My term of office as the Chief Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues officially began on 1 January 2005, after I had had the opportunity of serving as Chief Rabbi Elect for the entire year of 2004 – a transition period which was most beneficial in preparing me to assume my full responsibilities. During my term as Chief Rabbi Elect I had the enormous privilege of being trained, nurtured and guided by Emeritus Chief Rabbi Harris Shlitah, may he be well. Until illness prevented him from doing so, he spent many hours with me going through many different aspects of South African Jewish life, and of his experiences of, and approaches to being Chief Rabbi of our wonderful community. I accompanied Rabbi Harris to a number of meetings, and he introduced me to numerous important personalities in South Africa. Rabbi Harris’s generosity of spirit and kindness to me played an important role in preparing me to take up this office. An example of his generosity of spirit was his insistence, even after I attempted to persuade him otherwise, that I deliver the prayer at President Thabo Mbeki’s inauguration in April 2004. Rabbi Harris felt that the exposure that the occasion provided would be important in helping me to fulfil my duties in the future. Our entire community, together with many around the world, continues to pray for his speedy recovery.
I have had the opportunity of visiting, engaging with, and speaking to so many different Jews across the country, in their Shuls, their community organisations and their schools. In fact, I have addressed quite literally hundreds of audiences. These visits have opened my eyes to the extent of the vibrancy, breadth and depth of our community.
It is a top priority for me to visit the Shuls of the UOS on a regular basis. In pursuit of this objective I have drawn up a comprehensive list of our Shuls, and am working through it; which has already included visits to many of the Johannesburg and Cape Town Shuls, as well as those of Durban, Pretoria and Oudtshoorn. I have already visited and spoken at more than forty Shuls.
I aim to be in Cape Town once a month, and have been very involved in supporting the wonderful growth of Torah in Cape Town. I have visited and spoken at the Herzlia Schools on a number of occasions, and have been working very closely with the leadership of the new Torah school in Cape Town, as well as helping to guide and energise the attempt to put up an Eruv in Sea Point.
Vibrancy and Unity
The South African Jewish community is a very well-developed and well-organised community. At the heart of this vibrancy and development is the Union of Orthodox Synagogues. Our network of Shuls stretches across the length and breadth of our country, and is the backbone of our unique South African Jewish community; I say unique because we have such unity. The Union of Orthodox Synagogues provides the legitimacy and unity and resources to enable us to have a Chief Rabbi, a Beth Din, and a Kashrut authority accepted by the vast majority of our community. This is indeed unique. I have recently visited Britain and Israel in my official capacity, and have witnessed first-hand the norm in the Jewish world today: communities divided along political lines. In Israel I had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Aaron Leib Shteinman Shlitah, who is regarded as one of Israel’s most important Torah leaders. I spent an hour with him, during most of which time he asked me questions about South Africa and our Jewish community. His first question was “How many Kehillot – communities – are there in South Africa?” I thought he was asking how many Shuls we had and proceeded to answer the question. After some discussion, it turned out that what he was asking me was how many organised individual communities with their own Beth Din we had in South Africa. I was proud to be able to tell him that we have one organised community, headed by the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, with one Beth Din accepted by all. Of course, his question demonstrates the sad fact that numerous Kehillot are the norm in the Jewish world. For us in South Africa that notion is so foreign that I originally failed to understand his question.
Our uniqueness must not, of course, be taken for granted. I would like to take this opportunity of paying tribute to former leaders of the UOS, and to the current leadership – Mr. Max Abrahamson, Chairman, and Mr. Harold Novick, President, and all the members of the Management Committee and Executive Council of the UOS – for working so diligently at ensuring that the UOS continues to provide the leadership, Halachic infrastructure, and an important framework for the unity of our community.
I would like to pay tribute also to our Beth Din, led by Rabbi Kurtstag Shlitah, who together with our other Dayanim, Rabbi Rapoport Shlitah, Rabbi Suchard Shlitah and Rabbi Isaacs Shlitah, have ensured, through their hard work and their stature as Talmidei Chachamim, that our Beth Din is recognised locally and internationally as an authoritative and legitimate guardian of Halacha in our community. I work very closely with the Beth Din and we meet weekly to discuss matters of importance, always working together as a unified team in the interests of our community. I regard preserving the unity of our community as one of my most important tasks as Chief Rabbi. This precious unity will always be under threat because of international trends, but I am committed to preserving it and enhancing it to the best of my ability.
