A Pesach recipe for all to share

‘This is the bread of affliction… let all who are hungry come and eat… this year we are enslaved, next year may we be free…” is the traditional statement opening the telling of the story at the Passover seder. It is a significant statement because of the belief system that it teaches in such a compact paragraph.”This is the bread of affliction…” directs our attention to the timeliness of celebrating life’s events. Week by week through the year, as Shabbat comes, that day of rest is a marker in time as well as a marker of time. We set the day aside because it underscores the other attitudes the rest of the week teaches.

At each season – Passover, Shavuot, Sukkoth, and for the Holy Days in their turn, it is timeliness that reminds us of the stages of the journey of our living. So we speak of the Exodus from Egypt in a timely way, at the moment when the Matzah and all the accoutrements of Pesach are spread on our table, and discuss the journey.

And our discussion should be not only the ancient journey from slavery to liberation – hopefully it is also the personal journey of our own liberation. As we grow, we are nourished – even by (the bread of) affliction; and our growth opens a world of new possibilities to us.

“…Let all who are hungry come and eat…” directs our attentions to the kinds of hunger that can motivate us in our lives. What is it that we crave – that moves our life story through successive ascents of fantasy, reality, spirituality, and finally into action.

Whom do we crave to share this journey with? Parents, children, siblings, more distant relations – and the stranger whom we have yet to encounter – the “other” whose life resonates with our own. Of course, on a practical level, that statement is about opening our homes to let others share in the wonder of a Seder – even for Elijah who foretells a time when journeys are less arduous.

“This year we are enslaved, next year may we be free…” calls us to look beyond the moment and its suffering. We seek to uncover all the places in our lives that are fermenting, transforming us and binding us in place rather than letting us grow and expand into our full humanity. It is the freedom that tradition teaches as the escape from forced labour, from idolatrous worship and more globally from falsehood.

The stages of life journey are the essence of the Passover night. These are some questions whose answers can help any family tell its own story at the seder and give that evening a greater depth:

  • Where did we come from?
  • How did we get here?
  • Where are we going?
  • What meaning does this journey have?

So, look for your own answers – on a basic level, on a metaphorical level, on a humanitarian level. And next year, may we all be free.

Chag Kasher v’Samei’ach. Best wishes for a joyous and appropriate festival celebration.

matzoh

Calendar of
festival dates

Calendar of dates of Jewish Festivals for the years 2008 to 2010.

A compact paragraph embracing our beliefs

Pesach is a time for us to ask where we came from, where we are going, and what our life journey means

Haggadah: As much an archeology as a book

The Pesach haggadah is a multi-layered text, embracing some traditions thousands of years old — and some very recent, writes Rabbi Greg Alexander

Oranges and water cups at Pesach

Two powerful feminist additions to Pesach custom, worth considering for your next seder: Miriam Cups and oranges

Israel turns 60

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THE State of Israel came into existence on 5 Iyar 5708 (corresponding to 14 May 1948) ending nearly 2000 years of Jewish homelessness. In Progressive Judaism the annual commemoration of this enormously significant change in Jewish status is held to be a religious holiday, a fact made clear through the inclusion of a festive service including Hallel in the 1975 Sha’arei Tefilah – Gates of Prayer and other siddurim – prayer books used throughout the movement’s branches.

The birth of the Jewish State was not understood to be the fulfilment of the messianic hopes of Jews through the ages. Rather it is the result of the political success of the Jewish national movement that has its roots in the Nationalitätsfrage – National Identity Question – posed in the late 19th Century during the reign of Emperor Franz Josef, King of Hungary and Emperor of the Holy Roman (Habsburg) Empire in East Central Europe.

Prior to Theodor Herzl’s 1896 publication of the small tract Der Judenstaat – The Jewish State – others had written of the necessity of a return to Jerusalem to reconstruct Jewish life and identity for modernity.

Herzl’s genius was to visualize and seek to implement a popular movement whose aim and focus were to be the settlement of Jews in a land of their own. The Zionist movement that developed insisted that the only feasible location would be in Ottoman-ruled areas of Jewish identity, especially west of the Jordan River and in ancient Judea.

While Herzl believed the main supporters would be the integrated Jews of Western Europe, broadest appeal was found among the Jews of the Russian Empire and Poland, as well as other eastern communities. There was little interest or contact with the long-existing communities in Islamic lands.

The confluence of events between the First Zionist Congress that was called to Basel, Switzerland in August 1897 and the agreement of the United Nations to the Partition of the British Mandate of Palestine on 29 November 1947, includes two World Wars, the destruction of European Jewry and a program of land acquisition, social experiment and political development that laid the foundations of a democratic, socialist-leaning Jewish government that expanded upon the Jewish Agency for Palestine’s work as a shadow government during the British Mandate under the leadership of David ben Gurion. He became the first Prime Minister of the new state.

Jews arriving from Europe were not a new phenomenon in the Holy Land. Over the generations, with the exception of short periods during which Jews were prohibited from living in the Holy Land, a Jewish population was a consistent presence. In the 19th Century groups such as Chovevei Tsiyon – Lovers of Zion, and colonies like the viticultural settlements of Zichron Ya’ akov and Rishon L’tsiyon – Remembrance of Jacob, First in Zion – were joined by urban settlers who created “west”Jerusalem outside the wall of the ancient city, Tel Aviv, and Haifa as major centers or settled kibbutzim – socialized farms – beginning with Degania Aleph (1908).

Modern water and sewerage, industry, road building and land reclamation-reforestation were taken up by the Keren Kayemet Le’umi – the Jewish National Fund. Private entrepreneurs laid the foundation for a modern economy. The bustle and growth of the 1920s and 1930s attracted settlers from neighbouring and less developed areas east of the Jordan and north of Mount Hermon.

The Islamic community under the leadership of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem consistently refused recognition to the burgeoning Jewish population. During the 1930s, successive plans for the Partition of Palestine – as the British League of Nations Mandate was known – were offered for acceptance. In every instance, the Arab delegation refused to accept such a plan.

While small groups, such as Brit Shalom – Covenant of Peace – led by Martin Buber and Ernst Akiba Simon sought to create a bi-national entity, the instability of Lebanon where power was shared after 1929 by Maronite Christian and Moslem factions is illustrative of the overall rejection of this idea. An impasse was reached that is marked by the issuance of the 1941 White Paper that severely limited further Jewish immigration.

The end of World War II and establishment of the United Nations in 1945 left the British as the unwilling stewards of the Protectorate – the successor name for League of Nations Mandates. Moved by the general anti-colonial tenor of the times, the British were anxious close out their responsibilities in Palestine, too. A growing restlessness in the Yishuv – Jewish Community in Palestine – and the increased activities of radicals such as the Stern Gang (including later Prime Minister of Israel Menachem Begin) led to the United Nations call for the Partition of Palestine on a status quo basis between Jews and Arabs. In a dramatic vote cast on 29 November 1947, the members of the United Nations General Assembly accepted the plan with the Soviet Union casting the deciding vote.

An arms embargo had been imposed on Palestine as the British prepared for their departure. Although there is some scholarly debate on the subject, it appears that 1) the British withdrew in such a way as to leave many of their strongholds in Arab hands; 2) The surrounding Arab nations (Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) formed a block in an effort to wipe out Jews from the lands they had bought and settled; 3) Arabs living in areas of Jewish strength took refuge out of the line of fire, and were housed in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip (under Egyptian control), and the “west bank” traditionally known as Judea and Samaria (under Jordanian control), while others fled to safety in Syria and Lebanon.

Responding to the many areas of vulnerability, Israel fought for the independence guaranteed by the 29 November 1947 UN Partition resolution. A valiant struggle against the odds led to the remarkable result of the June 1949 cease-fire that left all borders subject to negotiation, an on-going state of conflict with the neighboring states, and painfully for Israel and the Jewish world, Jerusalem divided and Jews blockaded from access to the sacred sites of the ancient walled city which were occupied by the Jordanians. Jews from long-established communities in Arab lands quickly made their way to the new state. Their numbers greatly increased the Jewish population in a short period.

In succeeding years, the Israelis met continued refusal to recognize their legitimacy as a state from the Arab world. The 1956 blockade of the Suez Canal, and the assertion by President Gamal Abdel Nasser that guns had been erected as Sharm-el-Sheikh effectively closing the sole Indian Ocean access of Israel from Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba, led to the three-day Sinai campaign that established the fame of General Moshe Dayan.

