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November 29, 2014 / 7 Kislev, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Cape Town’

In Search Of South African Jewish Art

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

South African Jewish Museum 88 Hatfield Street, Cape Town, South Africa http://www.sajewishmuseum.co.za

 

Cup presented to Benjamin Norden in 1857. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

I went to the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town with high hopes of seeing how South African Jews uniquely approached the fine arts and Jewish ritual objects. Lions—as the symbol of Judah and later Israel in general—can be found in Jewish art throughout the ages and across the globe, of course. But I wondered if the Jews of Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, and Port Elizabeth incorporated other native animals into their art. I had visions of Zebras holding up Chanukah lamps, giraffes on Kiddush cups, and elephants on Havdalah spice boxes. I wondered to what extent South African Jewish artists looked to traditional African art and design for inspiration, and whether they drew upon symbols and styles from their Eastern European, primarily Lithuanian, heritage. At very least, I expected to learn a great deal more about William Kentridge, a Johannesburg-born Jewish painter with an international reputation.

Not only was I surprised not to find bead-encrusted mezuzahs and cheetah-patterned challahcovers, but I saw virtually no art at all. And the few works I saw had little or nothing to do with South Africa. Several glass cases with ritual objects in the first room didn’t even identify where and when they were created, and with the exception of one menorah, they all resembled ritual objects one could see in a Jewish museum anywhere in the world.

Menorah. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

The menorah in question (image one), which had no identifying wall text, features at least three animals. On the pinnacle, supported by some sort of pedestal that could be a hand, jug, or flame, is some kind of deer. Judging from the antlers, the deer is more of the North American rather than African Kudu variety. Lower down on the menorah, two forms jut out, which could be crocodiles or merely geometric embellishments. But the central part of the menorah is the most interesting. Two animal forms stand on their hind legs leaning against an open portal. The blessing recited over lighting the Chanukah candles—“… to light the candle of Chanukah”—is inscribed on the two animals and above the portal they flank.

“Yerushalayim d’Afrike’” (Jerusalem of Africa), the history of the Jews of Oudtshoorn, a town in the Western Cape, written in Yiddish by Leibl Feldman in 1940. Cover design by Rene Shapshak. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

The animals are peculiar in shape and thus difficult to interpret. It’s clear that they have tails and ears, and they don’t appear to be lions, since they are mane-less. Depending upon which angle one inspects them from, they could be elephants, rhinoceroses, leopards, or wolves. And the zigzag patterns on the animals, as well as the eye-like forms don’t help either, as the same patterns appear on the “crocodiles” and throughout the rest of the menorah.

If the symbolism on the menorah is ambiguous, the scene represented on a cup that the Jewish community of Cape Town presented to Benjamin Norden in 1857 is quite clear, although it’s a surprising mythological choice. Norden, who founded South Africa’s first Hebrew congregation, Tikvath Yisrael, was given the cup in honor of his return to England. A lion stands atop the large ceremonial cup, while a bearded man carrying a trident is depicted on the side of the cup. The figure—surely Neptune or Poseidon—stands in a chariot drawn by four horses in the water, as two angels blow trumpets (probably not shofrot). Berries and leaves adorn various other parts of the cup.

Whether the cup was originally created for a non-Jewish patron and later adapted as a gift for Benjamin Norden, or whether it was created specifically for the occasion, the choice of a pagan symbol, rather than a Biblical or rabbinic one, to mark the celebration of a Jew’s career in South Africa is noteworthy.

Other interesting aspects of the museum’s collection include references to Jewish involvement in the ostrich feather trade (see image three) and apartheid. “In my experience,” Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography, in a quote that is printed in a prominent wall text, “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

Shtetl installation. South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town. Photo: Menachem Wecker.

The Mainstreaming Of Chabad Rabbis

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

   I have witnessed a revolution. On a recent lecture tour that took me to Australia and South Africa, I hardly found a major mainstream synagogue without a Chabad rabbi. Shuls that once swore they would not invite in Chabad are now attracting large numbers of new members under the helm of young and charismatic Chabad rabbis. Many of them are the biggest shuls in their respective countries.
 