I would like to congratulate the UOS on establishing the Dayanut programme, which is aimed at investing in the continued learning of our local Rabbis, so that they will be able to be important resources of Torah learning for the continued viability of our Beth Din into the coming decades. There are currently four Rabbis who are registered with this programme, learning designated portions of Halacha in depth, and taking a written examination, which is set and marked by the Beth Din, at the conclusion of each section. Each examination lasts about four hours and ensures the participants’ mastery of the material. Recently Rabbi Kurtstag has taken the initiative of linking this programme to a Dayanut Kollel in Israel. Currently the Rabbis Shlitah who are learning on this programme are Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim, Rabbi Azriel Uzvolk, Rabbi Anton Klein and myself.
The volume of work that comes through the office of the Chief Rabbi is enormous, and I am most grateful to my private secretary, Debby Rabinowitz, for the excellence of her service and for her hard-working dedication. I am also very grateful to Rabbi Ron Hendler Shlitah for his constant help and advice, which enables me to navigate this new position. His wisdom and experience in the Office of Chief Rabbi are indispensable.
An inspiring highlight of the last few months was the inauguration ceremony which took place at the Sandton Shul on 3 April 2005. The beauty of the service and its professional excellence was the product of the effort of a great team, which included Ingrid Seeff, Darren Sevitz – whose all-round professionalism and dedication is an enormous asset to the UOS – as well as the support of, and resources from, the Management Committee, and in particular Colin Kramer, who chaired the Inauguration Sub-Committee. In the unfortunate absence of Chief Rabbi Harris, we were honoured to have the Rosh Beth Din, Rabbi Kurtstag, perform the actual inauguration ceremony, and his speech, together with the other speeches – one delivered on behalf of Rabbi Harris by Rabbi Isaacs, and another by Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein Shlitah, and of course that of President Thabo Mbeki – all elevated the occasion. I would like to thank the Sandton Shul and its Chazzan and choir for providing a magnificent setting to the occasion.
Bill of Morals
President Thabo Mbeki’s attendance and speech at the inauguration was a significant indication of the importance he attributes to the South African Jewish community. I have met President Mbeki and many senior cabinet ministers on numerous occasions. I have established important ties with senior government members. Among the issues I have raised with them is the need for a Bill of Morals for South Africa, which I spoke of in my inaugural address and which was widely reported on in the press. I am currently working with key government and religious leaders on taking this exciting initiative forward. I recently had the opportunity of presenting the concept of a Bill of Morals in a meeting between government and religious leaders, presided over by the President, and with nine Cabinet members participating. There is strong support for this concept and please G-d it will come to fruition. I am a member of the Executive of the National Religious Leaders Forum – a unique organization by international standards in that it brings together national religious leaders from all faiths for the betterment of society. I am the chairman of its sub-committee for a Bill of Morals.
A significant feature of the inauguration was the large number of Rabbonim and Rebbetzins in attendance – about 150 in all – which reflects the support and assistance I have received from virtually all of my colleagues. I recently hosted my colleagues at a lunch here at the HOD hall, which was kindly sponsored by the UOS. More than 90 Rabbonim attended and I used the opportunity to brief my colleagues on recent developments in the community and initiatives of the Office of the Chief Rabbi. Similar functions for Rabbonim will hopefully continue to advance my partnership with my colleagues. Another important vehicle in this regard is our Annual Rabbinical Conference. It is co-hosted by the Office of the Chief Rabbi and the Southern African Rabbinical Association, was originally conceived of by Emeritus Chief Rabbi Harris. The UOS kindly makes a contribution towards the costs of the Conference, for which we thank them. Rabbi Hendler works very hard on all aspects of the Confrence and I am grateful to him for that. I consult extensively with many of my colleagues and, on a constant basis, seek their advice and support on important issues facing our community. I feel that our community is indeed blessed by G-d to have Rabbis of such outstanding calibre as we do, and my partnership with them in building our community is crucial to our future.
Chief Rabbi on Air
A very important part of my work as Chief Rabbi is to teach and disseminate Torah to as many people as possible. In pursuit of this goal I have, with the invaluable assistance of a number of people, established a radio programme called “Chief Rabbi on Air”, which is broadcast every Sunday night, excluding Yom Tov of course, on Radio 2000 from 8:00 to 8:30 pm. We have set up an e-mail address for questions and comments concerning the show and I have received warm and encouraging e-mails from Jews in Kimberley, Bethlehem, Port Elizabeth, and of course Cape Town and Johannesburg. The radio show also enables me to address important current events from a Torah perspective; for example, at the time of the Jacob Zuma crisis, the radio show dealt with the issue of corruption from a Torah perspective. And I intend, please G-d, to deliver an address on radio to the community concerning the disengagement from Gaza. The radio programme enables me to teach Torah to large numbers of people each week. I am working on using the UOS website and other electronic media to distribute the recordings of each show to as many people as possible. The marketing of the show needs further improvement.
