Speeches from Official Opening

Speeches from Official Opening

Speech by Rabbi Hillel Cohn

Beit Luria Torah Dedication
September 8, 2019
Rabbi Hillel Cohn

It is truly a thrill to be with you today and to witness the formal establishment of Beit Luria, a synagogue and community that I know will bring rich blessings to Jews of this great city and country as well as immense pride to the Jewish People throughout the world.

To have been able to bring a Sefer Torah from Southern California here to Johannesburg is rather extraordinary. The well-known phrase from our liturgy that we sing when we prepare to read and study Torah in our synagogues – כי מציוך תצא תיורה ודבר הי מירושלים – can well be amended for this day as -כי מקליפורניח תצא תורה ודבר חי מסאך ברנרדינו. One of the things that makes my very short trip here so exciting and fulfilling is the opportunity to personally meet and to get to know your extraordinary rabbi, Julia Margolis. She and I have connected over the last few months on Facebook but meeting her as I did Friday and spending time with her leading up to today’s service has been a most blessed experience for me. I need not tell you that she is bright, energetic, passionate, funny, committed and much more – a true rabbi in Israel. How blessed each and every one of you here are and how blessed is the Jewish community of all of South Africa is to have her as one of your teachers and leaders.

As much as I would like to bring you a very moving account of the origin of this Torah scroll and how it made its way from the workshop of a Sofer to this place I cannot do that. Scribes do not necessarily leave accounts of where and when they were engaged in the sacred work of writing a Torah scroll. All we have is the scroll itself, written with a steady hand and with extreme care so that it is entirely Kosher. What I can share with you is that a number of months ago I received a call from two women whom I have known for many, many years who, in addition to their regular employment, one as the general manager of a large roofing company and the other a teacher in the public schools, visit estate sales and acquire interesting objects that they then display and sell from their booth at a facility in Redlands, California. They told me that they were in the mountain community of Lake Arrowhead, a magnificent place just about a 45 minute drive from San Bernardino, at an Estate Sale. The items for sale belonged to someone, apparently a retired physician, an apparently devout Christian, whose interest in world religions led him to collect ritual objects of various religions. One of those objects was this Torah. When and where he acquired it is unknown. At first I was sure that the two women were simply looking at a printed Torah but they were able to bring it down the hill where I looked at it and determined that it is, indeed, a truly Kosher Torah scroll. They were able to acquire it and I had intended to help them find a congregation that would purchase it from them. As it turned out, after hearing from a number of colleagues around the country I heard from your rabbi -2- and I soon determined that it would be a true Mitzvah to aid her in establishing this congregation by making the Torah scroll available to her. With the help of some dear friends I was able to acquire the scroll and able to let Rabbi Margolis know that it would come to you as a gift.

So I am here to present it to you with full confidence that it will not only be a sacred object but that it will be the foundation – symbolic AND functional – for the study and application of its teachings just as Torah scrolls and Torah itself have been for our people for so many centuries. Indeed, having come across the world to be with you expresses something that we all know: We are bound together as a people.

What is it, though, that binds us together? What is it that we share together as Jews? What is it that we, though coming from different places, find binds us together?

We hear so much talk today of what divides us. We Jews have a long history of divisions. In the post-biblical era there were the Pharisees and Sadducees and Essenes and Zealots. Later there were the Rabbinites and the Karaites. Later still there were the Hasidim and Mitnagdim and today we are divided, religiously, among traditionalists and modernists, among Orthodox and Conservative and Reform and the other newer forms of Jewish religious life. It is sad that the divisions have become more pronounced. And with it has come more stridency, more arrogance, more incivility. In short – more straying FROM Torah than embracing Torah..

Yet for all of our differences there is an overarching commonality. There are values we share, concepts that are integral to the outlook of Judaism. What are the ties that binds us together? What are the things that Jews share in common? And as we think of those things that we share in common let us understand that some of those things we share with our brothers and sisters who are not Jewish, particularly with those who are Christian or Muslim. On some things we differ sharply from them but that difference ought never deter them or us from respect, one for the other.

Those things that bind us together can well be encapsulated in one word – Torah. But we need to understand though it is the scroll of Torah that you welcome into your community today and while the Torah scroll is treated with the utmost of reverence, it is ultimately the values that are found IN the Torah or that emanate FROM the Torah that bind us together. We need to understand Torah as far more than a scroll on which with the greatest of care words have been penned. It is, as one fine Jewish thinker put it, “the record of the spiritual journey of the Jewish People, the lessons of life we have learned on that journey.” It is the first five books of Tanach but it is more than that. It is the written Torah and the -3- accompanying Oral Torah. It is “teaching, law, tradition. It is the fruit of reason and the outpouring of the spirit in ever age. It is interpretation of text and innovation of thought…” “Torah is the ideas and ideals, the laws and commandments, that make up our religious heritage. It is the experience of Abraham and Sarah, the legislation of Moses, the wisdom of Solomon, the vision of the Prophets, the commentary of the Rabbis, the insight of the Mystics. It is the questions we ask, and the answers we receive, when we try to understand what God requires of us. It IS the way to self-fulfillment and the design for a perfect world.”

