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Isha Bekia

Building Jewish pride in South Africa and beyond: An interview with Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein

Mar 17, 2022 | Current Affairs, Israel, Jewish pride


Like many other South African Jews, Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein’s great-grandparents emigrated from Lithuania. Born in 1971, Rabbi Goldstein grew up in Pretoria, and became the youngest person appointed as Chief Rabbi of South Africa when he began serving in January 2005.

Rabbi Goldstein attended Jewish day school and then the Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg, where he was ordained as a rabbi. His father is a retired high court judge, and while the younger Goldstein was practicing as a synagogue rabbi, he followed in his father’s footsteps by completing a postgraduate law degree and a Ph.D. in human rights and constitutional law from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He is also a qualified dayan through the Eretz Hemda Institute in Jerusalem.

A well-published writer, Rabbi Goldstein has authored several books, including Defending the Human Spirit and a book in Hebrew on the halacha of competition law. He co-authored African Soul Talk with Dumani Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson, and The Legacy with Rabbi Berel Wein, which is about examining the philosophy of the great Lithuanian rabbis.

The Jewish Press spoke to Chief Rabbi Goldstein about his remarkable achievements in outreach and interfaith communication, and his take on the state of the Jewish community in South Africa and around the globe.

The Jewish Press: Could you tell us about some of the human rights initiatives you’ve implemented?

Rabbi Goldstein: CAP (Community Active Protection) is about protecting people from the trauma of violent crime. It was set up around 15 years ago [in South Africa] and has reduced violent crime in its areas of operation between 80-90 percent. We’re in the process of a major expansion program to bring CAP to millions of people across Johannesburg. Another human rights initiative I founded, drawing from Torah values, is the national “Bill of Responsibilities.” Adopted by South Africa’s Department of Education and taught in schools nationwide, the Bill of Responsibilities functions as a corollary to our Constitution’s famous Bill of Rights, and reflects the core Jewish belief that with every right comes a responsibility. The initiative has shown a new generation of young South Africans the importance of compassion and respecting the dignity and well-being of others.

As a religious leader, how have you encouraged young people to learn about Torah values?

I initiated the Beit Midrash programme, which has brought in-depth, text-based Jewish learning to our Jewish day schools. Then there’s Generation Sinai, a platform for parents and children to connect and learn Torah ideas with one another. There’s also Sinai Indaba, an annual Torah learning convention, which brings together the foremost international Jewish thinkers and speakers and thousands of South African Jews of all persuasions. And of course, the Shabbat Project, which brings together Jews of all backgrounds across the world and empowers them to keep a full Shabbat together.

I know the Shabbat Project takes place once a year, after Sukkot. Could you tell us more about what has made it so successful? When did it start?

It was introduced in 2013 in South Africa. Initially, there were no plans to make it a global project. My wife and I created a YouTube video explaining the project, and suddenly emails poured in from every corner of the globe from people wanting to participate. Almost overnight, it seemed, a movement sprung up from the ground. We’re all craving connection right now – within our families, with friends, with communities, with ourselves, with G-d. It’s so amazing that Shabbat, which was created at the beginning of time, turns out to be the perfect formula for everything we need in modern life. It was designed by G-d, who created us, and therefore knows what we need in order to thrive. He’s given us this incredible gift of Shabbat, and the vision of the Shabbat Project is to share that gift with as many Jews as possible. It’s now spread to more than 1,500 cities and 100 countries around the world. We have 5,000 volunteers worldwide who get involved in making the project happen on the ground.

Since the Shabbat Project could only be practiced at home in 2020 due to Covid lockdowns, did you see a resurgence of interest in it this past year when restrictions started to lessen?

Definitely. In 2021, we had record participation levels. There was a renewed thirst for human reconnection, which along with the magic of Shabbat itself, really refuelled the Shabbat Project.

Have you had any new realisations about this project after seeing how much people from all over the world have embraced it?

What I’ve come to learn from the Shabbat Project over the years is that I don’t accept any definition of a Jew as secular. There’s this deep connection to who we are and where we come from, and Shabbat goes right to the heart of that identity. This year, there was a whole group of Instagram influencers in Israel that you would call secular by any definition, but when you hear them talking about Shabbat and what it means to them, you would have to revise that definition completely.

The project has touched so many lives – from Jews in the former Soviet Union cut off from Judaism for decades, to fashion moguls in Paris, to award-winning actors and musicians, to Jews in far-flung places where there are no Jewish communities. That is the power of Shabbat.

What is the religious climate like in South Africa?

The National Religious Leaders Council (NRLC) is a very important body in the country because it’s the space for the development of interfaith relations. I serve on the central committee, which oversees its work. My colleagues from the other faith communities represent the Muslim, Christian, and Hindu communities. South Africa’s a very religious country. For example, at any presidential inauguration or opening of parliament, there are prayers delivered by a cross-section of faith leaders. The country is overwhelmingly Christian. Many of the big churches here are pro-Israel.

Could you talk about the state of antisemitism in South Africa in general and on college campuses?

There is a strong anti-Israel BDS movement in South Africa. It is causing the same kind of harm in South Africa as it does on campuses in the United States and all over the world. But the rate of actual antisemitic incidents is amongst the lowest in the world. The South African Jewish community is very Zionistic and we’re on the frontlines defending Israel against these attacks. The ANC (African National Congress), the country’s ruling party, has a track record of being very anti-Israel. But the South African population, in my experience, is not. My impression is that the vast majority of South Africans, in fact, do not support BDS. On the contrary, many, many are fiercely pro-Israel.

Coming from South Africa, where apartheid was such a significant part of your country’s history, how do you feel about the charged accusation of Israel being an apartheid state?

Growing up in apartheid South Africa, I know what apartheid is. Because of that, I have written and campaigned extensively around this issue, arguing forcefully that Israel is not an apartheid state. For me, that accusation is deeply offensive, both as a South African and as a Jew. As a South African, it is an insult to the victims of the real apartheid, and as a Jew, it’s a libel of the Jewish State. It is a complete falsehood. I wrote an open letter to President Ramaphosa, challenging him, laying out the facts, telling him he had this dead wrong when he implied Israel was an apartheid state.

What is the current state of the relationship between the South African government and the Israeli government?

There are diplomatic ties, and a new Israeli ambassador just arrived in South Africa, but it’s definitely a strained relationship. The South African government is really out of kilter with its own people, the majority of whom, as I said, view Israel in an extremely positive light. I gave a speech in the presence of President Ramaphosa at the Gardens Synagogue in Cape Town three years ago, in which I challenged him on his government’s Israel policies.

Would you say the rates of South African Jews making aliyah are high or low right now?

They’re high – probably among the highest in the world. In 2021, there were more than 500 new olim. We’re a very Zionistic community, I can proudly say.

Could you share some reflections about former Chief Rabbi of the UK Jonathan Sacks, who died in 2020 at the age of 72, and the impact he made on you?

I considered Rabbi Lord Sacks a dear friend and colleague. He was always very gracious with his time, wisdom, and advice. When I was appointed Chief Rabbi, he was one of the very first people who reached out to me to congratulate me, but also to offer support. He was one of the few people in the world I could speak to who understood what it was to be a Chief Rabbi. Apart from [that] obviously, Rabbi Sacks was such an eloquent and profound spokesman for Torah thinking in the world.