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Sep 17

Speech delivered by Merle Williams, Beit Emanuel chair, on first night Rosh Hashanah

Beit Emanuel: Chair’s Address – Rosh Hashanah

In Jewish tradition we say the shehecheyanu whenever we want to mark an important new beginning and to thank God for sustaining us in the enrichment of our lives. Rosh Hashanah 5776 is just such an event. It is my pleasure to wish you all Shanah tovah u’metukah: a sweet and fulfilling year that will bring you both the right sort of challenges and personal fulfilment.

In marking the beginning of 5776, however, we build on the efforts and commitments that have gone before. Last year, we celebrated the Diamond Jubilee of Beit Emanuel. Under the creative leadership of Rabbi Sa’ar Shaked and the previous chair of the Management Committee, Diane Fine, our community grew and developed. In the past 12 months our formal services and more experimental engagements with prayer on a Shabbat morning have attracted increasing numbers of responsive participants. The singing of our choir is its own endorsement and requires no promotion by me. Our adult education programmes – JTalk, JFilm and the innovative Talmud study group – have flourished. Our annual Franz Auerbach Interfaith Memorial Lecture was a stunning success, attracting more than 300 people. We have extended our endeavours in the area of kehilah, focusing on the defining characteristics of Beit Emanuel as an egalitarian congregation that welcomes all Jews and a diversity of Jewish perspectives. Our Care Committee has coined a new term, the ‘TLCs’ or ‘those in need of tender, loving care’; home and hospital visits constitute a key aspect of our weekly activity. We have introduced some exciting educational innovations into the Religion School, as well as setting up interactive sessions for children who are still too young to enrol for structured classes. We have embarked on a fruitful series of dialogues with other faith communities, as well as reaching out more broadly to our fellow South Africans by helping the victims of violence and xenophobia or cleaning up the local environment.

Rabbi Sa’ar has been a driving force behind all these undertakings. His energy and enthusiasm, as well as his determination to overcome obstacles, have inspired those who work with him. To pray with Rabbi Sa’ar is to find kavanah and to explore new spiritual complexities. Beside Rabbi Sa’ar stands his wife Sharon, a warm friend to many of our members and an invaluable voice of calm good sense when problems arise. The Shaked family has brought a new vitality to Beit Emanuel; we will watch with interest as the four boys embark on the fascinating journey of becoming their very different selves.

At the core of Beit Emanuel’s functioning is the Management Committee. It has been a genuinely humbling experience to chair this body of talented and involved individuals, who command an impressive array of talents and skills. My particular thanks must go to my Executive team of Russell Cohen and Ian West, who have advised and supported me with insight and understanding. We are not quite Cerberus, the fabled three-headed dog of Classical mythology, but we have collaborated with remarkable harmony and unity of purpose. I am also deeply indebted to the other members of the Management Committee. Hester, Bianca and Lee are formidably efficient organisers and fund-raisers. Max and Jeff have taken care our community with empathy, humour and compassion. Jessica has shown imaginative foresight in moulding our educational offerings. Ruth has set up vital links with our Jews-by-Choice, while Liebe has proven an exemplary secretary in keeping immaculate records of our meetings. Last, but by no means least, is Kathryn, our able Netzer representative.

This is the time to thank our Board of Guardians, Irwin, Simon, Peter and Paul, for their guidance and their readiness to enter into constructive conversation with Mancom. Irwin has also been instrumental in developing a communications’ strategy for Beit Emanuel. In their turn, our Council of Elders have generously shared their wisdom and experience. With regard to the planning of our religious services and educational policy, the Jewish Identity Committee has drawn repeatedly on David Bilchitz’s profound knowledge of Judaism; we are grateful to him for widening our horizons and for encouraging us to strike a sensitive balance between tradition and change. Mark and Graeme’s security team has shown sustained dedication in keeping our campus safe. Diane Fine has opened a vista of new possibilities in her role as community development worker, while David Fienberg has alerted us to the financial potential of a large property that is situated on prime land in Oxford Road. Kathryn Peck’s passion for horticulture has formed our tranquil gardens. Leonard Singer and James Lomberg have kindly unravelled assorted legal mysteries, often at short notice or inconvenient times. Our intrepid fundraising cycle team is set to ride Beit Emanuel to glory soon after the High Holy Days. With genuine appreciation, I would like to acknowledge the ingenuity, commitment and friendliness of all our volunteers; as they say in the Deep South of the United States, ‘y’all done good’.

The wheels of Beit Emanuel are kept skilfully oiled by Ilana, our operations manager, who takes responsibility for the efficient running of our affairs from day to day. At times of joy and times of bereavement, Ilana touches the lives of our members, responding to their needs and making our administrative systems work for them. Christine, our accountant, has managed the finances with charm – and more practically, a sharp eye and a clear head. Whenever we find everything neatly set up for an activity or event, we owe our thanks to the behind-the-scenes efforts of Mandla and Richard (who has been employed by Beit Emanuel for more than forty years). Okie is a kosher chef of considerable accomplishment; those who attend the dinner this evening will have an opportunity to sample her cuisine. Edgar and Julia keep the gardens tidy and the premises clean. Beit Emanuel is truly fortunate to have staff of this quality; we wish them all a healthy and productive 5776.

More than a decade ago, an old lady asked Rabbi Michael Standfield during a rainy Sukkot why a plastic bucket had been placed on the bimah. ‘Madam,’ Rabbi Michael replied gently, ‘that’s an old Jewish practice when the roof leaks’. Reluctantly, I must report that our roof still needs attention. As treasurer, Ian has kept a close watch on our expenditure, stretching our funds to the very limit. We have not undertaken any major capital projects since the beginning of 2015, but the outside of the Beit Emanuel buildings is long overdue for repainting. Virgil, our key maintenance volunteer, regularly compiles lists of essential repairs and desirable renovations. At least some of these jobs will have to be completed soon. Our gifted youth workers Tal and Jody are making significant advances with the children, especially on Friday evenings, but they have ambitious ideas for future developments. We could run more camps, visits and learning activities. What about a children’s playground? And what about enhancing the scope of our events for the elderly or contributing in a more coordinated way to local initiatives for social justice and poverty relief? We have achieved so much, but our vision compels us to go even further. Please think about donating some of your time or sharing your particular expertise. And please give careful consideration to our High Holy Day Appeal. There is force to the familiar Talmudic adage: im ayn kemach, ayn Torah. In the absence of material resources, we fall short of realising the promise of Torah in the fullest sense of that word.

Thank you all for being here this evening, as we begin a new year with ethical awareness and a resonant sense of hope. At Beit Emanuel, we are eager for fresh challenges.

(Professor) Merle Williams