   In Sydney, Australia I spoke at Central Synagogue, where Rabbi Levi Wolf has transformed a shul on the decline into a powerhouse; for Rabbi Benzion Milecki, whose years at Southhead Synagogue have made it one of the most vibrant in the Southern Hemisphere; and for Rabbi Motti Feldman, creator of the vibrant Dover Heights community.
 
   In Cape Town, I spoke Friday night and Saturday at Sea Point Synagogue, with South Africa’s largest membership. It’s now on fire thanks to the charismatic leadership of Rabbi Dovid Weinberg. I also had the pleasure of speaking at Chabad of Cape Town, which for 35 years has molded Judaism in that city under the dedicated leadership of Rabbi Mendel Popack.
 
   In those countries, as in the United Kingdom and even the United States, Chabad rabbis are beginning to take over centrist, Modern Orthodox communities that once viewed Chabad as too religiously right wing.
 
   The mainstreaming of Chabad in leading synagogues around the world would seem to go against the Chabad model of opening independent Chabad Houses and building autonomous communities. On the other end of it, why would a Modern Orthodox shul choose a Chabad rabbi, whose chassidic lifestyle is seemingly so at odds with that of the congregation?
 
   Whereas other rabbis want to build shuls and increase membership, Chabad rabbis want people to practice Judaism. Chabad rabbis, even in large communities, are less interested in the institution of the synagogue and much more focused on the personal observance of individuals.
 
   The reason it works is that the whole problem with synagogue life is its institutionalized, depersonalized nature, which alienates people and makes them feel uncomfortable when they attend. But when the focus is on the person rather than the structure, no one feels like he or she is being asked to simply populate the pews.
 
   The Weinbergs in Cape Town are an example of how this works. I stayed in an apartment right across from them yet I barely got to see them, so busy were they hosting guests in their home, teaching bat mitzvah classes, conducting funerals and running the shul minyan, among countless other responsibilities. Their focus was not on their responsibilities to an institution’s board or membership but rather on giving their lives to the service of their fellow Jews who require religious guidance and inspiration.
 
   The Weinbergs do not have career but a calling. A career ends at night and stops completely on vacation. A calling is forever. It exists whenever there is anyone in need. And the Jewish people today have unending spiritual needs. The focus, for example, at a bat mitzvah class is not the speech the girl will give but the Shabbos candles she will light, the kosher food she will eat, and the Jewish books she will read well after the ceremony is over.
 
   But is it right for rabbis who run synagogues to put more emphasis on congregants observing tradition than on the functions of the shul? Is this not a diversion from their core responsibilities of building the congregation?
 
   Here’s my response, and it’s pretty brutal. Synagogue life for many is unbelievably monotonous. They find the shul service long and boring. We try to alleviate the bland routine of shul life with rabbis who are great speakers and by offering a delectable kiddush after the davening.
 
   Fair enough. Good whisky may indeed bring to life what can seem to some like a dead service. But the key to making shul exciting is making every person who attends feel like he or she belongs. Home life is exciting not because there are fireworks every night but because of the comfort and nurturing it provides. Shul is the same.
 
   When people start observing a Torah lifestyle they see the shul as an intrinsic element in their lives. It provides comfort for families and nurturance for the soul. As they find a sense of belonging they begin to participate, and the monotony ends.
 
   I regularly travel around the world to speak. I am at different shuls all the time. But I am never a stranger. I am always among my people. Because I am committed to Jewish life, every shul is my home.
 

   Chabad rabbis are enjoying so much success around the world as mainstream rabbis because their emphasis on Jewish observance over synagogue attendance makes people feel, once they do begin attending, that shul is an extension of home.

 

 

 

   Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network and the bestselling author of 25 books including his most recent – “Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.

