A Shabbat to Remember, Part 1: Playing Jewish Geography in South Africa

by Tyler Benjamin

From mid-May to mid-June, good fortune and hard work granted me three weeks in South Africa on my school’s tab. I am a third year John V. Lombardi Scholar at the University of Florida and one of the perks of the four-year merit scholarship is travels and studies abroad each summer. This time around we were with Dr. Todd Leedy, associate director and lecturer in the Center for African studies at UF. We spent two weeks at the University of Pretoria studying history and political science and one week doing the tourist thing in Cape Town. I officially study journalism and art history, but I’ve dabbled in plenty of disciplines so this trip was more than interesting to me. Every day we supplemented class with some sort of hands-on learning experience. From urban renewal projects to former political prisons, our excursions ran the gamut of South African historical importance.

This article is a side-story, however, yet it’s one of the most important to me because these moments brought me back to my traditional summer and travel experiences – Jewish summer camp or adventures with Jewish groups. Not to mention, the simple chance encounter turned out so well!

On the very first afternoon we landed in Pretoria, Dr. Leedy took us for a group run. Rounding what I think was the second mile, something caught my eye. A blue hannukia and a blue Star of David hung outside of a small house-looking building right there in the middle of the neighborhood.

“I know some Jews here, and I miss it from home,” I thought. “I should probably try to get to services if I can.”

Then I closed in on the rest of the group and finished strong. Three miles is a lot more fun at 5000 feet.

Thefirst Friday we were bouncing our way to Pilanesberg National Parkbefore the sun even set, so I missed the boat on that one, and I totallyforgot about it all until the next Thursday night when, half asleep, Ithought about what I might do to make my last night in Pretoria special.We planned to leave for Cape Town the next morning. I dozed off hopingI’d remember to look up that building with the Star of David…

Inthe morning, I mentioned that I was pretty sure I saw a synagogue inthe neighborhood to Alison Ponn, another girl in the group who considersherself Jewish and went to a few North American Federation of TempleYouth (NFTY) events years ago. I asked her if she’d like to go toShabbat services with me, depending, of course, if the congregation was agood fit. She said sure so I started making some phone calls,figuratively. An international calling plan is pretty expensive. I usedthe ever-present Facebook instead.

I’ve had plenty of experiencewith Shabbat evening services, even in other parts of the world and withinternational Jews, and I figured some things were almost universal. Jewish geography,Shabbat prayer tropes and genuine hospitality are definitely amongthose things. Of course, sunset-ish (around 6 p.m.) prompts calls forthe Shabbos bride, so I assumed we’d have just enough time to get backfrom lion cub-petting at 5 p.m., grab some last minute information frommy contact and walk over to shul. Here’s the Jewish geography part.

Myfriend Gareth Hall, from Johannesburg, works for the South Africanbranch of Netzer Olami, an international progressive Jewish youthmovement. He’s one of the main coordinators and helps oversee all thebranches. After high school, he spent a year on Netzer’s gap program,Shnat Netzer, training to do this. He and I met two summers ago in themiddle of his Shnat year, at the URJ Kutz Camp, summer home of NFTY. Iwas beginning my one-year term as NFTY North American Programming VicePresident at the time. NFTY is the North American branch of Netzer. Seewhere this is going? Rather, where this came from? I’d been in touchwith him before I even left for South Africa and I can’t say enoughabout how helpful and engaged he was during my trip. Cheers, brew.

Inthe 10 minutes I had between getting back from class that Friday andgoing to play with baby big cats, I Googled “Jewish synagogue nearBrooklyn Guest Houses in Pretoria,” cross-referenced a bunch of webpages to make sure I had the right synagogue and then came acrossexcellent news: Bet Menorah was a member of WUPJ, the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

SoI knew comfort awaited, even if the congregation didn’t hold exactly tothe tenets of progressive Judaism.  I’ve never really been a part of aprogressive Jewish community I haven’t liked, from Hungary toCalifornia.

The pieces were coming together and I figured Garethhad to know something so I called him on Skype, told him I wasinterested in learning more about the congregation, and asked him toleave me a Facebook message to read when I got back from lion cubs. Hesaid he’d do me one better. He would call, get us a contact on theinside (most places are gated in South Africa) and let them know we werecoming. That is, of course, if the tiny congregation even planned tohold services that evening.

And I do mean tiny. The synagogue is an extension on a house.

Intotal, 14 people worshipped with us last night, all white except onewoman who looked Filipino and what I think were her two children. Laypeople led the service. There was no ordained rabbi but an absolutelyexcellent two-part male choir (if I can call it that) sang prayers likeyou wouldn’t believe. The acoustics of the tiny space were also magical.When four or five people sang, the added-on-temple sounded like a fullhouse.

When we arrived, future dinner guest but presentlyintimidating security guard Johan took us to see our contact on theinside. I felt like a secret agent, working connections and having mypeople call people, all for a worship experience! Johan took us toGiddy, essentially the youth advisor there, and we quickly met Ivan”Chips” Sive, who designed the synagogue as well as the Greek Orthodoxchurch we walked by every day on our way to class. Just before theservice began, the service leader welcomed me and Alison and announcedthat we were involved with NFTY (no doubt Gareth’s doing). Of course,NFTY is a teen youth movement, not for college kids. Fortunately, I tookthe chance to gently straighten the record when the lay leaders invitedme up to give a very impromptu explanation of NFTY and Netzer. I alsotook the time to thank the congregation for welcoming us, and I’d liketo thank again any member of that congregation who reads this.

Just after the service began, Chips leaned in and asked us, “Will you be able to come to Shabbat dinner at my home tonight?”

Thatwas so great! That culture of hospitality, the welcoming of thestranger in your midst. It wasn’t even a request, it’s as if he assumedwe assumed that we’d be welcomed so genuinely. Instead of asking if wecould go, it was almost like we had agreed to go sometime before, insome past life or something, in some part of the universal Jewish story,and he was simply checking in to make sure we were still on for dinner.

We said yes and tuned back into the service.

We prayed out of a Mishkan T’Filahfor the southern hemisphere which mirrored the prayer book that we usedin NFTY, only some seasonal differences changed the flavor. Regardlessof its hemispherical persuasion, it’s familiar format, text and even itsbinding brought me right back to the days when I scribbled notes in themargins of my own draft version. This was before it became the officialnew siddur of the URJ and eventually of the WUPJ.When I read thepassages about welcoming the stranger, about making the synagogue aplace for travelers to find hope and hospitality, my eyes watered a bit.I couldn’t help but think, this is exactly what Judaism is about. I’dnever felt more connected to a worship service. Never before did Iunderstand the beck and call of Shabbat and its suitors until I wascourted by her beauty through the auspices of a chance encounter. Andfor that, I am thankful.

Tyler Benjamin is originally from Tampa, FL and grew up in the NFTY Southern Tropical Region (STR). He is a former NFTY North American Programming Vice President (2009 – 2010).

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3 Responses to “A Shabbat to Remember, Part 1: Playing Jewish Geography in South Africa”

  1. avatar

    Brought tears to my eyes.
    Love you.

  2. avatar


  3. avatar

    tyler – your grandpa Bob and my late husband Jack were cousins; I keep in touch with your nanna Joan; I am so proud of you! epsie

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