exploring the concerns of the south african jewish community
Maya Schkolne suggests that despite the many positives of Jewish community schools in South Africa, their lack of diversity -- particularly racially and socio-economically -- can leave students ill-equipped to contribute meaningfully to broader South African society.
Schkolne suggests community schools leave students "ill-equipped to consciously converse" with students from different backgrounds (Photo courtesy of Facebook, UCT, Rhodes Must Fall).
The twelve years of my formal schooling was at Jewish community schools. First, I attended Herzlia Milnerton Primary, which has since closed, transferred to Herzlia Highlands Primary, continued to Herzlia Middle School, and, in 2006, I matriculated from Herzlia High School. As a student, I was challenged to grow academically within an excellence-driven environment. I enjoyed Art, Drama and History as well as the communal seders and school plays. Like many of my fellow students, I had some extracurriculars outside of school. And, yet, when I reflect back on the twelve years of formal education that I received, despite the many positives, there was a stark disconnect from what I was exposed to during my time at school and to the experiences and lived realities of the majority in South Africa.
"But there was a key component missing in our school’s resourceful environment: diversity".
My experience with Habonim Dror was seminal, as it offered peulot (activities) that opened my eyes to critical issues in a way that I had not previously been exposed, including issues related to HIV/Aids and xenophobia. Overall, I am grateful for my rich upbringing rooted in Jewish values, and thus appreciate my own parents – and others – wanting a Jewish education for their children. But there was a key component missing in our school’s resourceful environment: diversity. This is not to imply that we were uniform in our perspectives; there were differences in approaches to Judaism and political persuasion, and some of my closest friends at school were not Jewish (interestingly, they were the ones who repeatedly won the Jewish Studies prize!). However, there was relative homogeneity in racial, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds and minimal interaction with students of colour from other schools. This is not an insignificant consideration in South Africa; in fact, it has practical and ethical consequences, both at a personal and communal level.
According to the 2019 Jewish Community Survey of South Africa (JCSSA), when it comes to attachment to South Africa, “feelings of belonging are weakest among the youngest respondents aged under 25”. In a DafkaDotCom article looking at the tension South African Jewish “millennials” face in reconciling their South African identities with their Jewish identities, Michalya Schonwald Moss writes “The South African Jewish community has provided institutions that have enabled vibrant Jewish living … But, largely, it has been ineffective in confronting the complex challenges of reconciling our Jewish identities with our South African identities”. The JCCSA also indicates that 75% of current school-aged Jewish children in South Africa attend Jewish schools, compared to “35% of Jews in South Africa who attended a Jewish primary school, and 38% [who] attended a Jewish high school.” This, I would argue, places a particular onus on the role of our communal educational institutions, one which I feel that they are currently not meeting.
Upon entering the University of Cape Town as a Humanities Undergrad, I was – perhaps naively – thrilled to participate in socially-driven organisations and events, one of which was titled ‘Conscious Conversations.’ This was an informal gathering that took place about once a month, which allowed anyone in the space to bring up – and respond to – questions connected to the UCT community. It was immediately apparent how ill-equipped I was to consciously converse with students from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Although my family and experiences with Habonim and the other extracurriculars had crafted the groundwork, much of the time I would still trip over myself to avoid expressing anything potentially offensive, while side-stepping the word ‘race’ altogether. I was nervous to ask questions and was far from grasping my own positionality as a white and privileged Jewish female. Hence, I vividly recall key learning moments: the first time someone refrained from using the term ‘non-white,’ explaining how it prioritises whiteness. Peers talking in isiXhosa and my inability to participate, except to smile. And, when Chumani Maxwele flung faeces at the Cecil John Rhodes statue and how that moment, and the ones proceeding it, taught me about pain, strength, and power dynamics in South Africa. It was here that I grappled with the effects of not having had black friends growing up, one of which was that I could not truly comprehend the repercussions of apartheid on the psyche and day-to-day experience of people of colour in this country. Without fostering this type of consciousness at school, students must opt to either remain closed in an insular world, or to do their own learning and unlearning if they want to prepare themselves to contribute meaningfully to South African society.
"The nature of the[Jewish community]school environment still renders equal partnerships across racial and socio-economic differences challenging, if not impossible".