Although all territories conquered were returned to Egypt under pressure from the US, UK and USSR, the ascendancy of the IDF – Israel Defence Forces – was clear. Just over a decade later, a parallel stalemate led to Israel’s surprise attack in what is known as the Six Day War. Jerusalem was re-unified, the Sinai Peninsula and Gaze once again taken from Egyptian control, and in the north, the Golan Heights that Syria had used as a platform for regular shelling of settlements and farms were captured with lightening speed.

In a complicated way, this expansion has proven to be a mixed blessing for Israel. Since these were occupied territories – as many had been since 1948 – settlements and development within them is at best questionable. At the same time continued refusal of Palestinian elements to accept the 1947 Partition Plan or other successive offers led to repeated stalemates. The surprise attack on Yom Kippur 1973 was a huge crisis; although the Israelis ultimately fended it off, the human price was enormous. Similarly, the late 1980s and the late 1990s saw rising tides of terror attacks that have proven painful.

It is to the credit of Israel as a parliamentary democracy that through all these decades there have been Arab members of Knesset – Israel’s 120 seat Parliament – and provision of an array of governmental services to all citizens of the State without regard to religious identification.

The problem of the non-citizen Palestinians was effectively transferred to their own control through the 1993 Oslo Accord, and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority as a governmental authority under the leadership of Yassir Arafat. The failure of the former Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) to effect necessary economic development or to suppress terrorism among its citizenry have led to increased security measures that often further inhibit the lives of Palestinians. It also led to a victory in the most recent round of elections for the insurgent Hamas, whose refusal to give up violence has led to their labeling as a terrorist group.

Today, for Israeli citizens, life is a bustle in a state with a rapidly developing economy that has brought innovation in many areas – agriculture, high technology and water conservation, to mention a few – and exports foodstuffs, flowers and ideas to many countries. A culture center of great fervor, recent years have seen Israeli victories in the Eurovision contest and other areas of cultural life. With a population exceeding 7 million, housing projects have done away with all temporary/refugee quarters for Jews who return by right under the Law of Return.

There are some anomalies that the Progressive Movement has sought to remove: through the work of IRAC – the Israel Religious Action Centre – strides have been made enabling the growth of T’nuat Hayahdut HaMitkademet – The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism – despite the refusal of Misrad Hadat – Ministry of Religion to recognize non-Orthodox Jewry, which is a holdover from the British Mandatory period and its establishment of a Chief Rabbinate. With synagogues, kindergartens and higher educational opportunities, growing numbers of Israelis are joining forces in expanding and consecrating Jewish religious pluralism in Israel.

There is much to celebrate at Israel’s 60th anniversary, which will be observed around the world – including South Africa – on 7 May 2008, the Hebrew date slightly altered so that celebrations do not conflict with the sanctity of the Sabbath. The holiday is preceded by an evening of rememberance, Yom Hazikaron l’chayalei Tsahal – Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers of the IDF – that will be marked at evening on 6 May 2008.

Whether we agree with the policies of the current Israeli government or find loyalty in disagreeing, most Jews today ally themselves with the State of Israel and its mission of offering a place of safety and a welcome to all Jews.

Early in the history of Progressive Judaism, some believed that political Zionism lacked necessity as Jews had become citizens of the nations in which they lived. During the 20th Century, this position was shifted by the tragedy of the Holocaust – as German Jews were instantaneously transformed into Zionists when the Nazis came to power. In the 21st Century, it is to be hoped and believed that we can at once be lovers of Zion and citizens of the nation that issues our passport.

Spiritually, the presence of Zion as central metaphor for Jewish life can not be turned aside. Whether we conceive of Messianism as a phenomenon of real time or metaphysical time, it is through prayer and religious observance that we can invoke the presence of the Shechinah – the immanent Divine Presence. Making common cause with Jews who call Israel their primary home, we share in a common destiny and fate as a Jewish nation and people, a body of faith and fate.

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Yom Hashoah: Never forget

A third of all Jews were murdered in the dozen years that followed Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 … while the world remained largely indifferent.

Calendar of
festival dates

Calendar of dates of Jewish Festivals for the years 2008 to 2010.

A Pesach recipe for everyone

The seder discussion for a progressive Jewish family should be not only about the ancient journey from slavery to liberation, but also about the personal journey of our own liberation

A compact paragraph embracing our beliefs

Pesach is a time for us to ask where we came from, where we are going, and what our life journey means

Haggadah: As much an archeology as a book

The Pesach haggadah is a multi-layered text, embracing some traditions thousands of years old — and some very recent, writes Rabbi Greg Alexander

Oranges and water cups at Pesach

Two powerful feminist additions to Pesach custom, worth considering for your next seder: Miriam Cups and oranges

The universal festival

It is the universal message of Pesach which makes it the one festival that appeals to unobservant Jews … and even to non-Jews

Seven weeks of counting the Omer

The eve of the second day of Pesach begins the “Counting of the Omer” which ends on the 50th day with Shavuoth. Rabbi Robert Jacobs explains the reasons

Yom HaShoah: Recalling 12 years of horror

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IN THE dozen years between 1933 and 1945, at least 6,000,000 Jews were murdered in a systematic and organized act of genocide that is unprecedented in history.

Jewish communities from Poland in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the South were decimated, as the armies of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party destroyed European life and culture. The Nazi goal was elimination of all Jews from Europe; in some ways this became an overriding objective to the pursuit of conquest that marked World War II.

Anti-Semitism, an endemic part of European life for centuries, was transformed from religious and ethnic prejudice into a racial attack that segregated the Jews and returned them to their medieval legal status by removing the rights of citizenship granted in the 19th Century.

Isolated, without a land to call their own or open borders to enable them to take up life in other countries, Jews were trapped in the iron fist of storm troopers and party faithful, as well as suffering torment at the hand of ordinary citizens of Germany, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic Countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, in addition to many former territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire along the length of the Danube River and to its south.

The Jews of Germany began emigrating shortly after the Machtergreifung – Nazi seizure of power-on 30 January 1933. By the time of the Reichspogromme – Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht – 9-10 November 1938, nearly half of the 550,000 Jews registered in the census of 1930 had fled; sadly a substantial number took refuge in France, the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia, only to be caught once again in the vice following the Nazi expansion by occupation (Saarland-1934; Czechoslovakia 1938; Austria 1938) and the outbreak of World War II on 1 September 1939 (Poland); months later expansion to the west brought more Jews into the net as the Nazi forces swarmed around the flawed Maginot Line (France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, May 1940).

A great meeting of nations called to Evian in late 1938 brought only an offer from the Dominican Republic to take in additional refugees (cf. Hans Habe, The Mission). The United Kingdom offered a safe haven to orphaned children that has come to be known as Kindertransport – Children’s Evacuation. Jews who had succeeded in reaching areas of safety-France, and the United Kingdom often faced imprisonment as enemy aliens, while the Centralrat der Deutschen Juden under the leadership of Rabbi Leo Baeck and its affiliates used all available means to help Jews flee from Germany. A refuge of last resort became Shanghai as no entry visa was required.

Although the Zionist Movement-under the leadership of Chaim Weizmann-made strong efforts to encourage Aliyah -immigration to Palestine – the British Government was not supportive. While various arrangements, legal and otherwise, allowed a substantial and important group of immigrants to make their way there, restrictions were imposed, and all visas were effectively eliminated by the infamous White Paper of 1941. David ben Gurion is quoted as having said about the development: “We will fight the White Paper as if there were no war and the war as if there were no White Paper.”

The Nazi police state used incarceration, intimidation and violence to quell any resistance. Political opponents, known socialists and leftists, homosexual men, Sinty and Romany (commonly called gypsies) were arrested and interned in concentration camps including Dachau, Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg and many others throughout Germany.

Once World War II began, substantially larger numbers of Jews fell within Nazi control leading to the establishment of the ghettoes – virtual prison towns – at Warsaw and in many other places, in which Jews were isolated, starved and left prey to communicable diseases in unsanitary and crowded conditions. Others fell prey to Einsatzgruppen -storm troops – whose firing squads humiliated and killed mercilessly, most infamously at Babi Yar, a hilly section on the outskirts of Kiev, the Ukraine.

