Dedicated to the memory of a master educator and great rabbi, Rav Avraham Chaim Tanzer (1935–2020), see more at Arutz Sheva "Rabbi Avraham Tanzer passes away at age 85".
By now South African Jews all know that certainly since 1976 the trend has been for South African Jews to migrate away to America, Canada, Israel, Australia, the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Fifty years ago there were about 120,000 Jews in South Africa, now it's about half that amount. But there has also been a very tiny, almost infinitesimal, yet significant counter-flow of Jewish North American and Israeli clergy and teachers, that once used to include rabbis from the old Great Britain but now it’s mostly Americans and Israelis, usually with spouses travelling to and remaining in South Africa to serve its Jewish community as it is drained of its former local Jewish population.
Usually it has been Chabad Lubavitch rabbis and their wives, the proverbial “rebbetzins” (“rebbetzin” is Yiddish for “rabbi’s wife”), who have been the miniscule brave few “foreigners” who have undertaken the “reverse” flow of traffic by travelling “against the current” so to speak into the “jaws” of South Africa while locals have tried hard by the tens of thousands to move to “calmer” political climes. The numbers are virtually microscopically small of those rabbis and their wives and children moving to South Africa whether at the peak of the Apartheid-era or during the arrival of Black majority-rule.
Maybe it’s a few dozen couples and then add in all their descendants. However, this belies the deep and profound power of their influence. There are a number of such famous “rabbinical couples” that moved to South Africa and made their mark. Any Jewish person active in a South African shul or in any one of South Africa’s Jewish communities or schools knows and has interacted with such rabbis and their rebbetzin-wives.
One such very famous couple, not Lubavitchers, was a graduate of the famous Telz Yeshiva of Cleveland, Ohio, the late Rabbi Avraham Chaim (1935–2020) and his wife, who still lives in Johannesburg, Marcia Tanzer, who headed the Yeshiva College school complex and campus, the largest Jewish religious school in South Africa with well over a thousand pupils, and the leaders of the attached Glenhazel Hebrew Congregation network, with hundreds of devoted religious congregants, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
In the course of sending out some Emails about South African Jewry I received a kind response from Rebbetzin Marcia Tanzer sending regards with some of her own comments. She surprised me when she wrote that she had written and published a book through Amazon about their life stories. I immediately did a search on Amazon and found the book “The Call of Africa Is Heard In Brooklyn: A Memoir about Rabbi Avraham Chaim Tanzer” “[(2013) by his wife] Marcia B. Tanzer” and I also ordered it online.
The day the book arrived I started reading it and could not put it down. It took me about five hours to get through its 260 pages. I skipped over “political commentary” about general South African history, and focused on the “real stuff” about the life and times and accomplishments of the two co-authors as both Rabbi and Rebbetzin Tanzer writes, with lots of added comments by her husband the late Rabbi A.C. Tanzer in Italics. There are also 40 additional pages with fascinating family and communal pictures to spice it up!
And what an amazing and exciting read it was. Thoroughly refreshing and revealing so much about the usually hidden and very private lives of a famous rabbi and his wife!
The book had special meaning for me for a number of reasons. One is obviously that I recall many of the names and rabbis and famous personalities in the book, such as the former Chief Rabbis of South Africa: Rabbis Rabinowitz, Casper, and Harris, and many of the famous communal leaders such as Rabbi Joseph Bronner and Mendel Kaplan; the fact that my sister Mrs. Chana Rudomin Lichtenstein was a long-time Hebrew and Judaic Studies teacher at the Yeshiva College school, and that when I was a boy Rabbi Tanzer ardently tried to recruit me but I was too attached to the main Jewish day school in South Africa, the King David School, to take him up on his offers, and much, much more.
But this is about the Tanzers’ epic story. Rabbi Tanzer was born in Brooklyn in the mid 1930s to devout European religious Jews who for his high schooling sent him to the famous Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio. It was there that he came into contact with its dynamic rabbis, such as its Rosh Yeshiva (Dean) Rav Mottel (Mordechai) Katz who “just happened to have” six siblings and parents (according to the book) who had moved to South Africa prior to World War Two.
What the young Avraham Tanzer did not know was that he was with Talmud and Torah teachers in a yeshiva which had “vested interests” in South Africa and were in touch with rabbis and family in South Africa, such as Rabbis Michel Kosowsky and Joseph Bronner, who wanted to set up a “Yeshiva” in Johannesburg looking to the Telz Yeshiva as a kind of “mother institution” to send young staff members to help build it up.
One such person was Rabbi Dovid Saunders who had already been sent by Telz in Cleveland to teach at Yeshiva College in South Africa in the early 1950s. But when another staff member was needed they called in the young newly married Rabbi Tanzer and “offered” him a “teaching job” in Johannesburg with the line, “well, if we offered you a job in Seattle you would fly there, so just fly a little further until you get to South Africa”! In 1963 the young Tanzers in their twenties with three young children arrived in Sunny South Africa “just for two years” and remained there ever since being honored and lionized by the various local communities, all sorts of government and business leaders and even being awarded the prestigious Jerusalem Prize by the Israeli Knesset for contributions to, and excellence in, Jewish Education in the Diaspora.
