Note: Over more than a century, hundreds of rabbis, cantors and Shamashim, known locally as Reverends, faithfully served the Jews of South Africa. It would be impossible in a short article or even in a few articles to pay tribute to all of them. This does not in any way diminish or detract from the importance of their roles as spiritual leaders and from their great accomplishments in making sure that Judaism would live on among the traditionalist Jews of South Africa.
This essay focuses on a few leading rabbis because they served as catalysts for growth in Torah and Mitzva observance among the South African Jews, playing great leadership roles in synagogues, schools, and as communal leaders. Many are those rabbis and Rebbetzins who served faithfully and diligently and any "sins of omission" of rabbinical names and personalities are solely those of the writer.
The rabbis in South Africa did not have easy lives because the Jews of South Africa were more interested in "modernizing" and were not as religiously observant as their ancestors had been in Eastern Europe, mostly in Lithuania. The Jewish Klei Kodesh ("clergy") with their wives and families were fighting an uphill battle most of the time.
Yet, South African Jews built beautiful, even magnificent synagogues with part-time Jewish schools known as "cheders" attached to them even in the smallest outlying communities, and usually respected the roles of the rabbis and Jewish teachers they hired, but it was not always easy going as we noted in the the recent series of articles on Arutz Sheva: "A Rabbi Reminisces about Jewish Hopes, Dreams and Struggles in South Africa": Part 1; Part 2; Part 3 based on a book by Rabbi J. Newman, a learned rabbi who served the outlying country communities of South Africa.
South Africa has had a general population of about fifty million people of which about 5 million were of white European ancestry. In spite of the fact that South African Jewry never numbered more than 120,000-140,000 at its peak in the 1970s and today that number is half due to emigration, they built magnificent synagogues, established many Jewish cemeteries, hired rabbis and built communities without delay as they settled in virtually all the towns and cities of South Africa.
As in the United States, there were two types of Jewish communities: A smaller, older, more formal community with its roots in Germany and England. Many of these Jews had become fabulously wealthy from the mining of the world’s richest diamond fields that were discovered in South Africa during the 1860s and then from the even greater discovery of the world’s richest gold deposits and the mines in the 1880s, and related industries. These Jews were not that concerned with serious Jewish education but valued English cultural formalities over serious Torah learning. As a result of this, they sought out rabbis who while they were Orthodox, also had secular degrees. This group remained dominant economically and politically for a long time, as they did in the US.
As the new waves of Jewish Lithuanian “heimishe Yidden” (“traditional Jews”) arrived in huge numbers, they expressed a desire to have rabbis who were “Talmidei Chachomim” (“Talmudic scholars), such as they had known they new in the “alte heim” (“old country”).
There would therefore come to be a kind of parallel rabbinate in South Africa. While all were Orthodox, some would want “Rabbi Doctors” in the way of the Orthodox Jews of Western Europe, while the majority from Eastern Europe kept on pushing, demanding, and eventually getting a number of great rabbis and Torah scholars who would lead them.
The official structure of South African Jewry grew during the 1800s and was essentially laid by the late 1800s and following the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 – 1901, fought between Great Britain defending the white English-speakers of South Africa (and to gain control of the diamond and gold mines for English capitalists) against the white Dutch Afrikaner Boers (who were farmers) who wished to be free of English imperialism and colonialism.
There were Jews who fought and supported both sides. The Afrikaner President Paul Kruger was present at the 1898 inauguration of the first synagogue in Pretoria, his country’s capital, hoping to win the support of the Jewish people. Present in South Africa and supporting the British side was Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz (eventual author of the “Hertz Chumash”) from 1898 to 1911. He was expelled by the Afrikaner Dutch Boer government during the war, but was eventually rewarded for his loyalty to Britain when he was selected as the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of the British Empire (1913-1945).
The first recognized Chief Rabbi of South Africa was Rabbi J.L. Landau who set up the official Johannesburg Beth Din (“Rabbinic Court”) in 1915 which from that time on became the only centralized Halachik (“Jewish Law”) body in South Africa that has supervised kashrus, Gittin (“divorces according to Jewish Law”), Dinei Torah (“legal disputes judged by Jewish Law”), and Geirut (“conversion to Judaism according to Jewish Law”). Yet, from the time the Beth Din was formed, even though the chief rabbinate helped it function, there was a constant search for even greater scholars to serve on the Beth Din and at the same time win the support of the older formal English and German community as well as the respect of the newer community of Lithuanian Jews.
It was not until the 1930s that such a great scholar came to South Africa: Rabbi Yitzchak Kossowsky a close disciple of Rabbi Leizer Gordon of the Telz yeshiva in Lithuania. He was a leading rabbi and “posek” (“decisor of Jewish Law”) and was married to the sister of Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky considered by many to be the leading scholar of Torah Jewry at the time, and was an author of many rabbinic scholarly works. His arrival in Johannesburg created a stir in the community as they turned out by the thousands for a public reception at the train station upon his arrival as reported by the newspapers of his time. He served with great honor as a Rabbi of one of the biggest Johannesburg synagogues known as Bais Medrash HaGadol, and on the Beth Din. With his untimely early passing in 1951, he was succeeded by his son, Rabbi Michel Kossowsky, also a great Torah scholar and a disciple of the Grodno and Mir yeshivas in Europe with ordination from of Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Lithuania.