And from Torah we can extract so many significant values but let me just note a few of them that especially bind us together. A number of years ago a colleague, whose name I can’t recall, listed those key values and I have always found that listing to be useful and it has prompted me to reflect on that list.

First is, קדושת החייםלחיים, the sanctity or holiness of life. While some Jews regard the Creation account found in the opening chapters of the Torah to be literally true, others of us see that account as being the best answer our ancestors could come up with to the perennial question of how did the world come into being but not necessarily the final answer. And so we have inherited much knowledge that provides us with a better understanding of creation though we, too, do not have a final, conclusive answer. Nonetheless, what that creation account tells us is that we are a people that shares together a commitment to the sanctity of all creation. Human life is, therefore, inviolable. The very planet on which we live, with all of its environmental threats, is sacred. When we affirm the sanctity of life we are affirming that we regard all of life as holy and therefore must treat our own lives as well as the lives of others as sacred or holy. We negate the sanctity of life when we abuse substances and when we engage in violence or bigotry. We are, as you know, the people that celebrates great moments in life with the toast לחיים, to life. What binds US together is a reverence for life and that reverence can and should also lead US to be able to let go of life when that time comes.

From the Torah comes yet another tie that binds Jews together. The Torah tells us of the days of Noah when the world was deserving of destruction because of the prevalence of unrighteousness and the absence of justice. The vision of the patriarchs was of a more just, peaceful world. While it was in the days of Moses that the specifics of the more just society were spelled out and in the days of the prophets that God’s mandate that humans “do justly” was proclaimed, the birth of that vision is in Genesis where Abram demands justice of God for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and it is one which all Jews share to this day. To be a Jew, whether where I live in California or here in Johannesburg, whether in Buenos Aires or Beersheba, Kiev or Katmandu is to believe firmly in the possibility of the world becoming just and righteous and peaceful. Though Jews around the world may be very different we all pray שים שלום, let there be peace and we all conclude -4- the Kaddish with a prayer that the source of peace in the high places may cause peace to prevail upon us and our People, and by extension, of course, on the whole world. A tie that binds us together is an emphasis on social justice, righteousness and peace.

We Jews share in common a commitment to action. One of my favorite passages from the rabbinic literature is the teaching that it is not the belief but the action that is of essence, not the creed but the deed. We are bound together by a Torah and a tradition which is committed to the principle that without action all of our beliefs are of naught. Salvation does not come through faith. Salvation comes from the fulfillment of the commandments in daily life. Salvation, does not come in the next world. For us it comes in THIS world. For us the rituals may be subject to more interpretation and flexibility than they would be to Jews who wear long black coats and peyes or sheitels but we agree on the imperative of action, of doing. The Mishna, the extended Torah, teaches לא המדרש העקר – אלא המעשהl, It is
not the belief that is of the essence. It is the deed.

Then there is the value of Mentschlichkeit, a word that comes out of
Yiddish. That is to say, the most prized virtues are NOT physical prowess or
material success, but human decency, kindness, compassion, understanding, gentleness and humor. Aspiring to be a mentsch is the essence of the Jewish commitment. And just what is a mentsch? A mentsch “brings a sense of responsibility to every undertaking and treats everyone fairly and justly… being sensitive to other people’s needs and seeking out ways to help them.” It is acquired by living close to family and extending one’s sense of obligation beyond the family. It is our way of becoming God-like.

Added to these values that bind US together is the commitment to the
centrality of reason and learning. The world of Talmud is, by definition, a world of learning and discussion and occasional disputes. A Jew is open to arguing with God, to wrestling with God. We have respect for the scholar, admiration for the student and an appreciation of learning.

And last, a distinctive Jewish value that binds us together is our assigning
supremacy to family and communal life. From the earliest of times warmth, closeness, mutual understanding in the family have been exalted virtues. The home is always more important than the sanctuary, the table in the home is the finest altar, the, מקדש מעט, the miniature sanctuary. And the community of which we are a part, the People of which we are a part, is part of who we are as human beings.

These, then, are values that unites us, the things that bind us together, the
values which are essential to the Jew. Commitment to those values is at the core of our oneness. These values are the living Torah.

We ARE a People of Torah. The lessons that were first articulated by our
ancestors and the ways in which those lessons have evolved as we have lived in the world bind us together. Let these ties continue to bind us one to the other wherever we go.

Speech by Steve Lurie

Rabbi’s, Deputy ambassador of Israel ms Ayellet Black, Monica Soloman Chair of the SAUPJ, Religious leaders, the chair and committee of Beit Luria, honored guests family and friends.

About 35 years ago I became actively involved in committees of the Progressive movement. At the time I was a member of Temple Emet in Springs, unfortunately both the shuls in Bloemfontein and Springs closed. I subsequently rejoined Beit Emanuel.

One day I received a phone call from Leonard Singer, the chair of Beit Emanuel, inviting me for a coffee and a chat. Leonard asked me to join his committee on which I served for many years. At his instigation, I was then elected as chairman of the SAUPJ, as Chair of the SAUPJ, I automatically had a seat on the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Why is this of any interest today. In the January 2010, I once again received a phone call from Leonard informing me that a young fiery Russian Israeli woman, named Julia, started working at Beit Emanuel. Leonard said we need to look out for Julia as she has great potential. Julia had started her rabbinic training in Israel, but had not completed it before immigrating to SA. We did not realize what we were in for.