The young lady who married Rabbi Tanzer was Marcia from Baltimore whose father and grandfathers were all important scholars and rabbis in Baltimore hailing from famous Lithuanian communities. She was always very adventuresome and claimed she was always dreaming of going to Africa and so therefore encouraged her husband to take the job. And they never looked back as they went from one success to another teaching Torah on all levels to all age groups, and radiating a “special something” an irresistible and winning mix of:
Charm, Holiness, Jewish Genuineness, Friendship, Charisma, Yiddishkeit, Torah Scholarship, Leadership, Supreme Practical Rabbinical Skills, Brilliance, Political Acumen, Team Building, Instilling Team Spirit, Inspiration, Oratory, Kindness and Compassion, Brilliant Kiruv (Outreach), Successful Chinuch (Education), Mastery of the Rabbonus (Rabbinate), Klal (Community) Leadership and Responsibility, Mazel (“Good Luck”) and Brocha (Blessings), Siyata Dishmaya (“Heavenly Help”) and much more,
This made them popular local celebrities as they continued adapting to South African Jewry and its warm sense of community, its unique unbending pro-Zionist and pro-Israel pride but with loyalty as productive South African citizens.
As they say nowadays, they “grew” the Yeshiva College from a handful of students to a ten acre campus now with over 1,000 pupils from the youngest grades to post high school with hundreds of families belonging to the famous on-campus Glenhazel Shull that has been headed by Rabbi Tanzer himself since its inception and is the at the heart and soul of the now-pulsating Jewish community of Johannesburg with its dynamic religious life to be found everywhere in that concentrated area of Jo’burg.
While in Johannesburg the young Rebbetzin Marcia Tanzer went to get her degrees at Wits University and during one Hebrew lecture a famous professor tells her that he knows her father, to which she replies, “you don’t know my father” but the professor insists that he does. After more back and forth she finally asks him who he thinks her “father” is? And he replies: “Isn’t your father Avraham Tanzer?” to which she responds “he isn’t my ‘father’ – he’s my husband!”
Aside from being sharp and witty, Marcia and her husband are incredibly kind people. When Marcia’s father passes away she convinces her mother to come stay with her in South Africa that results in a thirty year sojourn of her mother in Marcia’s own house. When Rabbi Tanzer’s own parents get frail and old in America he brings them both out to live their last years with him in his own home in South Africa! What a moral lesson to others when so many who leave South Africa struggle with the personal test of how to care for the elderly parents they have left behind.
The book describes how along the way the Tanzers raised a family of six amazing children, three of whom are now still living in South Africa and all married by now. Five of their six children married South Africans. Their son Rabbi Baruch Tanzer lives in Jerusalem and heads a successful Kollel or Post-Graduate Talmudic School of Halachah (Jewish Law) having ordained dozens of rabbis in Israel. Their son Rabbi Dov Tanzer is the Assistant Dean at the Yeshiva College helping his father and great scholar in his own right.
Two daughters are successful lawyers. One lives in Montreal Canada and another in Washington DC. One daughter is married to Rabbi David Masinter a famous Lubavitch rabbi in South Africa. One daughter had to undergo a kidney transplant decades ago and her mother, the author Rebbetzin Marcia Tanzer was her brave kidney-donor, and in spite of the challenges everyone has been doing very well, and all the children are happily married and have many children of their own, with some of the Tanzer grandchildren getting married and having babies that in turn makes the senior Tanzers into proud Great-Grandparents.
The Tanzer’s arrival and success in South Africa continued the chain-reaction as they brought out fellow- “foreign” rabbis to continue in their footsteps. Rabbi Tanzer brought out his good friend from his Telz Yeshiva days from America Rabbi and Mrs. Azriel Goldfein to assist him. In time Rabbi Goldfein left to set up his own “Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg” with its own network of schools with hundreds of children attending known as the Hersh Lyons School that are run by his sons Rabbis Avi and Dovid Goldfein since the senior Rabbi Goldfein’s passing.
Rabbi Tanzer then brought out Rabbi and Mrs. Aron Feufer, a dynamic Israeli Talmudic scholar to assist him. After a while Rabbi Feufer left to set up his own “Yeshiva Maharsha” and community that today encompasses a large campus and many families and students led by his disciples mainly Rabbi Menachem Raff since the passing of Rabbi Feufer. Rabbi Tanzer says in the book that he is rightly proud that in the course of being brought out to South Africa to help build up one yeshiva, he has in fact helped to give birth to three yeshivas in Johannesburg instead!
There are so many details that readers acquainted with South Africa and its unique foreign-born rabbis can identify with, about those who have made the brave sacrifice to grow roots into South African soil while so many of their congregants and students have moved to other continents and countries. This book is like looking into a two-way mirror, or looking in opposite geographic directions yet in the end seeing one picture and getting one united view.
Probably it’s part of the Jewish ability to unite and make the best of paradoxes and opposites as we all try to make the best of the seemingly strange conflicting situations life puts us into, forcing us to make the best of everything no matter where we find ourselves.
This book, based on the amazing life histories of the larger Tanzer family and all its branches and roots, is a beacon of hope and encouragement to everyone everywhere that no matter where one finds oneself, it is always possible not just to build up Torah observance, attachment to God, and love of Judaism but to exceed beyond one’s wildest dreams in these things no matter where you eventually find yourself as a concerned Jew if you are given the freedom to be a Jew and to freely practice Judaism.
Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers College–Columbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach – Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 1988–1995, a Trustee of AJOP 1994–1997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 1995–2015. He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy.Contact Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin firstname.lastname@example.org