In January 1942, meeting at a lakeside villa at Wannsee in the western reaches of Berlin, leadership including Adolph Eichmann met and agreed to put into place the Endlösung der Judenfrage-the Final Solution for the Elimination of the Jews. The plan, put into effect by Eichmann, was to kill many at once. This was initially accomplished using carbon monoxide from vehicles to suffocate victims locked in the rear of the truck.

A short time later gas chambers were erected at camps outside Germany – Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, Matthausen are among the better known-where mass murder took on an assembly line character. The last act of indignity to those so brutally and unjustly put to death-without regard to age, gender, social standing, or religious affiliation-was cremation.

The Nazi system of KZ-Concentration Camps included hundreds of locations. While some were death factories, most were places of hard labour, starvation and emotional deprivation. While a small number of accounts have emerged over the years depicting tsaddikei umot ha’olam – Righteous Gentiles – and survivor accounts have verified that these events are historical and without a doubt have taken place, most of the population in Germany and the vast swath of Europe occupied by the Nazis and their allies was at best indifferent to the plight of the Jews.

The long night of horror ended on 8 May 1945 when Berlin finally fell as troops-British, Canadian, French, American, & South Africans from the west and Soviets from the east-met at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. The Nazi leadership was largely dead-often by suicide; others took refuge in South America, including Adolph Eichmann who was later arrested in Argentina and put to death after trial in Israel (see: Man in a Glass Booth, by Ralph Hochhuth; and The Banality of Evil, by Hannah Arendt).

The relatively few who survived the death camps and work camps were gathered and nourished, but reduced to living skeletons many perished quickly following their ordeal, while others finally succeeded in emigrating from Europe. Those who had no place to go found themselves trapped in Occupied Europe and became residents of DP Camps (displaced persons). Without proper identity papers and with no safe return to former homes, their anguish continued.

The plight of these refugees, along with those interned in process of illegal immigration in Cyprus, Mauritius and other places, was only relieved after the establishment of the State of Israel, where under the Law of Return many made their way to build a Jewish State.

Memorials to the Shoah, as the Jewish community knows this complete destruction, include Israel’s Yad Vashem, the arched shofarot in Johannesburg’s West Park Cemetery, and sites throughout cities and the countryside of Europe. Train stations, houses, quays, and ordinary buildings often bear inscriptions marking their role as places of deportation, degradation and death.

In more recent years, Holocaust museums and Memorials have been dedicated and draw large audiences in Washington, DC (US Holocaust Memorial Museum), Berlin, New York (Museum of Jewish Heritage), and the exhibition at Israel’s Yad Vashem has been completely revamped to a modern museum standard.

Although many of these museums were initially planned and envisioned as recording the fate of Polish Jewry alone, a broader and more historically accurate approach has been followed. Many memorial installations have faced substantial controversy, and millions of words have been written about the events, the victims, the survivors and the perpetrators. A recorded library of interviews with survivors bears the name of Steven Spielberg.

Early in the history of the State of Israel, 27 Nisan was designated as a day of memorial to the victims of Nazi hatred and terror. The date recalls the collapse in 1943 of the most important anti-Nazi uprising among the resisters-the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In Israel, at mid-morning, sirens sound throughout the country. Traffic stops, life is put on hold and for 3 minutes in that silence, the dead are remembered in hopefulness and solemnity. In Gates of Prayer a special service of commemoration recognized the enduring significance of these events for the Jewish community around the world.

“Never Again!” is a slogan that might well be attached to this moment of memorial: never again genocide, never again silence when others face destruction, never again a homeless and wandering Jewish people. But for all time the prophetic imperative of the quest for justice, for equality and an end to oppression.

Calendar of
festival dates

Calendar of dates of Jewish Festivals for the years 2008 to 2010.

A Pesach recipe for everyone

The seder discussion for a progressive Jewish family should be not only about the ancient journey from slavery to liberation, but also about the personal journey of our own liberation

A compact paragraph embracing our beliefs

Pesach is a time for us to ask where we came from, where we are going, and what our life journey means

Haggadah: As much an archeology as a book

The Pesach haggadah is a multi-layered text, embracing some traditions thousands of years old — and some very recent, writes Rabbi Greg Alexander

Oranges and water cups at Pesach

Two powerful feminist additions to Pesach custom, worth considering for your next seder: Miriam Cups and oranges

The universal festival

It is the universal message of Pesach which makes it the one festival that appeals to unobservant Jews … and even to non-Jews

Is it kosher to eat a battery chicken egg?

In the days of the Bible, the way Jews connected to God was by sacrifice – setting aside an animal or grain offering as kadosh, sacredly separate; not to be eaten but to be offered as thanks to God, the Provider of all food. In the Torah, great attention is paid to the condition of the animal or grain and great care would have been taken to ensure that the sacrifice was “done right”. As farmers or merchants or shepherds, Biblical Jews were in touch with the land in a way that few of us are today, and so the most powerful form of offering was one that was from the land.When the Temple was finally destroyed, the rabbis faced a huge dilemma – close up and go home or adapt. And they adapted. Where before Judaism was based around the Temple, now it was going to be around the synagogue. Where before Judaism was based around sacrifice, now it was going to be around prayer and Torah study and acts of loving-kindness. And while sacrifices ceased to be relevant, making food holy continued and continues today through the systems of brachot (blessings) around food and kashrut.

Before some Jews bite into that juicy peach, they say “You are so blessed, Eternal God, Ruler of time and space, who creates the fruit of the tree.” And before some Jews fill their shopping trolleys, they pause to see if the food they are buying has been inspected by a kashrut authority, such as the Beth Din.

But is the food these authorities put their stamps on really kosher? Is it kosher to eat a peach that is wrapped in cling film and nestles on a polystyrene tray so that it stands less chance of being bruised? Is it kosher to eat a potato that was grown in soil drenched in poisonous pesticides? Is it kosher to drink Kiddush wine from plastic cups that are not bio-degradable?

Is it kosher to drink coffee that came from a plantation where the workers are not paid a minimum wage or given contracts? Is it kosher to eat an egg which was laid by a battery chicken fed on growth hormones and antibiotics and not given the chance to cluck outside in the fresh air its entire life? Is a fish still kosher if it is caught in an area contaminated with mercury by mass-fishing techniques such as drag nets that de-harvest the sea of its bounty?

These are questions that most kashrut authorities do not even ask. They regard them as completely irrelevant to the criteria required for a kashrut certification. And that is where the problem begins. The system of kashrut is a mitzvah commanded in the Torah. What a Jewish person can and can’t eat is referred to in four different places, but the most detailed can be found in Leviticus, Chapter 11 which contains a catalogue of prohibited and permitted animals.

After the list the rationale given is: “For I am the Eternal your God; sanctify yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am holy (kadosh).” Keeping kosher is a discipline that is supposed to emulate God, to make us holy beings. Interestingly, the word kadosh, usually translated as ‘holy’, comes from the Hebrew root k-d-sh meaning ‘separated out for sacred purposes’. The sacrifices that we mentioned at the beginning of this article were known as hekdeish from the same root – a lamb or goat that was set aside for the purpose of sacrifice, not to be eaten or sold along with the rest of the flock. What does being ‘holy’ mean? It means to separate oneself from the mundane, to lift oneselves up to be God-like. And what is God like?

In a striking piece of Talmud, the rabbis listed ways that we can emulate God’s nature. Taking examples of God’s characteristics from the Torah, the Talmud gives us a number of qualities that we ourselves should strive for:

Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina further said: What does the Torah teach us?: “You shall walk after the Eternal your God?” Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after God’s presence? For has it not been said: “The Eternal your God is a devouring fire?” But [the meaning is] to walk after the attributes of The Holy One of Blessing. As God clothes the naked, for it is written: “And the Eternal God made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them”, so do you also clothe the naked. The Holy One of Blessing visited the sick, for it is written: “And the Eternal appeared unto Abraham by the oaks of Mamre” [to visit him after his circumcision], so do you also visit the sick. The Holy One of Blessing comforted mourners, for it is written: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that God blessed Isaac his son”, so do you also comfort mourners. The Holy One of Blessing buried the dead, for it is written: “And God buried Moses in the valley”, so do you also bury the dead. (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14b)

So being God-like involves justice, compassion, sensitivity, responsiveness. It involves clothing the naked, visiting the sick. It is not just about checking the ingredients of food, it is about the whole web of life that is sustained through eating.