This was to be a start of a wonderful friendship. Because of the contacts and relationships formed as part of the WUPJ, and the contacts Cape Town had formed with the Abraham Geiger Institute, we were able arrange for them to accept Julia to complete her rabbinic training.

Rabbi Robert Jacobs, Leonard and myself mentored Juila through this process. This was not always easy as it required a lot of travel, leaving her husband and small children at home. I am sure it you are all aware her mother was the Rabbi in Saint Petersburg at the time and was always there for counseling and advice.

Five years ago, Rabbi Jacobs and myself along with her parents were honored to be present at her ordination at the White Stork Synagogue in Wroclaw Poland. The first such ceremony to be held here since the Shoa.

During these years around the dinner table, we often used to joke with Rabbi Julia about opening her own shul and naming it Beit Luria, we never actually thought that this would happen, but here we are today. Rahle and I have regarded Rabbi Julia as our adopted daughter and she has been responsible for many of the grey hairs that I have.

We know that Rabbi Julia is a very brave individual and does not back down in the face of adversity. When she took on the fight for women rights over the issue of Kol Hasha at Yom Hashoa, she faced significant criticism from the broader Jewish community as well as from members of our own community. She fought on to achieve an unbelievable result for women rights which continues today.

Rabbi Julia is currently the chair of SACRED, the SA centre for Religious equality and diversity, this organization was started a number if years ago when we were reading the same Torah portion as this week. Justice justice shall you pursue, this is particularly appropriate as this is an ideal she believes in strongly, particularly when it comes to religious equality and women rights.

It takes a brave person to open up a shul in South Africa during these troubled times. Many people are emigrating, and the Jewish community is dwindling. There has been a flight of capitol overseas which has resulted in reduced donations to the community in general.

So to open up a shul today in these difficult times requires a radical shift from the conventional way. What can only be referred to as a ”Pop up Shul” is the way forward, no expensive property, no maintenance to worry about. It can be moved any where at anytime and provides all the same services. As the congregation grows bigger a more suitable premises can be found. Beit Luria is the first Progressive Shul to be opened in SA in the last 20 years.

It is a great honor for Rahle and I to be here today, we can trace the Lurie family tree back to the Ari and are extremely proud that the committee saw fit to name this shul after him.

We would like to wish Rabbi Julia, the committee and congregants of Beit Luria, all the best in creating this new shul, I know it has not been an easy task, but all good things are worth fighting for. May you go from strength to strength, and if today is any indication you will soon be flying high.

Hearty Mazeltov and may everyone have a sweet and successful New Year and we’ll over the Fast

Rabbi Hillel, thank you so much for being such a very special person. Rabbi not only sourced a Torah, arranged for various people in California to donate toward it, but then on his 81st birthday boarded an airplane in LA flew to London and caught a connecting flight to Johannesburg. He is only here for the weekend and flies back tonight, this is an exhausting exercise for someone half his age.

Speech by ADV. REVEREND Dianne Willman

Rabbi Julia, it is indeed a pleasure and an honour to share in today’s special occasion and extend a blessing.

This event is significant in many ways. I’d like to share a few thoughts on this as they underscore the blessing I wish to share with you all this morning.

First, this is another key moment in our mutual journeys of transformation, of living the change we hope to see in our respective religions of Judaism and Catholicism,  such as greater recognition of the gifts of women, affirmation that women too image God and share the divine likeness, and finally that women can shepherd God’s people.

Second, the creation and opening of a shul is a sign of God’s presence and action in you and those whom you serve. It invites deeper reflection.

On reflecting on the meaning of a shul in today’s world and what blessing speaks to this, the following emerged for me.

A shul is a special place, a spiritual home.

In today’s world, we find ourselves in many senses homeless. There are events and happenings in our lives and in our world  that we don’t understand, where God feels absent or silent in the midst of great suffering. Many have no where to turn for help to understand or hold what makes no sense.
There are also things that drain our energy and vitality, sapping our spirits as we become overwhelmed by things beyond our control.
There are places that put some outside of the home and who are left homeless because of their race, gender, sexual orientation and status of all kinds.

We need places of safety, love and connectedness,
Places of hope and nourishment,
Places of meaning,
Places that remind us of the mystery and power of God as creator of the universe.
And we need places to experience being called into growing intimacy with the Divine.

In short, we need spiritual homes.

May this shul, community, be truly home for many.

May it be a welcoming place where God can walk freely and, when our Creator asks “where are you” as happened in Genesis from the beginning, may we come forward from our hiding places into the holy light of the Divine Presence and be at home with God.

May this shul under your spiritual leadership flourish and continue to echo the message of truth for all of us: that truly God is One.

Baruch atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha’olam.
May God bless you and this community abundantly,
May God shine upon you,
May God be in this place and in your hearts,
May God release the hidden streams of life as you and your community open yourselves to the Spirit who always hovers over the earth.