Stand UP South Africa: Youth Shul in Johannesburg

Hello from the skies of South Africa!

This past Shabbat was relaxing and insightful. We started that leg of the trip off on Friday with a long drive to Johannesburg, followed by some rest time at the Garden Place guest house. We may have ended the safari part of our trip, but we couldn’t get away from the animals, as a huge cat and lots of birds strolled around the cozy grounds. On Friday night, we connected with local Johannesburg youth of the Sydenham Shul. They invited us to their “Youth Shul” where met our new peers and friends and played ping pong, pool, foosball, or just chatted! Later we participated in what we collectively agreed was the best Orthodox service ever! It was short and full of song. We got to know the Jo-burg teens through dinner and fun icebreakers, showing off our best accents and impersonations.

On Saturday morning, some of us went back to the Sydenham Shul where we prayed with the rest of the community before going back to the “Youth Shul” for musaf and more games/chatting. Others participated in a guided meditation led by our very own madricha, Becca. We all met back at the synagogue for kiddish and ice cream, and learned more about how South Africa’s Jewish community is small but mighty, with a large youth presence. Synagogue was followed by a beautiful lunch with a local Jewish family, the Porters, who were kind enough to open their spacious cricket court, dream tree house, and dining space to all of us. They taught us a little bit about Jewish South African history and we saw first hand the famous Jewish South African hospitality. 

After thanking our hosts, we returned to the hotel and reflected more on our Service project with Eco Children. We revisited our intentions from last Shabbat and discussed which identities motivated us this past week and which identities provided us with agency and opportunity to participate in such inspiring work. At Havdallah, we again expressed flashes of gratitude, reflecting on how much we had experienced since our last shabbat at Olifants River Safari Lodge. We then put on our “dancing shoes” for some traditional gumboot dancing, complete with stomping, singing, and banging drums. By the end of the hour we had all worked up an appetite for dinner, which was at a local kosher restaurant that offered a mix of Chinese food, burgers, and Israeli cuisine…only in South Africa. 

Sunday was a day packed with learning, led by our local Soweto tour guide, Thandi. We started with a visit to the Nelson Mandela House and the Hector Pieterson museum, both of which portrayed the hardships and injustices of the Apartheid era. For lunch, we were hosted by the phaphama initiatives and a local choir. We sat with our locals from Soweto and ate a traditional South African cuisine consisting of pap (similar to grits), gravy, pumpkin, greens, and even kosher chicken that they cooked for the group! We ate with our hands and learned what our names would be in Soto and Zulu languages. We then had a meaningful cross-cultural conversation about the misconceptions of both South Africa and America. We capped off the afternoon with a traditional African song and dance session, along with our rendition of “Party in the U.S.A.” 

The end of the day meant heading to the airport and saying goodbye to our bus driver, Derrick, who will go down in history as a parallel parking king. Following a delay, we headed on the next leg of our trip in Cape Town, which we are currently en route to! We cannot wait for what’s next in Cape Town and for the rest of the trip. 

~Rachel, Naperville, Illinois  

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