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How a move to South Africa turned an American teen’s Jewish life upside down

This article was produced as part of JTA’s Teen Journalism Fellowship, a program that works with Jewish teens around the world to report on issues that affect their lives.

(JTA) — The table is set. The candles are lit. The round challah is sliced and my family and I dip our apples in honey, exclaiming “Shanah Tovah.”

From the outside it may look like any other Rosh Hashanah but it definitely feels different to me. 

The apples aren’t fresh from the orchard like they have been for the past 15 years. In fact it isn’t apple season at all. It’s early spring here in South Africa. The bare trees echo a sense of emptiness in me as I think back to the plentiful Rosh Hashanah suppers I always associated with the harvest season until I moved to the southern hemisphere in 2022. 

I was born in Manhattan and raised by South African parents in Stamford, Connecticut until age 15, when we moved to Cape Town, South Africa. That was two Julys ago, right after I completed my first year of high school in Norwalk, Connecticut. Basically my whole world turned upside down, including my experience of being Jewish.

In my multi-faith family (Christian dad, Jewish mom), our traditions and celebrations define my Jewishness. Observing the major Jewish holidays has always brought my family together, even through the toughest of times. However, holding on to the way we did them before is near impossible since our move, mainly because of the change in seasons between hemispheres.

I never realized how much of an impact the four seasons had on the other areas of life, especially the holidays. It completely threw our usual traditions off balance, making my Jewishness difficult to navigate. 

The author and her dad on vacation in Hermanus, South Africa shortly after her family moved to the country from Connecticut. (Nicola Nieburg)

Growing up in Connecticut, it just made sense having wintry, candlelit Hanukkahs. In Cape Town, why sit around candles when you could be at the beach? Getting used to the flipped seasons felt so unnatural to my family and me and was probably one of the most unexpected differences we encountered (think Chrismukkah in July). 

Many people don’t think about the fact that the Torah seems to have been written from a Northern Hemisphere — never mind Middle Eastern — perspective. For example, the Jews fled from Pharaoh in the spring and many Passover traditions are centered around rebirth and springtime, with symbols like parsley and eggs. In South Africa, we do our seder in the fall. It just feels weird.

Fall is the season of harvest and rejuvenation, which seems to fit with the ideals of Rosh Hashanah better than Passover, the celebration of freedom and new life. In the U.S., my family would pick apples every Jewish New Year. Over here, forget apples — the summer fruits are starting to ripen and I feel like a fish trying to ride a bicycle! It’s hard to celebrate when my heart pangs for what’s familiar. As long as I can remember, our own unique Jewish customs have been embedded into my life and now, suddenly without them, I find myself questioning what exactly we are celebrating. The holidays don’t seem as significant because they just don’t resonate as much with me anymore. 

My family has also struggled to find the same sense of Jewish community we felt in the U.S. Cape Town’s Jewish community is tiny compared to the one in Stamford, and the vast majority of Capetownians aren’t familiar with Judaism as I’ve experienced it. According to the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, the Jewish community accounts for a mere 0.12% of the South African population. 

I also sense less pluralism when it comes to one’s expression of Judaism than what I was accustomed to living in the liberal Northeast. Most people are either reform or “orthodox.” (There is no Conservative here. Orthodox runs the gamut from Conservative to frum.)

Our family has always kind of done our own thing since my dad is Christian but we still love celebrating our roots. And while we felt embraced and accepted marching to the beat of our own Jewish drum in America, I feel a little more unusual and isolated in how we do things here. It is not because Cape Town isn’t accepting of interfaith families, it’s just that it took us years to build up our “chosen people” in Connecticut, and we just haven’t got to that point here yet. 

When we lived in the U.S. we had no family near us so we celebrated all the Jewish traditions with a colorful collection of friends who also didn’t have local family. Over here we have loads of Jewish family members, but apart from my maternal grandmother, many of them don’t even celebrate and the other half is not Jewish. So when we want to mark a holiday or a tradition, the onus falls on us to make it happen. So far we’ve hosted a Rosh Hashanah barbeque, a Rosh Hashanah potjie (traditional South African stew cooked over an open fire), a Yom Kippur potluck, Hanukkah/Christmas pool party and a seder. It’s also been hard to meet and make other Jewish friends here because there are sadly barely any Jewish families at secular schools, which has been my main way of meeting people. 

