Rabbi Nissen Goldman carries a Torah scroll to safety
Rabbi Nissen Goldman carries a Torah scroll to safetyChabad.org/News


In the midst of a raging wildfire at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, a campus rabbi braved the flames that were engulfing nearby buildings to salvage a Torah scroll and other sacred objects from the Jewish student center.

The blaze began in the vicinity of the Cecil Rhodes Memorial monument on Table Mountain just above the university before spreading to the campus and destroying a number of historical buildings. An evacuation order was issued for the region, and police and emergency services had blocked the roads leading to the campus and the adjacent area where the Chabad Samson Student Center, which Rabbi Nissen Goldman directs with his wife Ariella, is located.

“It was a very hot day and the city is prone to bushfires that are rarely harmful, so I was not too concerned at first,” Rabbi Nissen Goldman told Chabad.org. “But as the day progressed, I began to receive torrents of WhatsApp messages from friends and neighbors. My neighbor sent me a photograph of their roof that had caught fire, so we nervously headed back home.”

After seeing that the fire had spared their home, Goldman’s attention turned to the Kaplan Center for Jewish Studies on the campus, which houses a synagogue containing a historic Torah scroll, in addition to academic facilities, and is situated right in the heart of the still burning campus, which was still blocked off.

Desperate to rescue the Torah from the flames, he sprung into action and arranged for a member of the Jewish community security organization to drive him past multiple emergency services blockades in a medical emergency vehicle.

“In retrospect, I realize how dangerous it was, but I felt that there really was no other option. I had to make an effort to salvage what I could, and the Talmud (Psachim 8:a) says that ‘agents carrying out a mitzvah are not harmed,’ ” added Goldman.

They drove up to the Kaplan Center, where Goldman ran into the building and retrieved the Torah scroll and some pairs oftefillin left there by students before fleeing back to safety. The building was not on fire, though some of the surrounding structures, such as the university library and some student dorms, were partially destroyed by flames.

The Kaplan Center was named after philanthropist Jessie Kaplan’s mother, Rachel Bloch (1882-1954), who valued Jewish learning. Although poor, she saved up enough money to buy the Torah located in the center.

The Samson Student center is the first Chabad on campus on the African continent and serves as a home away from home for Jewish students in Cape Town. Its founding benefactor Mr Eric Samson passed away at the age of 83 at his home in Newport California in January 2021. Mr Samson was a South African businessman with interests in the steel industry as well as real estate, international trade and shipping through his Macsteel holding company. He was renowned for his unparalleled philanthropy and as a generous supporter of Chabad activities in South Africa, in addition to hospitals and schools through the Eric and Sheila Samson Foundation he founded with his wife. Samson was also a close friend of former South African president and Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela and a primary supporter of his Children’s Fund charity.

Following the blaze and the subsequent temporary closure of all campus dorms, the local Jewish community has generously come together to house and feed affected Jewish students.

Goldman also distributed books of Psalms to students, faculty and community members, encouraging them to pray for those who have been impacted by the wildfires. A fire relief fund has been established by Chabad to assist students affected by the fires.

Evacuated student Daniel Cohen asked people to pray for the community. “At times like these, we really need to say Tehillim [Psalms] and keep in mind people who aren’t in safe situations right now,” he said, holding the book of Psalms he had received from Chabad. “I think it’s important that everyone comes and picks one up.”

Reprinted with permission from Chabad.org