In the beginning of the Torah, when God creates human beings, Adam is placed in the Garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrah – to work it and to look after it (Gen. 2:15). There is a powerful midrash written more than 1500 years ago that picks up on this theme:

At the time that the Holy One of Blessing created Adam, God showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: See my works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are? And everything that I created, I created for you. Take care that you should not destroy my world, for if you spoil it there is no one to repair it after you. (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 7:19)

So too are we expected to look after the land we live on today. As the Torah often suggests, if we don’t look after the land as God instructs us too, then the land will not look after us. (see Deut. 11:13-21)

The Shabbat is our day of rest and replenishment. After working for six days, we are called upon to set aside a day to enjoy the fruits of the world as it is. According to the Torah, the land is supposed to have just such a rest, a Shabbat. It is called the shmittah, and it involves farmers leaving their land fallow, unworked, every seventh year (Lev. 25).

In the modern State of Israel today, Jewish farmers use a halachic loophole called the Heter Mechirah to sell their land to a non-Jew during the shmittah year in order to allow the farming to continue unimpeded. This is, admittedly, a controversial practice that many Orthodox rabbis oppose, but it nevertheless happens and has happened since the return of Jews in numbers to the land in the late 19th Century.

The reason it was introduced was so that farmers who would never have been able to sustain their farms without working through the seventh year were given a lifeline by the rabbis to do so. But it was always seen as a temporary measure – now, after more than a century of continuous farming, that land has never enjoyed the benefits of the shmittah year and there is no sign of that changing in the near future. What is the cost to the land? What is the cost to the quality of its produce?

When one orders a kosher meal on an aeroplane, the heated meal comes double-wrapped in aluminium foil. Each individual item on the tray is often contained in a sealed plastic unit and then the whole tray itself is sealed in plastic only to be opened by the passenger. There is more plastic and foil on your tray than food! And this is kosher? The ingredients may be, but the packaging is not.

And what about veal? How can the meat from a calf that is separated from its mother at birth, held in a pen that is too small for it to walk (so that it doesn’t build muscle – too tough!) and bottle-fed milk and growth steroids its entire short life until it is killed, be kosher? How can you even think of putting a hechsher (certification stamp) on a veal product? Veal clearly conflicts with another torah mitzvah, tzar ba’alei chayim – not causing pain to animals – but apparently this is not a consideration when establishing the kashrut of its meat.

These are questions that someone concerned with Eco-kashrut needs to ask. The status of food goes beyond the ingredient list – it goes right through the supply chain, from the fertiliser to the pesticide (organic food uses far less to none of both), from the wages of the farmworkers and the conditions of their employment to the distance the food is shipped to your local shop (check if your paw-paw comes from South Africa or South America – the Earth is paying for the difference in the oil used to ship it). It includes the amount of packaging and the chances of recycling it, and the percentages of unnatural substances (MSG, genetically modified food etc) contained in the ingredient list.

Judaism teaches us to see ourselves as interconnected beings. We all stem from Adam and Eve, we all were created by the same God and are sustained by the same worldly abundance. The system of kashrut has always asked us to see ourselves as inseparable from the food that we place into our mouths – “we are what we eat”. Choosing to take great care over what we eat is just another way to make ourselves kadosh, holy. Considering the implications of eco-kashrut today combine the spiritual principles of traditional kashrut with the ethical and practical challenges that living in a rapidly developing world require.

While these are early days, rabbis and organisations all over the world are investigating the practicalities of bringing in an eco-hechsher (certification stamp) that would take into account not only the kashrut of ingredients, but the entire supply chain that created the product. In the meantime it is up to us all, the consumers, to do the work ourselves – in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, while we are not obliged to finish it, we are not free to stop trying (Mishnah Pirkei Avot, 2:21).

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Contact the rabbi for more information

if you’d like to learn more about Progressive Judaism, e-mail Rabbi Greg Alexander or any of the other Progressive rabbis mentioned on this website.

A quick guide to Progressive Judaism

Progressive Judaism embraces our traditions, and works to make them meaningful parts of contemporary life. Personal responsibility, egalitarianism, community and local tradition are the hallmarks

Questions and answers on Progressive Judaism

Ten questions and answers about South African Progressive Judaism, as described in the 1980s by the late Rabbi Dr David Sherman of Cape Town. (Note that some of these practices have since changed).

Caring for our environment

Our movement encourages a progressive attitude to environmental issues, and has joined an inter-faith initiative dedicated to environmental and social justice

Questions and answers about same-sex marriage

The SAUPJ has made a landmark decision to recognise same-sex marriages. Rabbi Greg Alexander explains the reasoning behind the decision and how this relates to Progressive Jewish principles.

What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

Biblical commentators, Jewish and Christian, hold that the Bible is unambiguously opposed to homosexuality. But Professor Frederick Greenspahn argues that the scriptural references have been misinterpreted. From the CCAR Journal, a US Reform quarterly. (In PDF format: 67kb)

Is Progressive Judaism ‘authentic’?

Orthodox Jews in South Africa regard Reform Judaism as ‘not really Jewish’. Here’s why that’s not true, writes Rabbi Greg Alexander
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Festival Calendar for 2014 to 2016

Jewish Year
5774

Sept 2013 – Sept 2014

5775

Sept 2014 – Sept 2015

5776

Sept 2015 -Sept 2016

S’lichot Sat Aug 31 Sat Sep 20 Sat Sep 5
Rosh Hashanah Thurs – Fri Sept 5 – 6 Thurs – Fri Sept 25 – 26 Mon – Tues Sept 14 – 15
Yom Kippur Sat Sept 14 Sat Oct 4 Wed Sept 23
Sukkot Thurs – Fri Sept 19 – 20 Thurs – Fri Oct 9 – 10 Mon – Tues Sept 28 – 29
Atzeret/ Simchat Torah Thurs Sept 25 Thurs Oct 16 Mon Oct 5
Channukah Thurs – Thurs Nov 28 – Dec 5 Wed – Wed Dec 17 – 24 Mon – Mon Dec 7 – 14
Tu Bish’vat Thurs Jan 16 Wed Feb 4 Mon Jan 25
Purim Sun Mar 16 Thurs Mar 5 Thurs Mar 24
Pesach Tues – Mon Apr 15 – 21 Fri – Thurs Apr 3 – 9 Sat – Fri Apr 23 – 29
Yom Hashoah Mon Apr 28 Thurs Apr 16 Thurs May 5
Yom Hazikaron Mon May 5 Wed Apr 22 Wed May 11
Yom Ha’atzmaut Tues May 6 Thurs Apr 23 Thurs May 12
Lag B’omer Sun May 18 Thurs May 7 Thurs May 26
Shavuot Wed Jun 4 Sun May 24 Sun June 12
Tishah B’av Tues Aug 5 Fri Jul 31 Fri Aug 19

Durban Sisterhood wins world award

The Durban Sisterhood has won the Or Ami Award for Excellence in Sisterhood Programming for its work with the Mavela Creche in Ndwedwe, which it has supported for the past four years.The project forms part of a programme of the World Conference on Religions for Peace, aimed at child-headed households, orphans and other vulnerable children in rural communities. The Sisterhood of Temple David in Durban is a founder member of the pilot study and continues to be a major partner in the project.The Or Ami “Light of my People” Award, which will be presented to the Durban Sisterhood at the Women of Reform Judaism’s (WRJ) biennial conference in the US in December, honours a sisterhood or district that undertakes outstanding and significant social action, community service, or educational projects.”This is, I believe, the fourth time this award has been made by the WRJ to a South African Sisterhood,” said Monica Solomon, president of the South African Union of Temple Sisterhoods (SAUTS). “It is a wonderful achievement for the women in Durban who have done wonders at this creche.

Kol Hakavod to all of you on winning this prestigious award. Your Sisterhood has set an outstanding example to us all,” she said.

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Children, including some who head their own households, celebrate with the Durban Sisterhood after painting the walls of their creche.