Additionally, South Africa’s Jewish population is shrinking. Most Jews are focused on emigrating. According to a 2019 report done by the IJPR, 41% of Jewish adults over the age of 18 have plans to move abroad. We totally went against the grain by moving here.

However, on the upside, when you do find someone Jewish in Cape Town, chances are, because Jews are few and far between, your grandmothers were best friends or you’re actually related! In other words, you have an instant bond. 

And while it’s been difficult rearranging my entire Jewish identity to a new climate, culture and different group of chosen people, the move has also allowed me to redefine my Jewish experience and create new, meaningful traditions. Now that I think about it, maybe I am looking forward to our next Hanukkah pool party. Because enjoying latkes from the comfort of a donut pool floatie takes the concept of celebrating with fried food to a whole new delicious level.

The post How a move to South Africa turned an American teen’s Jewish life upside down appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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South Dakota Passes Bill Adopting IHRA Definition of Antisemitism

Gov. Kristi Noem (R) speaking to legislators during the State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024 at South Dakota State Captiol in Pierre. Photo: Samantha Laurey and Argus Leader via REUTERS CONNECT

South Dakota’s state Senate passed on Thursday a bill requiring law enforcement agencies to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism when investigating anti-Jewish hate crimes.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem (R) already adopted the definition, which has been embraced by lawmakers across the political spectrum, via executive order in 2021. This latest measure, HB 1076, aims to further integrate the IHRA’s guidance into law and includes the organization’s examples of antisemitism. It now awaits a vote by the state House of Representatives.

“As antisemitism continues to rise across America, having a clear and standardized definition enables a more unified stance against this hatred,” the Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM), said in a statement. “We appreciate Governor Kristi Noem for making this legislation a policy goal of hers, strengthening the use of the IHRA Working Definition in South Dakota through legislation, following the December 2021 adoption via executive proclamation.”

CAM called on lawmakers in the lower house to follow the Senate’s lead and implored “other states to join the fight against antisemitism by adopting the IHRA definition, ensuring the safety and well-being of their Jewish residents.”

First adopted in 2005 by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism states that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” and includes a list of illustrative examples ranging from Holocaust denial to the rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The definition is used by hundreds of governing institutions, including the US State Department, European Union, and the United Nations.

Widely regard as the world’s leading definition of antisemitism, it was adopted by 97 governmental and nonprofit organizations in 2023, according to a report Combat Antisemitism Movement (CAM) Antisemitism Research Center issued in January.

Earlier this month, Georgia became the latest US state to pass legislation applying IHRA’s guidance to state law. 33 US States have as well, including Virginia, Texas, New York, and Florida.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Columbia University Sued for Allowing Antisemitic Violence and Discrimination

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Columbia University allowed for antisemitism to explode on campus endangering the welfare of Jewish students and faculty, StandWithUs Center for Legal Justice and Students Against Antisemitism (SAA) alleges in a lawsuit announced on Wednesday.

Filed in the US District Court of Southern New York, the complaint recounts dozens of reported antisemitic incidents that occurred after Oct. 7 which the university allegedly failed to respond to adequately because of anti-Jewish, as well as anti-Zionist, bias.

“Columbia refuses to enforce its policies or protect Jewish and Israeli members of the campus community,” Yael Lerman, director of SWU Center for Legal Justice said on Wednesday in a press release. “Columbia has created a pervasively hostile campus environment in which antisemitic activists act with impunity, knowing that there will be no real repercussions for their violations of campus policies.”

“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” Columbia University spokesperson and vice president for communications told The Algemeiner on Friday.

The plaintiffs in the case accuse Columbia University of violating their contract, to which it is bound upon receiving payment for their tuition, and contravening Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. They are seeking damages as well as injunctive relief.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews, “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” students chanted on campus grounds after the tragedy, violating the school’s code of conduct and never facing consequences, the complaint says. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”

300 faculty signed a letter proclaiming “unwavering solidarity” with Massad, and in the following days, Students for Justice in Palestine defended Hamas’ actions as “rooted in international law.” In response, Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, opting not to address their rhetoric directly, issued a statement mentioning “violence that is affecting so many people” but not, the complaint noted, explicitly condemning Hamas, terrorism, and antisemitism. Nine days later, Shafik rejected an invitation to participate in a viewing of footage of the Oct. 7 attacks captured by CCTV cameras.

