Paul Davis address: Yom Kippur 5779


Firstly, I want to assure you or reassure you that Beit Emanuel is safe. More than safe, it’s blessed with an excellent, talented and versatile leadership who pull together to make Beit Emanuel a comfortable place for diverse worship, a home and a spiritual sanctuary, a communal focus for a really caring community.

Our involved learned and sympathetic Rabbi and his kind and industrious wife commit themselves unstintingly to support this congregation in all its diversity. They have come a long way since arriving some 5 years ago.

Spiritual needs of people are often difficult to interpret and satisfy. I compliment Rabbi Saar for responding to the challenge and being able to offer so much to so many. Rabbi is particularly empathetic and supportive to the bereaved, the spiritually troubled, and for giving new and exciting meaning to our prayers and services which are still in a form of evolution.

Our Operations, Mancom and BOG are hardworking, diligent and responsive and manage the affairs of BE well often under extremely tight constraints. They are made up of talented and committed people. An actuary, an accountant, academics, and scholars, a property developer, journalists, Jewish historians, activists and conservatives, musicologists, media execs, teachers and lawyers and active members of commerce.

Voluntarism is key to our survival. We only employ 7 people to run this organization. All the rest (and I mean all the rest) is done by and with volunteers. You will find all the office bearers listed every week in our bulletin. They are responsible (with the help of our Operations) for all that goes on here and in the community. They could all do with some more help.

Lastly let me state unequivocally that our finances are extremely well and responsibly managed despite things often being tight. It costs about R3.6 million to run Beit Emanuel. 30% comes from membership fees and 40% from rentals. We have tried to reduce our dependency on membership fees. There has been a drop in our donation income. Our reserves dropped by R600,000 due to the cost of essential repairs to keep this historic place upright and waterproof, the replacement of the Shul vehicle and the purchase of Mishkan HaNefesh. Membership numbers are stable with some churn at about 350 families. We have put together and presented a well received 10 to 20 year plus sustainability plan which looks at all aspects of Beit Emanuel’s future existence and what we will do to ensure it.

There is still much to be done particularly to the physical aspects of our second largest asset, our shul and its campus. We will invite the whole congregation to another presentation as soon as is possible and appropriate to ask your comments and criticisms and hopefully enlist your continued support.


Listening to various remembrances, some at JTalks. Of grandparents’ lives in pre-Nazi Germany, or in “Litvakia” underlines that we are far older than the 65 years the progressive movement has existed in Johannesburg.

We are and have added a new geographical centre to a line of long existent Jewish convictions, progressive South African Jewish “diasporians”.

Here, seeded by mainly European Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish thought and practices we are beginning to consider new influences as we grow and are exposed to, and interact with, cultures and lives afore to unreachable to us, or us to them.

South Africa’s democracy, troubled as it now is, is a democracy.

This democracy embedded in a robust constitution may open the way to magnify Jewish significance and contribution to Africa.

It has given Tikkun Olam in Africa a dramatic new perspective and boost.

We Jews have a long history of fighting to survive, too often amidst periods of brutal persecution and repression: and so too have the people of Africa.

We have also a longer history of contribution and participation to society across the full spectrum of social endeavours.

We can be proud of our liberal influences, our corporate contributions our legal, medical and educational offerings and perhaps most importantly our philanthropy and charity.

But, before we run away with ourselves, particularly at this time of the year, know that we are hardly perfect and often found wanting. Jews have participated in international Ponzis and massive other corporate frauds, complicit in lies and caught cheating.

Sometimes we aren’t quite the beacon or the ‘light unto the nations’ we purport to be. (At this moment more like the stuttering flame of a match on a windy night).

Vital and crucial to try and live up to this concept is the purpose of tonight, the annual Yom Kippur process and its critical demand for the close examination of our own motives and actions.

In South Africa now, there is the potential for our offerings to begin to be of a different character: As more equal social partners.

What a wonderful future might lie before us if we can catch this wave.

It is depressing to hear of Jewish emigration from South Africa.

Our President has re assured us and our new members affirm it.

Our place in South Africa is viable, important and desired. One to which we can apply our theology, spirituality, teaching and learning and our much-vaunted innovation and creativity.

And for ourselves we have a chance to compose new songs, new prayers, new humour, challenge old ethics and be moved by new revelations. A mind-boggling exciting prospect for sure. At least to me.

Our liturgy today offers a choice ‘between life and death’ and suggests choosing life

And so, in a much smaller and less consequential way it is the choice in front of Beit Emanuel. Do we cling with whitening knuckles to the slippery cliff of trying to remain unchanged or do we seek a new proposition for all of us?

One that is also big enough to excite many others to rise up and together join this new and compelling challenge.

‘To grasp the chance to carve a special and enduring place and relevance for us in Africa.’

Will this move be enough to ignite a new energy to rival and exceed the energy that Rabbi Weiler, Rabbi Lampert, Rabbi Sherman, and Bernard Hyde managed to fan 65 years ago? An energy sufficient to establish and sustain a liberal Jewish community that built Temple Israel and Beit Emanuel and led to many others.

Liberals are often described as potent agents for change but poor organizers of the change. Perhaps the more conservative amongst us might gather to help to prove our detractors wrong!

Once you’ve accepted that we’re here and staying, it’s easier to ask: do we grow, or do we shrink?

Do we accept the task and renew our commitment to the challenges we face as a society?

Or do we recede behind the electric fence and continue to google emigration destinations until things get so bad, circumstance finally dumps us in that economy class seat to somewhere else?

So, let us fix our shul in all senses of the word. Gather our energy, strengths and resources and get on with our quest to make our Beit Emanuel an important keystone in the building of our beloved Africa.

L’Shana Tovah

May it be a year of peace, growth and sweet fulfilment.

Paul Davis


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