Partners for Life
Part of my role as Chief Rabbi is to identify areas of need within the community and to find a way of addressing these gaps. I have given particular attention to two such areas over the last number of months. The first is that of shidduchim – matchmaking – and the second is that of parnassah – livelihood. Both areas are crucial to the future of our community, which is built on the solid foundations of good families who can support themselves financially. In respect of the first, I convened a meeting of all the people known to me to be involved in shadchanus, and following that meeting set up an interim committee under the chairmanship of Paul Bacher to take matters forward. Paul’s important work has led to the establishment of a community shidduch organisation called “Partners for Life”, employing two part-time employees and operating under the umbrella of the UOS.
Jewish Entrepreneurial Trust (JET)
In respect of the second, an initiative called Jewish Entrepreneurial Trust (JET) had been working, on a low-key and small-scale basis, on assisting businesses with specialised volunteer consultants. I convened a number of meetings at my house and, as a result, this fledgling initiative was incorporated into the structures of ORT, which specialises in vocational assistance, and a CEO has been appointed to drive JET, which was recently publicly launched at a successful breakfast function hosted by ORT. The response of volunteer consultants has been inspiring and many people have already been helped.
The Chief Rabbi’s Forum
Tali Ginsberg has brought her full energy and great ability to bear on this project, and thus far we have set up three of such fora: the Chief Rabbi’s Legal Forum, The Chief Rabbi’s Medical Forum and the Chief Rabbi’s Business Forum. Each forum consists of a breakfast hosted here at the HOD hall, with a shiur delivered by me. Occasionally we will invite prominent guest lecturers; thus for example future medical fora will be addressed by Rabbi Tatz and Rabbi Twerski, both prominent Rabbis who are also medical doctors. The Business Forum is to be launched shortly and we have already had one successful Legal Forum and one successful Medical Forum. An additional feature of these events is that we repeat them in Cape Town at Café Riteve. I have already conducted the legal and medical fora in Johannesburg, as well as in Cape Town. Tali has effectively managed to obtain corporate sponsorships for all these events. The positive benefits that flow from these events include the teaching of Torah to Jewish professionals and businessmen in such a way that they can appreciate and apply the profound and sophisticated wisdom of Torah to their work. Furthermore, the fora provide important opportunities to market the UOS and create awareness of its work amongst Jewish professionals and businessmen.
New Book : “Defending the Human Spirit – Jewish Law’s Vision for a Moral Society”
I am excited to announce that in the next few months Feldheim Publishers will be publishing a book authored by me under the title of “Defending the Human Spirit – Jewish Law’s Vision for a Moral Society”. The book is based on my Ph.D. thesis and demonstrates Torah law’s greatness as a legal system of supreme sophistication, profound compassion, and humanity.
An area of work that I have invested much time in is assisting Shuls in finding Rabbis. One case in point is that of Cape Town’s Milnerton Shul, which I assisted to find an outstanding candidate: Rabbi Dani Brett. He and his wife Nechama are South Africans and she is the daughter of Rabbi Lewis and Sheila Furman. Employing a Rabbi is the single most important decision a Shul must make, and as Chief Rabbi I am dedicated to providing guidance and assistance in this regard. The strength of the South African Jewish community is directly dependant on the vibrancy of our Shuls, and I am therefore committed to assisting our Shuls in any way that I can. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the various Shul Chairmen and members of Shul Committees who work so hard in serving our community.
Conclusion – Opportunities Abound
A very important trend to note within our community is that mass emigration has come to an end. The numbers of our community have stabilised, and judging by anecdotal evidence, there are some people who are returning to South Africa after having emigrated. I am not sure of the statistical significance of this trend, but clearly there is a sense of greater stability in our community. We must seize the opportunity of this stability to grow and develop our community even further. Our Shuls need to redouble their efforts to reach out to unaffiliated Jews, and I would like to use this Conference as a platform to make a call for all of us to work together, in spreading Torah to Jews who have not yet been privileged to be exposed to its light and wisdom. The UOS, with its branches throughout the country, is uniquely placed to maximise these opportunities, and as your Chief Rabbi, I am committed to doing so as well.