My recent trip to South Africa was for the purpose of helping a Jewish day school in a small community there develop a strategic plan for survival in view of the shrinking of the community. The experience was fascinating, and raised interesting questions.
Jews, especially those who abandoned the Jewish community for the communist party, were at the forefront of the resistance to apartheid. Today, many in the community are torn between their identity as South Africans and their commitment to its democracy - and their concern for the economic future of themselves and their children. Inspiring as is the story of the transition to freedom, poverty, crime, AIDS, and affirmative action are all factors in Jews' decision-making about their future.
The community in question has dwindled from over 6,000 Jews twenty years ago to barely 600 today. Young Jews go off to college in the big city and either stay there, or emigrate. Thus, the local community is aging as it shrinks. They operate a fine k-12 day school with over 300 pupils, 80% of whom are non-Jews attracted by the academic excellence and humane atmosphere of the school. The community, as is common there, is nominally orthodox, under the supervision of the chief rabbinate in Johannesburg (a "gift" bequeathed by the British colonial administration to South Africa - and to Israel). The day school is an institution of the official community and hence it too is nominally orthodox. In reality, of course, few Jews other than the rabbi are in fact mitzvah-observant in any way that even resembles orthodoxy. But this does not stop the community from delegitimizing the reform community; those members who were converted by a reform rabbi are not considered Jewish. Needless to say, the results of this stand-off are not helpful to the administration of the day school. The rabbi is young, dynamic, open-minded (within the limits set by the chief rabbinate) -- and will surely return to Israel in a few years.
It seems clear that the numbers will continue to diminish. It will be ever harder to maintain the institutions of a community. While surprises are always possible, it seems that in another generation, this community will be nostalgic memories and a modest museum in a former synagogue building. I remember the debate in rabbinical school about our obligation to serve such dwindling communities in the United States: the graduates of HUC-JIR naturally gravitated to communities where there was a rich Jewish life for themselves and their families, and were not eager to go off to small towns, isolated communities whose future might be in question and whose present reality might offer the rabbi and his family a life of loneliness and a lack of opportunities for Jewish study and involvement. Should the movement "force" its rabbis to serve such communities? Should Jewish life be governed by free-market principles? Is it OK to let a community die? What heroic measures are justified to keep it alive, at what cost?
When we study history, of course, we chart the rise and fall of communities. Migrations, persecutions, economic fluctuations, natural disasters, spiritual developments -- all contributed to the appearance and disappearance of centers of Jewish life over the centuries -- in Israel as well as in the Diaspora. How could it be otherwise? And yet, when we look at the process from close-up, when we experience the decline of a community, the sale of synagogues and the closing of schools, there is something very sad, a sense of loss, that we feel. Classical Zionism saw the disappearance of Diaspora communities as inevitable and even desirable, as the Diaspora would wither away and the Jews would be restored to their sovereign state. I suppose there are still some who feel a certain triumph of "I told you so" at reports of disappearing communities.
I guess communities are like persons. It may be unavoidable that they rise and fall, form and disappear, but each community, during its life span, is a whole world, and when it is gone, it leaves a void.