Things I’ve Learned…while teaching everyone else

It’s a small world

“Some things are identical all over. The problems of Jewish ignorance and assimilation are universal. So are the challenges of raising children in an open society.”


 Conversations Across Continents

By: Rabbi Yossy Goldman


Since becoming Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul, my wife Rochel and I have done a lot of travelling. Over the past 15 months, we have been guest speakers and lecturers in many cities across the USA, Central America, and Israel. And it is absolutely fascinating to see how as we traverse continents, countries, and cities, each with its own character and qualities, life isn’t that different no matter where we may have found ourselves.

There is a famous Talmudic expression in the Talmud (Kiddushin 27b) stating that sadna d’aroh chad hu –the mass of the earth is one”. It is a halachic principle so that if someone acquires one plot of land, he may legally acquire other plots along with it. While this is a legal term, traditionally, in a play on words, it has also been understood to mean that the lay of the land is the same all over. In other words, every place is the same, wherever you go. And in many ways, this is so true.

Isn’t every country and community different, even unique? Of course. But, regardless of geographical location, some things are the same all over. Sure, every place has its own set of distinctive features, circumstances, and issues. Still, in many areas of life we all face the identical challenges wherever we may live. While every community has its own unique taste and flavour, somehow the conversations around the breakfast or dinner tables aren’t that different.

Politics vary from one country to another, but the basic issues of life, like the economy and education are not that different. Some things are identical all over. The problems of Jewish ignorance and assimilation are universal. So are the challenges of raising children in an open society which increasingly questions traditional mores and morals.

So, yes, the shuls in Panama do look rather different from the ones in Chicago, but the rabbis and rebbetzins are doing the very same work and confronting the exact same texts, tests, and difficulties. Whether it is the shuls, schools, organisations, or Kosher establishments, the issues are almost indistinguishable.

We have visited New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Cancun Mexico, Jerusalem, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Ra’anana, Boca Raton, Bal Harbour, Aventura, and Panama. We covered 18 cities in 15 months!

And what did I learn?

We live in a global village. It’s a very small world, or as they say in Yiddish, ah klein velt.

New York is the biggest Jewish city in the world population-wise. It boasts some of the strongest enclaves of religious Jewry. And yet, antisemitism in some of the city’s biggest universities is among the worst in the world! Go figure.

Jerusalem is definitely my favourite place to visit. You can visit the Kotel, the Western Wall, at any time of day or night and be inspired. And don’t forget to check out Ben Yehuda at night. I love the open-air concerts, whether organised or spontaneous.

In Ramat Beit Shemesh I experienced something for the very first time in my life. For 25 hours I never saw a car move. It was Shabbos! Now, I grew up in a religious neighbourhood in Brooklyn, and I’ve been to Jerusalem for many a Shabbos, but not one car moving in a whole community for the entire Shabbos? Wow! And our Shabbaton at the Shivtei Shul in Ra’anana was one huge nostalgia trip, with non-stop hugs from old friends, acquaintances, and congregants throughout the night and day.

During the holiday seasons, Miami Beach is inundated with tourists from New York and elsewhere, especially from religious communities. Every second shop is a kosher eatery of one style or another. And they were all busy! It’s not easy on the locals. In fact, many of them escape elsewhere themselves during those peak seasons.

Cancun is a holiday centre. The hotel zone is six miles long, with over a hundred hotels, back-to-back! Not many Jews live there, but there is a small permanent community and we were hosted by a very nice Chabad couple who have a beautiful Shul and Centre there. It is essentially a tourist destination. We were Scholars-in-Residence at a huge Pesach programme, and I fell in love with the Caribbean. No big waves, warm and tranquil, just my speed. Come Pesach and there are quite a few strictly kosher hotels in Cancun, Mexico, of all places.

I remember my late father telling me of one of his visits to Israel when he accompanied a friend of his, a rabbi in a small town in Massachusetts, for an audience with the then President of Israel, Zalman Shazar, who served as Israel’s third Head of State from 1963-1973. His friend, Rabbi Hershel Fogelman of Worcester, was going on a bit in praise of their Jewish community when Shazar asked him, “Rabbi, how many kosher restaurants are there in Worcester?” End of discussion.

Indeed, the number of kosher establishments in a city is an excellent indicator and barometer of a Jewish community’s degree of observance of tradition. When I visited a large city in California some years ago where many South Africans live and there are as many as 100 000 Jews, an old friend who wanted to meet me couldn’t even find anywhere to take me to lunch. I had to settle for a black coffee at Starbucks!

Conversely, if you thought we in South Africa were the Super-Jews of the world, think again. Panama gives us a big run for our money!

We were just in Panama for the first time and were amazed to see a community of some 15 000 Jews with no less than 30 kosher eateries, including some very upmarket ones which even we can’t match. We shopped at a Super Kosher supermarket almost the size of our Hypermarket! No wonder when my wife offered the local rebbetzin to bring her whatever she might be needing, she laughed and assured her that they have everything in Panama. And the shuls are magnificent edifices. The biggest chandelier I ever saw in my life is in a Sephardic shul in Panama!

So, yes, every community has unique characteristics, and yet the very same issues face all of us, wherever we may be.

I learned that people are people, wherever they may live. And the Talmud was spot on. The lay of the land is so very similar, anywhere you go.

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