The complaint goes on to allege that after bullying Jewish students and rubbing their noses in the carnage Hamas wrought on their people, pro-Hamas students were still unsatisfied and resulted to violence. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen.

More request to the university went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held demonstrations. The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events whole no one explained the inconsistency.

Virulent antisemitism at Columbia University on the heels of Oct. 7 was not a one-off occurance, the complaint alleges, retracing in over 100 pages 20 years of alleged anti-Jewish hatred at the school.

“Students at Columbia are enduring unprecedented levels of antisemitic and anti-Israel hate while coping with the trauma of Hamas’ October 7th massacre,” SWU CEO Roz Rothstein said in Wednesday’s press release. “We will ensure that Columbia University is held accountable for their gross failure to protect their Jewish and Israeli students.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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University of California-Los Angeles Student Government Passes BDS Resolution

Graphic posted by University of California, Los Angeles Students for Justice in Palestine on February 21, 2024 to celebrate the student government’s passing an resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Photo: Screenshot/Instagram

The University of California-Los Angeles student government on Tuesday passed a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, as well as false accusation that Israel is committing a genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.

“The Israeli government has carried out a genocidal bombing campaign and ground invasion against Palestinians in Gaza — intentionally targeting hospitals universities, schools, shelters, churches, mosques, homes, neighborhoods, refugee camps, ambulances, medical personnel, [United Nations] workers, journalists and more,” the resolution, passed 10-3 by the UCLA Undergraduate Student Association Council (USAC), says, not mentioning that UN personnel in Gaza assisted Hamas’ massacre across southern Israel on Oct. 7.

It continued, “Let it be resolved that the Undergraduate Student Association of UCLA formally call upon the UC Regents to withdraw investments in securities, endowments mutual funds, and other monetary instruments….providing material assistance to the commission or maintenance of flagrant violations of international law.

The days leading up to the vote were fraught, The Daily Bruin, the university’s official student newspaper reported on Wednesday.

“Non-UCLA students” sent USAC council members emails imploring them to vote for or against the resolution and USAC Cultural Affairs Commissioner and sponsor of the resolution, Alicia Verdugo, was accused of antisemitism and deserving of impeachment. The UCLA Graduate Student Association and University of California-Davis’ student government had just endorsed BDS the previous week, prompting fervent anticipation for the outcome of Tuesday’s USAC session.

Before voting took place, members of the council ordered a secret ballot, withholding from their constituents a record of where they stood on an issue of monumental importance to the campus culture. According to The Daily Bruin, they expressed “concerns” about “privacy” and “security.” Some members intimated how they would vote, however. During a question and answer period, one student who co-sponsored the resolution, accused a Jewish student of being “classist” and using “coded” language because she argued that the council had advanced the resolution without fully appreciating the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the history of antisemitism.

“As a Guatemalan, …my country went through genocide,” he snapped at the young woman, The Daily Bruin’s reporting documented. “My family died in the Guatemalan Mayan genocide. I understand. I very well know what genocide looks like.”

Other council members  voiced their support by co-sponsoring the resolution, which was co-authored by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a group that has held unauthorized demonstrations and terrorized Jewish students across the country.

Responding to USAC’s decision, Jewish students told the paper that they find the campaign for BDS and the attempts of pro-Palestinian students to defend Hamas’ atrocities myopic and offensive.

“How can anyone dare to contextualize since Oct. 7 without acknowledging that the Jewish people are victims of such a cataclysmic attack?” Mikayla Weinhouse said. “BDS intentionally aims to divide a community. Its supporters paint a complex and century-old conflict in the Middle East as a simplistic narrative that inspires hate rather than advocates for a solution.”

University of California-Los Angeles denounced the resolution for transgressing school policy and the spirit of academic freedom.

“The University of California and UCLA, which, like all nine other UC campuses, has consistently opposed calls for a boycott against and divestment from Israel,” the school said in a statement. “We stand firm in our conviction that a boycott of this sort poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty and to the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on this campus.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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