As we enter 2021, Stuart Diamond reflects on how the South African Jewish community can hold on to the shared sense of purpose that helped it come together and navigate 2020.
OVER the past year, what we have grown to consider ‘normal life’ has been completely upended. From how we understand work-school-home life, to how we socialise, pray and interact as a community, no person has been unaffected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Aside from health concerns and the tragic loss of life, 2020 has also brought economic hardship for many, and economic devastation for others. In South Africa, the number of households facing food insecurity has grown significantly. But 2020 also forced us to pause, reflect and adapt -- as individuals and as a community.
The challenges facing the Jewish community in 2020 have been extensive, with the pandemic and lockdown inevitably putting stress on communal resources. Yet adversity also brought out the best of what the Cape Jewish community can be when aligned with a shared purpose.
"The challenge now is, how do we hold on to the shared sense of purpose that helped us, as a community, come together and navigate 2020?"
The language of the past year seemed to shift too. I have heard the words “pivot” and “paradigm shifts’ many times. But for me the key phrase that I found most compelling, which I heard primarily in international circles, was ‘reflective learning’.
Reflective learning emphasises the intention to learn from our current or prior experiences. Reflection is a type of thinking aimed at achieving better understanding that leads to fresh perspectives. By sitting with and analysing our strengths and weaknesses and questioning our perceptions we can create a path from where we are now, to where we want to be. The idea is to step back first in reflection, rather than forward in action, to help see the larger picture. Reflection has become inculcated in my decision-making, at a personal, professional and communal level. Of course, reflection in a time of crisis is not always easy. In crisis-mode we often simply react.
That the writing of this piece coincides with Reconciliation Day (16 December 2020) is not lost on me. This month also marks the seventh anniversary of the passing of South Africa’s beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. In a Reconciliation Day speech given in 1995, Mandela said, “Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice”.
This day holds so many lessons for our small Jewish community on the tip of Africa. I have always wondered if by easing our transition into a “Rainbow Nation”, Mandela unintentionally also denied South African Jews their moment of reflection and, as such, of authentic reconciliation. Reconciliation demands that you not only listen, but ‘hear’ each other. As such, can there be true reconciliation without reflection?
"Perhaps one of our greatest challenges as a community is a reconciling between South African Jews."
At the time of his death in December 2013, I had served two years in the Council of the City of Cape Town. I remember standing in reflection at memorial prayers at Cape Town’s Civic Centre Chambers as Rabbi Asher Deren delivered prayers of mourning on Mandela’s passing on behalf of the Cape Jewish community. I remember thinking at the time, ‘Why do we only reflect in times of pain and immense challenge?’
This year has undoubtedly been one of immense challenge, and for many, deep pain. Aside from navigating our own personal and communal challenges, we have also seen the pain and suffering of so many in South Africa. It has been devastating to see how many South Africans have gone hungry over this period.
I hope that this difficult time has also allowed us to reflect a little deeper on the painful disparities that still exist within South African society; deep disparities that were yet again exposed by Covid-19.
The challenge now is, how do we hold on to the shared sense of purpose that helped us, as a community, come together and navigate 2020?
Lockdown: Long Street in Cape Town, April 2020. Credit: AFP
2020 was marked by the deepening of partisan politics globally and a seeming inability for people to hear each other across their differences. Reflecting on this trend, over the last few months, I have witnessed debates and discussions among our community members on social media platforms about a wide variety of difficult topics, from PPE, Covid-19, schools and shuls, to Jack Markovitz. Some of these discussions were constructive and engaging and others soon became divisive and ugly. In response to this type of divisiveness, the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies instituted a campaign, #wordsmatter. The Words Matter campaign underscores 1) our right to freedom of expression in a democratic society 2) that this right is “balanced against other fundamental human rights - such as our right to human dignity, equality, and freedom of religion, belief and opinion”. That is “free speech” is “never a justification for the use of derogatory or hateful words”. Most importantly, this campaign is designed to encourage us to reflect on the words we use and the potential impact that these words might have on another.
Covid-19 has not hidden the fact that our community is still grappling to find spaces where it can hold safe and/or brave conversations ‘for the sake of heaven’. Where we can speak respectfully across difference. Perhaps one of our greatest challenges as a community is a reconciling between South African Jews.
In 2019, I was selected to be a part of two international leadership fellowships, the Schusterman Fellowship and the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship, the latter which aims to provide “a constructive space for young leaders to test questions and assumptions… and learn about the diversity and shared values across the Jewish world”. It was in these spaces that I experienced the possibility of speaking across difference (ideological, political, geographical, denominational etc.) on difficult issues in a respectful manner. These spaces offered me the opportunity to share and speak about my experiences as a South African and also to listen and reflect on the experiences of others.
Our community so desperately needs these types of spaces where we can listen to each other. And, reflect on what we hear.
It was on these two different journeys that I also learnt to be appreciative of South African Jewry and the enormous talent that exists in our communal structures. It was in these moments of clarity that I was very much a South African Jew, and a proud one at that.
What this year most powerfully underscored is that we should be using reflection as a tool as often as we can, to shift stubborn outdated paradigms and to safeguard the ones that have stood the test of time. Our community has shown its resilience but this challenge is far from over. 2021 will likely be as challenging as 2020. It will ask of us as a community to be more caring, thoughtful and understanding of one another – to ‘hear’ each other – as well as ‘hear’ our fellow South Africans. It is when we do this that we will have a community that can sustain itself for generations to come.
Stuart Diamond is the Executive Director of the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Formerly he was a City Council Member for the City of Cape Town where he served as the Mayoral Committee Member for Assets and Facilities.