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Sleeping time at the creche, which has 26 babies under 12 months in its baby group


There are a number components to the Mavela project, of which a few include:

MAVELA CRECHE. The first part of the project, intended to ensure that older siblings in child-headed households could go back to school. Mavela créche opened in February 2003 with 36 children. It grew very rapidly. The Sisterhood built a new classroom and ablution block in 2004/5 and today there are 91 pupils in the school, aged from six months to five years, many of whom are from child-headed households and orphans.

FOOD DROP OFF. Thirty two child-headed households – families who have lost their parents to HIV AIDS – are supported through funds provided by the Jakamar Trust and other donations. The Sisterhood does food drops every four to five weeks, and provides blankets, clothing, assistance with school uniforms and school fees.

CHILDREN’S TRANSPORT. The Sisterhood pays for transport of children who live too far to walk to the créche. Initially 25 children were transported, but the costs of transport have increased and fewer children are now transported.

INCOME GENERATING CENTRE. The Sisterhood has assisted in building a log cabin which will be used for income-generating projects to create capacity and sustainability within the community. This is done in conjunction with the Friends of Mavela in Holland and Dianne McColl and family. The Sisterhood is now looking for projects and assistance in setting up these programmes. The women have started making clothes for children in the community and hope to obtain a sewing contract from the Department of Health.

BABY CENTRE AND HOME BASED CARE HOSPICE. The Sisterhood are collecting funds to provide a room for a baby centre at the créche, where space is now at a premium. There are also plans to build a room for home-based care workers to meet and train, as well as a place for patients to come for relaxation and care.

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Care-givers and children line up outside their créche after a day spent repainting it. The drab white walls were transformed into hills and trees and flowers and a river with fish. More than 25 people were involved, including children from the child-headed households.
Click here to see the full photograph.


The Or Ami award

The United Sisterhood received the Or Ami Award for the MC Weiler School in Alexander Township, Johannesburg, in 2005, the year it celebrated its 60th anniversary. The primary school was started in 1945 by Rabbi Moses Cyrus Weiler, his wife Una and Rita Marx, in order to get the children off the streets of the township and into school. The United Sisterhood, with the help of its sponsors, provides food, clothing and education for these children.

The Or Ami award-winners are selected according to the following criteria. The programme should:

  • translate Jewish values into practical service to the congregation and the Jewish or general community;
  • raise the consciousness of sisterhood members to the expanding horizons of service through sisterhood;
  • be broadly replicable; and
  • be innovative or implemented in an unusually creative manner.

When sisterhood means service

The founder of Progressive Judaism, Rabbi MC Weiler, encouraged the women who attended his services to form a sisterhood where they would work for the movement and the community at large. That was the beginning of the SA Union of Temple Sisterhoods

United Sisterhood helps the Jewish way

The United Sisterhood, umbrella body for the three Johannesburg-based synagogue sisterhoods, is world-renowned for its social action programmes in areas like Alexandra

MC Weiler School: 60 years service

For more than 60 years, the MC Weiler School in Alexandra has provided education, food and uniforms to children from the poorest families

Bringing matric to the underprivileged

For more than two decades, a unique school at Bet David has enabled hundreds of poor students from Alexandra to pass their matric

Helping the children of Hillbrow

Nelson Mandela is patron-in-chief of the Temple Israel (Johannesburg) project MaAfrika Tukkun, which works with underprivileged and street children in Hillbrow

Temple Israel hosts MaAfrika Tikkun

MaAfrika Tikkun was established in 1995 as a foundation to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged South Africans through empowering communities to uplift themselves. MaAfrika Tikkun has projects running throughout South Africa.MaAfrika Tikkun’s Hillbrow Project – a crêche – is based at Temple Israel in Hillbrow. MaAfrika Tikkun supplies this project with equipment for the school and training for its teachers, and the children are taken on various outings during the year.

According to the MaAfrika Tikkun Times, a Review of 2004, the school is now fully recognised by the government and a parents’ association has been established.

“MaAfrika Tikkun donates blankets, food and clothing to the Hillbrow street children and, twice a year, hosts parties for about 200 children.”

Former president, Nelson Mandela, is the ‘patron-in-chief’ of MaAfrika Tikkun. Other patrons include Gill Marcus, Raymond Ackerman, Eric Ellerine, Bridgette Radebe, Cyril Ramaphosa, Ronnie & Bertie Lubner and many more. Its chief executive officer is Herby Rosenberg.

“In the early days, MaAfrika Tikkun was approached to develop projects that would assist disadvantaged and impoverished communities in a variety of ways,” says the review.

“Experience has taught us to focus on the particular fields of expertise in which we excel. These include: skills development; pre-school education and development of crèches; day-care for the elderly and renovation of homes; primary health care and support with the emphasis on assistance to HIV/AIDS-affected patients and their families; home economic skills training, including computer literacy and instructor training; taking care of orphans and vulnerable children; and feeding schemes for vulnerable groupings; among others.”

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Temple Israel chair Reeva Forman and Head of Projects Anne Harris with MaAfrika Tikkun children

Support MaAfrika

Contact Reeva Forman for further information. Email: reeva@intekom.co.za


Mitzvah School celebrates 21 years

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THE Mitzvah School celebrated its coming of age at the end of 2007. A birthday party for alumni, sponsors and other guests was held at The Middleton on the grounds of Bet David.

Guest speakers included Khotso Schoeman, CEO of Kagiso Trust and Moshe More, CEO of Dinala Trust, both of whom were among the first pupils of Mitzvah School in 1987.

Other speakers included Mitzvah School founders, Molly Smith and Lesley Rosenberg (current principal), and alumni, Noko Leopeng, who helped organise the event. Current and past Mitzvah School learners provided the entertainment.

Over the past 21 years, the Mitzvah school has touched the lives of thousands of youngsters and put them on the road to achieving success. Doctors, lawyers, businessmen and women, entrepreneurs, actors, musicians and more have graduated from Mitzvah School since its inception in 1987.

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Alumni, current learners, sponsors and other guests attended the Mitzvah School’s 21st birthday celebrations

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Desmond Sweke, chairperson of Bet David, with Rabbi Robert Jacobs, Bet David’s rabbi

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Phineas Khosa, the Mitzvah School bus driver, has driven learners to and from Alexandra since the school began

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The Class of 2002 sing a tribute to bus driver Phineas Khosa

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Former student Noko Leopeng helped organize the 21st birthday celebrations

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Khotso Schoeman, who matriculated in 1987, is now CEO of Kagiso Trust

All together now. Principal Lesley Rosenberg and former students blow out cakes representing each of the school’s 21 years. Each former student represented the graduating class of a particular year, blowing out candles in honour of that year. The cakes were donated by the Bet David Sisterhood

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Related article: History of Mitzvah School

For more than two decades, a unique school at Bet David has enabled hundreds of poor students from Alexandra Township to pass their matric. Principal Lesley Rosenberg tells the story

Bringing matric to the underprivileged

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THE Mitzvah school was started in 1986 at the height of the apartheid-era State of Emergency, as a crisis class providing a year of tuition to matric students from Alexandra Township. At that time, the country was in turmoil. The student slogan was “Liberation before Education”. There were, however, students who felt that being involved in politics was not helping them shape a future for themselves and who wanted to complete their schooling.

With assistance from various companies and individuals, including the management and rabbi of the Bet David congregation in Sandton, the school opened with 25 students, some of whom, unbeknown to us, had been political prisoners. Molly Smith was the principal at that time. She and I learned a tremendous amount about the needs of young people in Alexandra and felt that we should continue until the crisis in education had passed.

We were an illegal school and our students were registered at Alexandra High. After two years, we became a registered school and examination centre. When the students in the township had “stay-aways” or the teachers were on strike, our school was not affected. We were able to forge ahead and assist young people to pass their matric in beautiful and carefree surroundings taught by dedicated, well-qualified and experienced teachers.

We have consistently produced a pass rate of over 90%. By comparison, the national average is just over 50%, and some of the schools from which our students come have pass rates as low as 12%. For the past four years (2004 to 2007), we have achieved 100% pass rates, a remarkable achievement, as our students are with us for only one year.

We try to expand the students’ horizons in every way and give them a feeling of self-worth. We have many guest speakers on subjects such as Aids awareness, drug and alcohol abuse, women and child abuse, street law and vocational guidance.

