This overview of religious education in South Africa is dedicated to the memory of Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, whose levaya is today, Tishrei 12, 5781, September 30, 2020,
Like the Jews in America, rebuilding Judaism and a strong Torah life came at a great cost of assimilation into the English-speaking parts of South African society. Nevertheless, South African Jews never detached from Yiddishkeit (“Judaism”), they retained bonds of love and respect for Torah and its scholars. Intermarriage was almost unheard of and remained historically very low because the Jewish community was very united and cohesive.
Synagogues were built very quickly. Rabbis were hired for every town, no matter how small, and if they could not afford a regular rabbi they paid one to come for Shabbat or for the Holy Days. In the bigger cities, large cheders were established with a centralized communal Talmud Torah system, similar to what existed in America. This was the basic communal system before the Second World War.
South African Jewry today, in spite of losing half its population from its peak numbers to emigration, is in the midst of an astounding ongoing re-orientation and commitment to Torah and Orthodox Judaism on a scale that is so great that very few could have predicted that it would happen after the demise of Europe’s Jewish centers.
The first successful breakthrough in the community came in 1948 when the King David School was established. It started with an enrollment of literally a handful of students, mostly the children of local rabbis, to the great scorn of the majority who regarded this as a backwards step into the “ghetto” – something that was heard in America at that time.
The first school was successful and then a key group of rabbis wished to establish a yeshiva. This finally happened in 1956 when Rabbi Michel Kossowsky, one of Johannesburg’s leading rabbis, and a nephew of one of Lithuania’s greatest scholars, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky convinced a handful of idealistic boys with their parents’ agreement to enroll in his small yeshiva with him as its Rosh Yeshiva (“Dean”). It was named Yeshiva Beit Yitzchak-Yeshiva College in memory of Rabbi Yitzchok Kossowsky who had passed away a few years earlier.
Today the Yeshiva College has close to one thousand pupils in a few divisions. The school is run along strictly Orthodox lines. The illustrious Rosh Yeshiva was Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, who passed away last night and was buried today, Tishrei 12, 5781 -September 30, 2020. Rabbi Tanzer was originally from the United States and was an alumnus of the Telshe Yeshiva, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.
From his arrival in South Africa in 1963, Rabbi Tanzer was dedicated to Jewish Education, uplifting all aspects of the Jewish community, enhancing Torah study and observance as well as fostering a community built on chessed.
And in fact, the graduates of the school are in all walks of life and many have gone on to learn in yeshivas in Israel and have settled there.
Rabbi Tanzer encouraged the establishment of new institutions as the desire and need for them was revealed and by 1970 another Orthodox group wished to establish three new even more far-reaching educational institutions. They were mostly members of a small group that belonged to the Adat Yeshurun congregation under Rabbi Zaltser who were Oberlander and German Jews. Some were Holocaust survivors and had a connection with a more intense pre-war Judaism.
They established the Yeshiva Torat Emet high school in the 1960s with a very serious approach of Torah learning which continues to function and thrive. They also established the first Beit Yaakov girls high school and both schools continue to run along strictly Haredi lines teachers who are themselves serious Torah scholars often brought from overseas.
Probably the greatest symbolic turning point in the Johannesburg community, where the majority of Jews have always lived, was the establishment of the Kollel Yad Shaul, when about ten young rabbinical families, under the leadership of Rabbi Mordechai Shakovitsky as Rosh Kollel (“head”) came to South Africa in 1970 from Gateshead, England. This was something new. In retrospect one can say that it was the clearest sign of the arrival of the worldwide Baal Teshuva movement (“returnees to Orthodox Judaism”) in South Africa. The young Kollel members taught Talmud, and ethical works like Rabbi Dessler’s Michtav Me’eliyahu without “preaching” and no “sermonics.” They set up a tape library and suddenly people were talking about an American rabbi whose lectures fascinated them, it was the voice of Rabbi Avigdor Miller zts"l (often brought in the Judaism section of Arutz Sheva) influencing people in Johannesburg all the way from Brooklyn.
