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