UOS caters to the needs of over 95% of SA Jewry?

by Maskil on August 21, 2008

This amazing factoid appeared in Volume 1 Issue 3 Tamuz 5768 of The SA Jewish Board Cast (“A review of Jewish South Africa today”), published by the SA Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).

The item read “It (the Union of Orthodox Synagogues or UOS) is the largest Jewish religious organization in the country and caters to the needs of over 95% of SA Jewry”.

There’s no doubt that it is the largest Jewish religious organization here, but over 95%? The last figures I saw suggested that SA Jewry is +/-80% Orthodox (still a substantial figure), 10% Reform (presumably this includes the single Conservative/Masorti congregation) and 10% un- or dis-affiliated. We really have no way of knowing for certain right now. Estimates of the total Jewish population in SA vary between as little as 50 thousand and as many as 80 to 100 thousand.

In my opinion, even 80% overstates the Orthodox position, while the 10% figure for those not affiliated is probably greatly understated. These are the “consensus” numbers generally bandied about, however, so I’m really not sure why the UOS felt the need to inflate their market share.

The same item mentions that The Office of the Chief Rabbi provides “unified national leadership for the South African Jewish community … dealing with government, media and civil society”. Strange, but that sounds more like it should be the role of the SAJBD rather than that of The Office of the Chief Rabbi. I guess I must have missed out on the subtle nuances in the distinction between the organizational roles of these two bodies.

As for “unified national leadership for the South African Jewish community”, this might have been true for previous incumbents of this office. It is certainly not the case for the current incumbent, who appears to have done his best to drive a wedge between the Orthodox and Reform communities, overturning perhaps half a century of generally harmonious relationships between the two.

As a footnote, the reason for the overwhelming preponderance of Orthodoxy in SA is best explained in this article by Jocelyn Hellig.

One reason for its [the Reform community] smallness may be that a large body of Orthodox Jews, who did not follow a fully observant lifestyle, felt no need to change their affiliation. They could ride to shul on Shabbat and pick and choose which mitzvoth to observe.

I labelled them the ‘non-observant Orthodox’ and their predominance was the key to understanding the religious expression of our community at the time. The preponderance of Orthodox affiliation in South Africa is an accident in history because such Jews would have felt distinctly uncomfortable in an Orthodox congregation in the US, for example.

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