Torah MiTzion Kollel In Warsaw

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

          Every time I come to Poland there is some new sign of the resurgence of the religious Jewish community. This past August, while sitting in the garden of the Jewish Community Center of Warsaw on my first day, I overheard a family talking in Hebrew. At first I thought they were tourists who had quickly built a nice rapport with the other members of the community whom they were talking to. But then I was introduced to Rabbi Ephraim and Efrat Meisels of Torah MiTzion Kollel.

 

         Rabbi Meisels had just arrived a week earlier and was busy getting to know the people that came to the Community Center. I asked him what his plans were and he surprised me by saying that he came to Poland from Israel, as a shaliach of Torah MiTzion, to open a Kollel.

 

         Intrigued, I sat down with Rabbi Meisels to find out more. Is there a need for a kollel in Warsaw? How many people does he expect will join him in his program? What courses of study will he offer? Who will pay for the salaries and what exactly is Torah MiTzion.

 

         A kollel is usually an advanced Jewish study program for married men on a full-time basis. Kollelim are usually connected to large yeshivot and considered a continuance of ones education. Unlike most other institutes of higher learning, a person in a kollel does not aim for a degree but learns for the sake of its own merit. Comprised of married men, who would normally have to work to earn a living, the kollel gives a stipend to its students and is supported by the community in which it is located.

 

         The initiative for Torah MiTzion originated from the Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har-Etzion with the support of its Roshei Yeshiva – Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Yehuda Amital. The first kollel in the U.S. was set up in Cleveland, Ohio, with Rabbi Binyamin Tabory as the first Rosh Kollel. At the same time, Rabbi Jonathan Glass made a dream come true by establishing the Yeshiva of Cape Town, South Africa. Today there are over 25 kollelim, on five continents, under the auspices of Torah MiTzion.

 

         The aim of the program is to assist local leadership strengthen Judaism in their communities, through the creation of a unique Torah atmosphere, which includes Judaism and Zionism. The kollel students divide their time between intensive studies in the beit midrash, under the leadership of a charismatic and scholarly rosh kollel, and participation in local community life.

 

         Time is invested in shiurim (classes), study in the chavrutah (one-on-one tutoring and learning) format together with members of the community, and general educational activities in the community from school to shul (synagogue), during the week and Shabbat – all aimed at strengthening Jewish identity and Torah knowledge among all sectors of the Jewish community.

 

 


Rabbi Ephraim Meisels giving his morning Torah class in the Nozyk Synagogue in Warsaw.

 

 

         The kollel wives are also a crucial part of the system – they teach formally in the schools, arrange special shiurim for girls and women of the community, host families at their homes and are involved on all levels with the kollel activities.

 

         There is no single model for a kollel program. The kollel can consist of a rosh kollel and young married men (avreichim) or unmarried students (bachurim). Each program strives to meet the specific needs of that community.

 

         In Warsaw, Rabbi Meisels has, since I met him, set up daily classes after every prayer session, and regular classes at all levels, as his students have hardly had a chance for regular Torah classes, until now. He also travels to other cities, outside Warsaw, to bring them a higher level of learning.

 

         One Shabbat, while in Poland, I was privileged to be in the city of Lodz at the same time as Rabbi Meisels and I enjoyed his classes. He has also taken an interest in the practical needs of the community and works closely with the Chief Rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, in many other matters.

 

         At first, Rabbi Meisels spoke no Polish and very little English. But after one month, he was already picking up both languages. It is remarkable to watch his two children running around Warsaw with his wife Efrat rushing after them.

 

         Since I have come back to the U.S., I have learned that there is a new member in the Meisels family, as Efrat has given birth to a third child, a boy (I will pass on the name of the baby as soon as I get it). The Meisels are an amazing family, willing to travel to a foreign country, to enrich and enhance Jewish communities around the world by promoting the lofty ideals of Torat Yisrael, Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/torah-mitzion-kollel-in-warsaw/2007/11/07/

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