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Trembling South Africa Controversy
When Rabbi Steve Greenberg and I toured South Africa in February 2005 we truly honed the model of our work. It was the first time that we combined the touring of the film and Steve's book and the synergy of the two had an incredible impact.

Trembling Before G–d had a theatrical release at Cape Town's Labia Cinema, Johannesburg's Killarney Nu Metro Cinema, and Pretoria's Nu Metro Menlyn and Rabbi Greenberg launched his book, Wrestling With God and Men, nationwide.

However, The Beth Din or Rabbinical Court of South Africa and the Board of Jewish Education tried to shut us down in every way possible – preventing any Trembling Before G-d flyers from being posted in any Jewish establishment; cancelling our screening at the Chief Rabbi's community center; preventing Rabbi Greenberg from speaking in any Jewish high school in South Africa; and even threatening a Jewish social hall with the removal of their kosher license if they hosted our event. Their attempt to stop Rabbi Steve Greenberg's book launch at The Beyachad Center which is the Jewish community center of Johannesburg failed when secular community leaders stepped in to prevent a possible legal action on the basis that the cancellation of the book launch would constitute discrimination based on sexual orientation which is outlawed by the South Africa Constitution.

This censorship backfired and catalyzed nationwide press for a month. The story garnered the front page of the weekly South African Jewish newspaper, feature stories in the Sunday Times, Mail and Guardian and Cape Times, numerous articles in the Afrikaans and English-language press and multiple appearances on TV, commercial talk radio, and other radio shows. Thousands of people came to diverse programs we held in cinemas, universities, and cultural institutions over the course of 2 weeks. The whole tour, events, press and marketing were organized thanks to a dedicated team of truly fantastic South African volunteers led by Sheryl Ozinsky, our coordinator in Cape Town, and David Bilchitz, our coordinator in Johannesburg.

These programs included panelists from many faiths and races: the Secretary General of the Dutch Reform Church, lesbian sangomas or traditional African healers, the Imam of Pretoria Mosque, Dominee Andree Muller, Brother Muhsin Hendricks (an Islamic gay scholar), Justice Dennis Davis, gay activists from The Equality Project, Bishop Paul Verryn of the Methodist Church, MC Rowen Smith (Dean of St Georges' Cathedral). No South African Orthodox rabbi would appear on any of our panels.

We held special screenings for black township gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth at Cape Town's Triangle Project. We did a roundtable discussion on homosexuality with a group of therapists. Rabbi Steve Greenberg led evenings of teaching at the Cape Town Jewish Museum and Gitlin Library, Johannesburg's WITS Institute for Social and Economic Research, and at the University of Cape Town. Greenberg and DuBowski participated in a debate on homosexuality at WITS with the South African Union of Jewish Students – the following week The Chief Rabbi of South Africa came to address the students on the topic. DuBowski presented film workshops on using documentary for social change at University of Western Cape, a historically black university under apartheid, and the TV Department at WITS. The two also led a wonderful Shabbat dinner for the Jewish gay community in Johannesburg.

A new Jewish GLBT organization in South Africa Jewish OutLook (check out the web-site www.jewishoutlook.org.za) - was birthed through the process and a group of people are planning to bring Limmud – a pluralistic Jewish learning conference – to South Africa to open a space in the community for discussions around issues such as this one. And the community held a debate after our departure where the Beth Din had to defend themselves for the choices they had made. At a debate addressing the Orthodox rabbinate's refusal to engage with Rabbi Greenberg, Rabbi Rappaport of the Beth Din said, "What we are opposed to is people espousing things that are contrary to Judaism and mankind coming to talk to our children. I have the right to defend myself before a robber kills me – it is my duty to protect my child from spiritual murder." Justice Dennis Davis replied "Have we become a theocracy with the Orthodox community running the show where there is only one view and one truth? That is the concern."


© 2006 Simcha Leib Productions