Following recent conversations with parents, students, and alumni from both United Herzlia Schools and King David Schools, it appears that despite incremental changes, much has remained the same since my matriculation. Credit where credit is due: crucial lessons on Steve Biko and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission continue. Certain interfaith programmes were established but due to Covid, these are now on hold. There are some teachers of colour across the schools and some individuals in leadership positions who are not Jewish. It also appears that King David offers Zulu, and Victory Park is slightly more mixed in terms of having students of different religions. These factors demonstrate improvement. However, they also seem to be random rather than what I would have wished for: the outcome of an official drive to diversify experiences. The nature of the school environment still renders equal partnerships across racial and socio-economic differences challenging, if not impossible. The primary external exchanges with students of colour still seem shaped via vertical arrangements through charity-related initiatives as opposed to opportunities for meaningful engagement on a peer-to-peer level. And there still seem to be few black people in positions of authority. At the same time, students gain access to a Jewish education – albeit this is entirely Orthodox and primarily ‘ashkenormative’; that is, predominantly focused on Ashkenazi traditions and histories. To inspire Aliyah, students are also presented with Israeli programmes and speakers, while there is minor emphasis on South African and African equivalents. Is it therefore surprising that so many of the youth in our community do not have a strong sense of belonging to South Africa? There are also very little – if any – opportunities to engage with Progressive or Reform streams of Judaism, or Mizrahi or Sephardi experiences.
I do not recall, and have not seen, public acknowledgment within the South African Jewish community of these inherent gaps. But acknowledgment offers us opportunity, and I see potential in the expansive aspirations that have been officially articulated. A headline letter from the General Director on the King David Schools website emphasizes that “We aim to produce graduates… who have a love for learning and a determination to contribute to their society” and the United Herzlia Schools website outlines ‘Menschlichkeit’ as a core pillar, defined as “…enabling individuals to compassionately understand themselves, positively relate to others, and to successfully navigate the world around them.” In this vein, why not be more deliberate about connecting with the outside world? As it stands, the experiences in these schools seemingly reiterate the perception to students that our white, Jewish experiences matter the most. This insularity stunts us in concrete ways and, in my view, can result in racist and classist attitudes, whether couched in a white liberal ‘colourblind’ expression or less subtle forms of racisms. This, I feel, is not aligned to the ethical goals as expressed by Jewish schools in South Africa, and is certainly contrary to the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam.
We could begin with taking a leaf out of the book of Theodore Herzl School. This school, situated in Gqeberha – formerly Port Elizabeth – retains its Jewish history and essence, but has become largely multi-cultural even though it previously only admitted Orthodox Jewish pupils. According to its website and those who are connected to the school, “Our pupils come from a wide range of social and ethnic backgrounds, resulting in a vibrant melting pot of cultures, which nurtures remarkable tolerance and mutual appreciation... Pupils of all faiths are welcome and the ancient festivals and life lessons so central to the Jewish faith are enjoyed and appreciated by everyone.” The changes in its school demographics were most likely initially pragmatically driven due to dwindling numbers in the Jewish community in Gqeberha. Jewish community schools facing similar challenges in the future could look to this model as proof that we do not have to settle for one or the other. Moreover, this is a living example of how deep-seated change is possible.
Diversity, however rich, is not a simple panacea nor is it straightforward to work with. I am currently Head of Year at a residential academy at the African Leadership Academy whose students, staff and faculty come from a range of African countries. The composition of the school thus represents much of the linguistic, national, regional, and socio-economic diversity within Africa. This allows students to collaborate across differences – informally, including in the living spaces – and formally in classes and clubs. We also learn about each other’s lives in immediate ways. When the military coup occurred in Guinea, we could both analyse its occurrence in class and discuss it with the Guinean student outside of it. When discussing what ‘Social Justice’ means in an African Studies class, a student from Tigray may reference the humanitarian crisis in her region, while the Nigerian student may point to police brutality in their home country. However, such an environment requires a purposeful strategy to ensure certain groups do not feel unequal or undervalued. Moreover, mere intraschool diversity does not mean that we are automatically engaged with those outside our walls. Hence, we still find ourselves tackling the self-reflective questions of how we can best leverage the diversity that does exist, and how we can connect with those around us.
As it stands, United Herzlia Schools and King David Schools appear to be broadly isolated from wider South African society. In their 2006 article “From Traditional to Liberal Racism: Living Racism in the Everyday” Margaret M. Zamudio and Francisco Rios implicate certain universities in maintaining white privilege. It seems evident that the community schools we hold dear could be implicated on the same basis. But it does not have to be this way: exposure to people from diverse backgrounds – whether from within the student body and the staff, or through external student engagements – can quite tangibly affect behaviour and fulfil our highest Jewish potential. More integration can also solidify the fundamental South African value of Ubuntu and speaks precisely to the Jewish values that led me to believe that diversity and connection with others is what matters.
According to the 2019 Jewish Community Survey of South Africa (JCSSA), when it comes to attachment to South Africa, “feelings of belonging are weakest among the youngest respondents aged under 25”.
Maya Schkolne is currently Head of Year Two at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg. She graduated with a MSc in the Politics of Conflict, Rights and Justice from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Prior to that, she studied at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies based in the Negev focusing on peace-building and trans-boundary environmental challenges.