affection, and togetherness. They are perhaps too busy to appreciate that every day is a privilege to spend with your loved once. In our days we are caught up in modern technology and we spend so much of our time on different networks, or group chats that we start to forget the basis of our own “chronicles”. We can so easily get drawn into arguments and foolish disagreements over nothing really. That many times one should caution oneself to Stop, to simply take a step back – and take a moment to appreciate what is surrounding you. We need ultimately to study how to recognize the blessings that we are in each other’s lives.

We need to be grateful for each moment, unfortunately many times such gratitude is often too late. We should complain less in order to teach our next generation that complaints rarely bring anything good, in most cases we find ourselves on the receiving end of the opposite. We are all very busy in our work, homes and lives – I know how difficult it is my self. I am both a mother and a rabbi. Some days I’m more a mother and some days I’m more a rabbi. One somehow does one’s best to make it all work, I just know in my heart that it all feels right, and when the going gets tough I just keep putting one foot in front of the other – and I know I will get there in the end.

The experience of coupling motherhood with a career is something women fought for in the last century. The opening of the doors to women in the rabbinate was very much a result of the Women’s Liberation Movement. And Judaism is no doubt all the better for it.

I am trying to follow in the steps of my role models: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, Regina Jonas – the first female Rabbi, who was ordained in Germany in 1935 and murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. And another role-model, my own mother- Rabbi Rubinstein who today serves her congregation also far away from Israel.

We must always seek truth in our world, and not be afraid to live according to those truths. And we must not be afraid to speak up when those truths are questioned. We must know that we have received a gift from our ancestors, and passed this down through the generations of mothers following them.
This Shabbat Toldot lets us think about our blessings, encourages us to focus on building our internal gratitude, and to thank God out loud for all these blessings. Perhaps if Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Rebecca had done the same, then the entire course of Jewish history would have changed for the better. But we must hold close to our faith, to the lessons we can learn from it, and even closer must we hold to and appreciate the blessings our spiritual parent continues to bestow upon us “generation after generation” even if we are only aware of a few of the many, let us be truly grateful for them.

Parsha Noah by Rabbi Margolis

Parsha Noah as submitted to Jewish Report but never printed

Sometimes change comes upon us in a flood without warning. On other occasions we are warned, but don’t take heed of that inner voice giving us the preverbal heads-up. If we are to succeed in our endeavours and our future, we would do well to pay close attention to those little warnings life provides us with.

If we look at this week’s portion, we observe that Noah, while having been given instructions and specific tasks, was initially dismissive of G-D. He did well to follow those instructions with the due diligences that he did. There is not only forethought in this biblical illustration but there is ultimately a very strong sense of balance.

The balance is observed in the animals being placed in the ark on a two by two basis – there being a male and female representative of each. Nature in its infinite wisdom dictates simultaneously, polaric opposites and a balance. Whether hot and cold, light and dark or male and female G-D never implies that the male species is more important than the female, all would do well to understand this principal of nature – just as with light and dark – one simply cannot exist without the other – neither is more important than the other – when seen in such a light “no pun intended,” how could they be?

The appearance of a female Rabbi in our part of the world, is a heads-up, a sign of change in our world. If we resent or resist such change, then we make “hot more important than cold,” – how could this be? We as a community would do well to find a balance, would do well to understand natures laws and embrace them as our own – natures laws are after all far higher than man’s (again no pun intended;) and once we have been sufficiently open minded to give each light and dark its full sway within our own mentality – then and only then, will we see the rainbow, that was otherwise hidden from our sight.

Beit Emanuel

Beit Emanuel
38 Oxford Road, Parktown, Johannesburg.
Tel: +27 (011) 646 6170/1/2

Beit Emanuel, one of the largest progressive Jewish congregations in South Africa, celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2014. Visitors are always welcome to attend our services and events and to join our regular Kiddush meals after the Shabbat services.

Led by a dynamic young Israeli-born rabbi, Saár Shaked, Beit Emanuel is an energetic and exciting community. Our rabbi encourages participation, spontaneity and the unexpected. We have moved away from the formality of conventional Reform Judaism and instead explore forms of prayer both ancient and modern that encourage participation, touch the heart and bring people together.

Ours is the most diverse Jewish community in South Africa: Sephardis and Ashkenazis, white and black, gays, Jews by Choice, South Africans, Americans and Israelis, the elderly in wheelchairs, and toddlers in prams. We strive for a community in which all these people find ways to participate and are fulfilled by it.

We hold regular cultural and community events to draw in members and make them more actively involved. Every Saturday we host JTalk, a popular discussion session which explores topics as diverse as Jewish literature, art and music, progressive values, spirituality, women in Judaism, ethical kashrut, contemporary Israel, the work of prominent Jewish thinkers and more. We host regular film evenings, screening contemporary Israeli and diaspora features and documentaries. We are the only progressive synagogue to offer weekly Talmud study sessions. We have also held concerts with secular and liturgical music presented by our own choir, bingo evenings, quizzes, puppet-shows and sleepovers for the kids.

Find out more about our bnei-mitzvah classes and Jews by Choice programmes by phoning Ilana at +27 (011) 646 6170/1/2.


Rabbi Adrian Schell

Rabbi Adrian Michael Schell was ordained from the Abraham Geiger College, Potsdam/Berlin on April 2013. Born and raised in Germany, he worked 12 years as a bookseller and key account manager in Munich, before deciding on a career change to the rabbinate. Having worked in a number of Liberal congregations in Germany and abroad during his rabbinic training, which included a year at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, he worked as well as the national youth director (Rosh Netzer Germany) for the progressive Jewish movement in Germany (UpJ). Rabbi Schell earned a bachelor’s degree in Jewish and Religious Studies, and a Masters degree in Jewish Studies. His thesis dealt with the issue of adoption of children in the Hebrew Bible in the context of religious law (Halacha). He served the Jewish congregation in Hamelin, Germany as Rabbi, before he has decided to move to Johannesburg. He has been appointed the new Rabbi of Bet David, being one of four progressive Rabbis in the Gauteng region. Rabbi Schell is a member of the South African Association of Progressive Rabbis (SAAPR), the German General Rabbinical Conference and of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and he is a founding member of arzenu Germany and Beth Hillel Potsdam (Hillel).