Some of our students are involved in projects in Alexandra Township. Mpho Malatji, a student at Wits University who matriculated at Mitzvah School, is a mathematics tutor at our school and also runs a Saturday school at the Scripture Ikemeleng Centre in Alexandra. He helps students from Alexandra with mathematics and science and is assisted by past students of Mitzvah School. These students also help him run a project at Ikemeleng to keep young children and youths occupied during school holidays and weekends.

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Principal Lesley Rosenberg … “we try to expand horizons”

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First principal of the school, Molly Smith … ‘an illegal school”


Many of the past students revisit the school to assist us with various aspects of the school. Shera Masheka, a past student, initiated a feeding scheme in Alexandra. Nonhlanhla Sithole has graduated as a medical doctor. Nonhlanhla came from an extremely deprived background, and with the assistance of the community and the Mitzvah School he is now able to go back in to his community and “give back”.

We are assisted by the Bet David Sisterhood to help students who require food and clothing. Certain sponsors provide bursaries and we have set up a small bursary fund ourselves to help past students with tertiary education.

Students pay a nominal monthly amount for school fees and transport. The amount they pay does not cover the monthly cost per student (some of the students are unable to pay at all) and the shortfall has to be covered by our own fund-raising efforts. We no longer receive a government subsidy as we have only one class and are considered an elite school.

We have been extremely fortunate to receive funding from the business sector. The JD Group, a company listed on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange, came to our rescue some five years ago, when we were on the verge of closing the school. The JD Group continues to give us a substantial monthly sum, without which we would not be able to survive.

We are often able to find sponsorship for students who are unable to pay their school fees and these sponsors take an interest in their progress at school and sometimes even into tertiary education.

In the past few years, we have formed a relationship with MaAfrika Tikkun. We were very pleased last year to receive new desks and chairs from them and we were able to pass the old desks and chairs on to the Scripture Union in Alexandra.

More than 1 000 students have passed matric at Mitzvah School, and we are proud to have been involved in their lives. Many of them have graduated, some work in the banking and retail sector, to name a few, and many study part-time to achieve their goals.

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Molly Smith with some of the Mitzvah School teachers at the school’s 21st celebration


Our school, with the help of the Bet David Sisterhood, provides breakfast daily for 75 Aids orphans at Zenzeleni Lower Primary School in Alexandra. We also have birthday parties for these children. We provide school uniforms and shoes for those children who come to school without shoes and are very poorly clothed. We have also been assisted to provide glasses for those children who have eye problems.

We have a feeding scheme in Eighth Avenue, Alexandra, providing breakfast and lunch daily for about 120 pre-school children as well as indigent adults in the area. The students of Mitzvah School assist to collect food monthly. This we do by standing outside supermarkets and asking the shoppers to assist with our feeding schemes. The community is extremely generous, and we are able to feed these people and send food parcels to child-headed families. The ‘kitchen’ in Eighth Avenue is however extremely basic, and in dire need of upgrading.

Our income is mainly spent on teacher salaries to ensure that we retain our staff, most of whom having been with us for many years. We spend very little money on upgrading the school, but feel that we now need to concentrate on giving our students a solid background in computer studies, an area where we feel we have failed. Here again, MaAfrika Tikkun has come to our assistance and installed six new computers for us. Our library and science laboratory remain in desperate need of upgrading.

If you can help the Mitzvah School in any way, please call +27 11 883 7177 or email mrose@iafrica.com, or visit the school’s website at http://www.mitzvahschool.org.za. Source: Shofar 2006

Support Mitzvah

YOU can help the Mitzvah school every time you go shopping – and it won’t cost you anything.The MySchool programme, which has raised R5 million for 600 schools across the country, has been introduced at Mitzvah School.

What you need is a special MySchool card ordered from the Mitzvah School. Each time you shop at a MySchool partner outlet, the vendor pays a percentage to the school – without adding anything to the price charged to you.

MySchool affiliates include Woolworths, CNA, Spar, Mica, Waltons, Link pharmacies and many others.

To support the Mitzvah school, please order a card by phoning the school on +27 11 883-7177 or emailing mitzvah@telkomsa.net. (South Africa only.)


Contact us

The Mitzvah School is a non-profit organisation, number 006-883. It can be contacted via Bet David, PO Box 78189, Sandton, 2146Tel/fax: +27 11 883-7177Website: http://www.mitzvahschool.org.za

Email: mitzvah@telkomsa.net


Related article

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Mitzvah turns 21

The Mitzvah School holds a huge party, attended by ex-pupils and sponsors, to celebrate 21 years of matric success

A pioneering school that survived against the odds

 

mcweiler-paintingOutside the school, beneath a painting of founder Rabbi Moses Weiler, are United Sisterhood chairperson Marilyn Trujillo, Cynthia Duchen who provides food and cooking lessons to pupils, Armona Weiler, daughter of Rabbi Weiler, and Ellen Appleton, past chairperson

In 1945, Rabbi Moses Weiler, founder of the Progressive Movement in South Africa, was visiting Alexandra Township, where he noted the number of small children playing in the streets while their parents were at work. Realising the need for schooling for these children, he decided to find a suitable place to start a school, helped by his wife Una and Rita Marx (Hon. Life President of the United Sisterhood).

Eventually a small, dilapidated four-room house was found to rent. Una Weiler and Rita Marx cleaned up the house, painted it throughout and brightened up the exterior window frames and doors with blue paint.

A young teacher, Hilda Phahle, was employed at the rate of twelve pounds per month, and her first pupils were 36 children taken off the streets. She recalled smearing dung on the floors to keep the dust down and cooking meals for the children she had gathered off the streets.

The school was named “Jabulani” meaning “Happiness”. The enthusiasm of Rita Marx, Una Weiler, Ethel Smith and Selma Gottlieb contributed much in the first years of the school’s existence.

The Sisterhood continued to hold cake sales, jumble sales, bridge drives etc. to raise funds for the school. A dentist’s chair and dental equipment were donated to the school and a dentist, Dr Sergay, attended to the dental needs of the children on a voluntary and regular basis. Rabbi Weiler did much during these years to help raise funds for the school.

Building our own school

Four years after the founding of the school rapid growth called for new premises. A plot of ground was bought and a small school with four classrooms was built by the United Sisterhood. Under the supervision of Hilda Phahle, by now principal of the school, there were now 110 children and two teachers at the school.

On January 2 1949, the school was officially opened by the Mayor of Johannesburg Mr SP Lee, and was renamed the MC Weiler School, in honour of Rabbi Weiler.

By 1954, there were 266 pupils housed in 14 classrooms. Extra rooms were rented all over Alexandra and classes were held in old church halls, cottages and abandoned shops. Hilda Phahle spent a good deal of time and much shoe leather supervising her scattered domain.

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The mayor ‘opens’ the Jabulani school, which is renamed the MC Weiler School


Government take-over of all black education

In 1953, the Bantu Education Board took over all black education in South Africa. With the exception of the Roman Catholics, the Seventh Day Adventists and the United Progressive Jewish Congregation, all other church and religious bodies either handed over their schools or closed them. The few who resisted soldiered on without state aid. In Nelson Mandela’s book Long Walk to Freedom, he makes a point of referring to the MC Weiler school as one of those that did not willingly submit.

Sadly, this was not to last. In 1955, the Bantu Education Board forcefully took over ALL black education in South Africa. The MC Weiler School was forced to become a “government” school. However, the upkeep of the land and buildings still had to be financed and serviced by the United Sisterhood. It was also necessary for the Sisterhood to subsidise the salaries of the teachers for many years. Although our jurisdiction over the school changed, our commitment to it never wavered. It must be clearly stated that we resented this take-over.

‘Black government schools’ were provided with very little other than school premises, an enforced syllabus and meagre staff salaries. Teacher qualifications were of no importance and anyone with a Std 6 certificate (8 years schooling) was eligible for employment at black schools.

The Sisterhood recognised the need for a healthy, safe and uplifting school environment and channelled their energies and funds into providing needy children with food and clothing and to seeing that classrooms were maintained and painted. They provided as many teaching aids as possible and stocked the library with suitable books.

Growth and development

During the following years, it became more and more difficult for the Sisterhood to provide services at the school, but they continued their sponsorship by feeding the children and supporting the staff and pupils on an ongoing basis.

In November 1956, when the final bond repayment on the school was made, the event was celebrated with a party at the school and each of the 370 children were presented with a new school shirt. Even though the school had forcefully become a ‘government school’ the United Sisterhood still owned the school buildings and the land on which the school was built.