The Kollel set up a book library and sold books that one could not find in the more established Judaica stores. The Torah revolution in South Africa had begun and without a doubt the establishment of the Kollel Yad Shaul was the symbol of that change for those who attended its classes and events and then began returning to a Torah true way of life. After a decade of service Rabbi Shakovitsky moved to Israel. He was followed by Rabbi Baruch Grosnass who still heads the Kollel and a few years later Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch joined until he established his own Torah Center in Johannesburg before moving to Israel.
As young men and women were influenced to take on more serious Torah learning and a Torah way of life, often by also attending programs in Jerusalem, more was needed.
Rav Goldfein established the Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg 35 years ago which he exclusively headed until his recent passing. He also established a rigorous semichah (“rabbinical ordination”) program for his most outstanding students at the Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg, and after many years of higher learning, many of these students took on key rabbinical, educational and outreach positions in South Africa.
Rabbi Goldfein’s contributions to South African Jewry were significant and after the previous Chief Rabbi of the community, Rabbi Cyril Harris, announced his retirement, the Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa and the Johannesburg Beth Din announced that they had selected a close disciple of Rabbi Goldfein to become the next Chief Rabbi of South Africa. In 2005, at the age of 32, Rabbi Warren Goldstein was installed as South Africa’s youngest Chief Rabbi, and the first to be born in the country. Rabbi Goldstein learned almost exclusively in Rabbi Goldfein’s Yeshiva Gedolah, he is also a qualified lawyer, and his PhD thesis, Defending the Human Spirit: Jewish Law's Vision for a Moral Society, was published by Feldheim Publishers.
Another great young scholar by the name of Rabbi Aron Feufer arrived as well. He was a student of Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky of the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnai Brak, Israel, as well as of Rabbi Schneur Kotler of the Lakewood Yeshiva, in New Jersey, USA. Like Rabbi Goldfein, Rabbi Feufer was brought to South Africa by Rabbi Avraham Tanzer to be Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva College.
Rabbi Feufer subsequently gained supporters and a strong following to set up a yeshiva with a community around it called Yeshiva Maharsha. Rabbi Feufer’s method of greater speed in Talmudic learning appealed to a fairly large number of young intellectual Jewish men who were thirsting for this approach. He inspired hundreds of families to join him and learn with him and send their children to study in Israeli yeshivot. His community continues in Johannesburg and has expanded with hundreds of families who voluntarily agree to abide by the rules set by the present Rosh Yeshiva, a disciple of Rabbi Feufer, South African born, Rabbi Mark Raff, originally from Benoni, Transvaal.
One of the greatest success stories of South Africa is the establishment and stupendous growth of the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, set up as a branch of the Ohr Somayach yeshiva in Jerusalem 25 years ago by two ambitious young South Africans who went to learn at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem and came back determined to build a community that would be a comprehensive kehillah (community).
Rabbis Larry Shain and Shmuel Mofson built one of the most successful Baal teshuva communities in the world. They have contributed to a trend among young Jewish adults from all walks of life where it is considered “fashionable” to become frum (“religiously observant”) and to join one of their satellite communities. They run an elementary school known as Yeshiva Shaarei Torah with several hundred pupils which they undertook to finance after it had to move from a declining neighborhood. Many great international speakers, such as Rabbis Pesach Krohn and Berel Wein have spoken here.
Of course nothing happens in a vacuum, and there have been many other people, institutions, factors and developments. The South African Jewish community is a very friendly and welcoming one. There are many rabbis who have come from the United States affiliated with Lubavitch who established the Torah Academy and many Chabad-led synagogues, there are day schools, yeshivas and kollelim in Cape Town, and the community has always had a very strong Bnai Akiva presence as well as a new and growing Aish HaTorah center.
Almost all Jewish children in either yeshivas or day schools since conditions in any other type of schools have declined. The great Torah heritage of Lithuania has been reborn, continues and flourishes in South Africa and the real sign of its success? Many of its Jews can be found in Israel today.
Yitschak Rudomin grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and studied at Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, NY (1976-1986). He holds a B.A. and H. Dip. Ed. (UNISA), and an M.A. in Education from Teachers College-Columbia University. He is active in Jewish education and outreach and is the director of JPI (http://www.jpi.org)