Before he left South Africa in January 1958, Rabbi Weiler visited the school to say goodbye to the 650 children. At a moving ceremony, these underprivileged children handed Rabbi Weiler £40 which they had collected for him. Deeply touched, Rabbi Weiler acknowledged this wonderful gesture and then handed the money back to the children as a gift.

Despite the fact that the Sisterhood had to give up the official administration of the school, the buildings were leased to the Government and the income was used to sponsor the feeding scheme, clothing scheme, library, end-of-year parties and prize-giving.

The 16th birthday of the school was celebrated at the end of 1961. On this occasion, the soccer team was fitted out with new soccer shorts and sufficient fabric for new school dresses for the girls was supplied by the Sisterhood.

By 1963, the number of pupils had risen to 800 and there was a staff of 11 teachers, still under the diligent supervision of Hilda Phahle. Although the school was now administered by the Bantu Education Department, the Sisterhood continued to supplement the teacher’s salaries. A founding member of the Progressive Jewish Movement in South Africa, Jerry Idelson, spent many hours teaching the children new songs and training the choir. It was Jerry who composed the music for the MC Weiler School song, with the words written by Hilda Phahle. This song is still sung by the children today.

Township children in concert

In order to raise funds for the school, the Sisterhood planned a choral festival in November 1963 in which only Township children would participate. As it was not possible for white people to visit the township, this concert was held at Temple Shalom in Highlands North, Johannesburg. “The audience listened to music which, up to now, had only been associated with the large cities of the country. The children sang Jerry Idelson’s lovely composition set to the poem ‘Excelsior’ and poured forth songs in praise of the Lord in their vernacular, their voices echoing the glorious ‘Hallelujah’ of Handel.” (The Zionist Record, November 1963). This concert was a great achievement for Jerry, who trained these children almost to perfection.

Part of the proceeds from this successful performance were used to purchase a generator to provide much needed electricity for the school which had, till then, limped along without this necessity. The balance of the money was used to establish a library at the Alexandra Secondary School, which had by now been ‘adopted’ by the United Sisterhood.

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On a cold winter morning in 1947, hot cocoa, food and clothing are handed out to pupils


A threatened school

The end-of-year party in December 1964 was very different from those happy parties that had been celebrated with the children of the MC Weiler school over the past 19 years. The party, which had been arranged to fall within the period of Rabbi Weiler’s visit to South Africa, was a sombre occasion. “There was a note of sadness in the voices of the children as they sang, and it was transferred to the audience.” (The Star, December 3 1964). The reason for this sadness was that the Bantu Education Department was planning to split up the school among several African schools on the Reef (now Gauteng). The Rand Daily Mail, December 17 1964, reported that the school would be disbanded as Alexandra would be cleared and its residents moved elsewhere. The Southern African Jewish Times, December 18 1964, reported that the Township was to become “a hostel for Bantu men”. Speakers on this occasion expressed sadness that, under the destructive Government plan for Alexandra, the largest primary school would be demolished.

The Sisterhood, together with Mrs Phahle, decided to start fundraising for a new school building in Diepkloof. Fortunately, the dreadful plan to uproot the township dwellers never came to fruition!

November 1965 was a triumphant celebration for the Sisterhood and the school. As they celebrated the 20th birthday of the MC Weiler School with 900 pupils, it was almost certain that the school would stay and that Alexandra had received a reprieve from destruction. Little did they know what lay ahead.

Progressive Jewish Children support the school

Pupils from the Temple Emanuel Hebrew School in Parktown, under the guidance of Rabbi Dickie Lampert, collected funds to purchase 46 new school desks. Not only was this a wonderful gesture from the Progressive Jewish children, but it was also a most urgent need as in some cases, up to three children had to share one desk. The Bantu Education Board refused to supply these vital items of furniture for black children. On October 21 1966, the Progressive Jewish children sponsored a party for almost 940 children when the desks were delivered. The support from these children was not an isolated event – on many other occasions, they raised funds to support the school.

Threatened again

In 1971, the Government once again thought of demolishing Alexandra Township and once again the fate of the school hung in the balance. This time it was suggested that the MC Weiler School be relocated to Meadowlands and that it’s name be changed. At this stage, some 34 years ago, the real battle for survival and a better education for the children started. Many petitions and complaints were lodged with the various Government Departments involved – these actions were not always beneficial to the Sisterhood status in the wider white community.

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2005: MC Weiler pupils celebrate the school’s 60th birthday


Expropriation of grounds & buildings

In 1976, in accordance with the Group Areas Act of the time, which forbade whites to own property in black areas, the West Rand Administration Board expropriated the school buildings and the land on which they were built. At the same time, the Government was again thinking about whether or not to raze Alexandra to the ground and resettle it’s residents in Soweto. Such forceful moves of people from one area to another were not uncommon in South Africa in those days.

Building and upgrading again

By 1976, there were 960 children attending the school, which was still scattered all over in cottages, shops and other available premises. It was hoped that they could move into the recently vacated Holy Cross Convent next to the main MC Weiler School building and at last be housed under one roof. However this was not to be. During the 1976 unrest, the Alexandra High School was burnt down and its pupils were moved into the major part of the Convent building. All that was left were five dilapidated rooms that had neither floors nor ceilings. All concerned were grateful for the five extra rooms and once again, building operations and refurbishment had to begin. At great cost and with unflagging effort, five new classrooms, an office and a library were constructed with funds raised by the United Sisterhood.

The difficult 80’s

In the early 1980s, an organisation called “Alexandra Schools Association” was formed. It’s aim was to find business organisations to sponsor each of the 15 schools in Alexandra. Within a short space of time, the Association had managed to find sponsors for most of the schools. These were, in the main, American companies subscribing to the Sullivan Code. The MC Weiler School could not find a business to ‘adopt’ it as the United Sisterhood was considered it’s official sponsor.

The struggle for survival

At this particular time, the United Sisterhood was facing a grave financial crisis of its own. Their very existence was threatened due to a lack of funds and it was almost impossible to continue with all their other projects. Continual unrest in the township and the burning down of other schools made it even more difficult to get financial assistance. Fortunately Burroughs Accounting (Unisys) agreed to make an annual grant towards the work at MC Weiler School, although they could not adopt the school. Unfortunately, this annual grant came to an end with disinvestment and the departure of most American companies from South Africa in 1988. At this time, the overall condition of the school buildings had deteriorated alarmingly and by now the toilet block had become a real health hazard.

In 1981, when Hilda Phahle retired after 36 years of unflagging effort, the school accommodated 1010 pupils, taught by 23 teachers in various buildings in five locations. In the same year, a pre-school class of 54 five-year-olds was started. This had been a dream of Hilda’s for many years. That year, Hilda was nominated as an ‘Unsung Heroine’ by The Star, but her dream of a new building to house all her scattered classes had still not been realised.

In February 1982, Clare Herman who, for more than 20 years, had been the MC Weiler School Project Convenor, left South Africa to join her children in the USA. Her departure was a great loss to the Sisterhood and the school. This devoted woman had been deeply involved with the school and was a constant source of encouragement to Hilda Phahle. Clare Herman also never saw her dream of the school under one roof realised.

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Armona Weiler, daughter of Rabbi Moses MC Weiler, outside the school with principal Flake Ramothata and pupils


Adam and Gideon Weiler Scholarship

When Rabbi Weiler’s son, Major Adam Weiler, died in defence of Israel, the United Sisterhood decided to establish a scholarship in his honour. This scholarship was awarded to the top pupil leaving the MC Weiler School to continue with higher education. The first recipient to receive a seven year scholarship was Ezekiel Cebekhulu.

In 1983, the United Sisterhood changed the name of the scholarship fund to include the name of Gideon Weiler in order to honour Major Gideon Weiler, Rabbi Weiler’s second son to die in defence of Israel.

Under one roof at last

It was only in 1984, when the new school building had been erected for Alexandra High School, that the Holy Cross Convent was vacated and the 1000 children of the MC Weiler School were at last housed under one roof. The building was in an extremely dilapidated condition and for the next seven years, the United Sisterhood carried on a running battle with the West Rand Administration Board and the Department of Education and Training to persuade one of them to take responsibility for the repair of the school. This they refused to do and not one cent was ever spent by either of them for improvement of the school buildings or grounds. Meanwhile the Sisterhood did what they could to make life pleasant for pupils and teachers.

Upgrading of teacher skills and qualifications

Teacher qualifications at black schools was of little importance to the Government. In 1984, most of the teachers at the MC Weiler School were not fully qualified.

In 1987, Unidata sponsored a programme to upgrade the qualifications of the teachers. The first step was for the teachers to get their matriculation certificates in order to qualify for University entrance. Twenty teachers joined the programme and three years later, all had received their matriculation certificates. These teachers then went on to study for a Secondary Education Diploma at Vista University. By 1991, all had received their diplomas. Most teachers now set their sights on studying for a BA degree. Congratulations must go to the teachers on the wonderful effort they made. The United Sisterhood appreciates the sacrifices made in order to upgrade their skills and, by doing so, raising the standard of education of the children.

Obtaining tertiary education was indeed an achievement for each and every one of these women who attended Vista University.

Upgrading of school buildings – again

In 1986, broken window panes and doors were replaced, classrooms painted and heaters provided. Application for electrical installations was made on an ongoing basis. (It was only in 1992 that electricity was supplied to the school.) The teachers painted the outside of the building with some delightful murals in an effort to create a friendlier environment for the children. However, despite all this, the overall condition of this already dilapidated building continued to deteriorate.

Feeding Scheme

“You cannot educate a hungry child” has always been the motto of the United Sisterhood, and since 1945, the feeding scheme at the school has always been a priority.

The feeding scheme has now been running for more than 60 years with very few interruptions despite many difficulties. During the years when permits were required by white people to enter black residential areas, these permits were sometimes denied, and at other times, the unrest and violence made it too dangerous for our volunteers to enter the township. Despite all these problems, the United Sisterhood never abandoned the feeding scheme or the school, often at great personal danger to the volunteers. The Sisterhood was fortunate that many Christian women came to their assistance, especially the women of the French Embassy and Consulate who were able to obtain permits to enter the township. On occasion, these kind people not only prepared and distributed food, they also undertook to do the shopping.

Fortunately, for the past 17 years the feeding scheme has run most successfully. However, without the support of Mazon – a Jewish response to hunger (an organisation in the USA), the Sisterhood would not be able to assist every hungry child.

The United Sisterhood salutes all those who continue to contribute and gives special thanks those who supported them during difficult years, including Wanda Albinski and Berry Prentice, both women from a Christian organisation; Gabriella and her co-workers from the French Embassy in Pretoria, assisted by ladies from the French Consulate in Johannesburg, who managed to obtain permits and police escorts into the township to keep the feeding scheme going during the darkest years; and Martin and Andrea Janit who totally financed the feeding scheme for a number of years.

End-of-year parties

Education for black children has always been of paramount importance to us, yet the Sisterhood never failed to understand the necessity for children to enjoy themselves. Black township children have very little exposure to this kind of activity. Very few of these children have ever experienced the joy of a birthday party, and for most of them there are hardly any Christmas celebrations due to the lack of employment opportunities for their parents.

When the school was started 62 years ago, it was agreed by the founding members that the United Sisterhood would host a party and prize-giving at the end of every school year. This has been faithfully done and although there were years when members of the Sisterhood could not personally attend, as a result of legal restrictions or township violence, the party packs were prepared and ways and means were always found to get these to the school. Colddrinks, biscuits and sweets are still given to every child at the end of each year. Prizes are awarded to all the top students in the form of new school shirts.

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Prize-giving at a school where many of the children have never had birthday parties


Gifts for teachers

Realising how little the teachers earned in the early years, it became a tradition to give a hamper to each teacher at their end-of-year party. Needless to say, this small gesture to the teachers can never express the Sisterhood’s thanks for their efforts in educating the children with so much care and concern.

Library and the READ Education Trust

It has always been the aim of the United Sisterhood to instil in the children at the school a life-long love of books. There has always been some sort of library at the school. In the early days, it was a shelf erected in a small room behind the Principal’s office, but it was always well stocked with a variety of books.

In 1982, the READ Educational Trust appointed a co-ordinator to liaise with all the schools in Alexandra on an on-going basis. At first, box libraries were installed in the many classrooms scattered around the township. Eventually when the school was at last moved under one roof, a special room was set aside as a library. Money was raised for books, shelves were built, the room was painted and carpeted, strip lighting was installed and the room was also equipped with educational toys and bright and attractive posters.

READ held special courses for selected teachers in many types of Library skills. A Festival of Books was held annually, highlighting story-telling, story-reading and dramatisation. In 1984, the MC Weiler School came first in the Story-Telling competition and tied with another school for first place in Story-Reading.

The United Sisterhood is indebted to the wonderful READ co-ordinators who worked so closely with them in setting up and maintaining the high standards of the library.

Further upgrading

In January 1991, the Kovler Institute in America made a generous grant of $20 000 to the United sisterhood. The aim of the Kovler Institute is the furthering of relationships between blacks and Jews. These funds were used to refurbish the school. Broken floors and ceilings were repaired or replaced, cracked walls were restored, broken window frames were replaced and new doors were fitted. Classrooms were painted and repairs were made where necessary.

Three years after this, the Department of Education and Training announced that a new building was being erected for the MC Weiler School. It is pleasing to know that other children from Alexandra would benefit from the refurbishment as it was almost certain that another school would be moving into the premises where so many years had been shared by the United Sisterhood, the teachers and the pupils.

Feeding

The vast majority of the learners at the MC Weiler School come from single parent families where an unemployed mother single-handedly carries the responsibility of caring and providing for three or four children. Today, the situation is more serious as many children are the heads of their families due to HIV/AIDS. To help these children, we send food parcels home for their siblings and provide the HIV/AIDS infected children with a protein-enriched breakfast as well as the nourishing lunch that is supplied to all those who are hungry.

Several times a year, appeals are sent out by the United Sisterhood for monetary donations to “Our Children’s Fund” so that we are able to supply these lunches at the school. To supplement this, Cynthia Duchen launched a project whereby food is collected monthly at various Pick ‘n Pay stores. We express our gratitude to Pick ‘n Pay as well as to Cynthia and those collecting with her.

The new kitchen

As project convener of the MC Weiler School for 19 years, Henna du Plessis wanted to build a new kitchen for the school to replace the inadequate storeroom which was being used to prepare food.

Henna is a true “Woman of Worth” who, with love and dedication, did so much to enhance and uplift the MC Weiler School. Her commitment to the school is unequalled and she will be sorely missed. We wish her well in her retirement.

The kitchen project has been ably taken over by Belinda Katz, whose hard work and dedication has resulted in a beautiful new kitchen. This will not only be used for the hygienic preparation of food, but also as a ‘teaching centre’ to given women of the township the necessary skills to earn a living by baking. We thank our many donors who enabled us to turn Henna’s dream into reality.

And now, into the future

In 1996, the school catered for learners from Grade 1 to Grade 4 and approximately 890 were educated. In 2004, three extra classes were added, and over 1000 learners are now taught from Grade R to Grade 6.

Mary Buti, who became principal in 1983, retired in 2001 and Agnes Shibambu took over the reigns. On her retirement in 2004, Agnes was temporarily replaced by Nati Mnguni, and our current principal, Flake Ramothata, was appointed in May 2005. All who served in the position of head of the school were proud of the MC Weiler School and did all they could to promote its excellent standard. We thank them all.

In 1996, many shacks in the area were demolished and the learners allocated to different schools. This initially caused a fall in the number of learners, but this has now risen again.

After celebrating the 60th anniversary of the MC Weiler School in 2005, we look forward to 120th anniversary celebrations in peace and harmony.

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Joint founders of the MC Weiler school, Rabbi Moses Weiler and Rita Marx, long-time president of the United Sisterhood


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1957: Rabbi Weiler says farewell to his school … and is deeply touched when he discovers that the pupils have raised money as a goodbye gift to him


History of the school

This history is based on research by Henna du Plessis, project convenor of the MC Weiler School for 19 years, and Ann Marx, daughter-in-law of Rita Marx. Ann was herself very involved in the school during the apartheid years. Henna secured the new school building and raised the funds to erect playground equipment and refurbish the school. The two produced a booklet to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the school in 2005