It was Rabbi Michel Kossowsky who began to send select students from South Africa to the re-established Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio, and it was he who asked that the Telshe Roshei Yeshiva (“yeshiva deans”), Rabbi Mottel Katz and Rabbi Elya Meir Bloch send teachers. The first to answer this call and accept the challenge of leaving the comfort of home in the USA and travelling to far-off South Africa, was Rabbi David Saunders, who was the first pioneer full-time Torah teacher in the new Yeshiva Bait Yitzchak-Yeshiva College high school. Rabbi Saunders inspired hundreds of students over the years with his electrifying Torah classes!
This started a “chain reaction” as Rabbi Saunders helped to bring out Rabbi Avraham Chaim Tanzer from the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland who in turn brought out Rabbi Azriel Goldfein who subsequently set up the highly successful Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg. Rabbi Saunders subsequently became an important founder and teacher at the new Johannesburg Kollel that was founded in 1970 as well as in other kiruv (“Jewish outreach”) programs. Rabbi David Hollander, one of America’s leading rabbis undertook 25 years of annual visits every July and August to South Africa starting from 1962. He had a key role in securing Rabbi Tanzer’s position in South Africa. Rabbi Hollander’s powerful sermons and his faith in South African Jewry inspired all the communities he visited and eased their sense of isolation from the rest of the Jewish world.
The chief rabbis and the entire rabbinate were usually fighting lonely battles against assimilation most of the time. It would take many decades for South African Jewry to climb from enjoying the benefits of the material “diamond and gold rushes” to a realization that Torah Judaism and Torah learning needed to be not just honored but also practiced and internalized. Before the present-day proliferation in South Africa of yeshivas, day school, outreach programs, classes and learning in Israeli yeshivas such as Ohr Somayach for young men and Neve Yerushalayim for young women who would become serious Ba’alei Teshuva (“returnees to Judaism”) and would in turn revolutionize their homes and communities, it was the job of the local rabbis and teachers to teach Torah often facing resistance and sadly even ridicule.
It is therefore crucial to focus on a few more rabbis, as examples and symbols, because there were many who fought these battles and who planted the seeds of what would later become a community-wide return to Torah and more serious Jewish observance.
Rabbi Avraham Chaim Lapin was one of the stellar lights of the South African rabbinate. His father was a brother of the famous Torah ethicist Rabbi Elya Lopian and had moved to South Africa. The young Avraham Chaim was a brilliant student who had gone to study in London, England. It was there that he met and developed a close relationship with his uncle, Rabbi Elya Lopian who encouraged him to give up his study plans in England and instead go learn at the famous Telshe Yeshiva in Lithuania. After several years of learning in yeshiva he became a great Talmid Chacham (“Torah scholar”) in his own right, returned to South Africa, married, raised a wonderful family, and began an illustrious career serving as one of Johannesburg’s most senior rabbis, as well as serving on the Beth Din. He was later appointed Chief Rabbi of the Cape Province and upon his retirement moved to San Jose, California where he established the first Orthodox synagogue which he headed until his passing in 1991. This amazing life story is typical of his strengths and passions for revitalizing Torah Judaism.
Rabbi Lapin was not satisfied being only a limited community rabbi, but he began regular proactive Torah classes in Talmud given in English, often stopping to demand attention from his listeners, which was something new for many youngsters. I can also clearly remember that as a small child in the Jewish day school and cheder (“Jewish afternoon school”) I attended that was attached to his synagogue, we would be entertained by him as he gave detailed model Passover seders before every Pesach. I still have happy memories of being served the eggs in salt water as Rabbi Lapin stood on the stage giving long explanations in his unique tones of High English voice. (We were flattered and mystified why such a great rabbi should be talking to us, as usually rabbis only gave sermons.)
Rabbi Lapin succeeded in imbuing many of his students and his sons, Rabbis David, Daniel and Raphael Lapin, with a love of Torah and “kiruv rechokim” (“reaching out to the non-religious”) for which they gained much fame. When they completed their yeshiva learning they went on to establish their own synagogues and organizations for spreading Torah, such as the Keter Torah community in Johannesburg and the Pacific Torah Center in California and more.
Later Chief Rabbis of South Africa were Rabbis L. Rabinowitz, B.M. Casper, C.K. Harris who were all in the mold of the Orthodox British rabbinate from where they came. They played an important role in representing Jewish South Africans to the various governments and speaking out against anti-Semitism.
The first South African-born Chief Rabbi is Rabbi. W. Goldstein a disciple of Rabbi Azriel Goldfein who founded the Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg in the 1970s. To show how things have changed, Rabbi Goldstein also had a close association with the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva community in Johannesburg. The former Av Beth Din (“Head of the Beth Din”) was Israeli Rabbi Moshe Kurtstag, a disciple of the Hebron Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna, of the Hebron Yeshiva in Israel. Rabbi Kurtstag married a daughter of the previous Av Beth Din, Rabbi Irma Aloy who was born to a Lubavitch family in Russia and became a student in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Lithuania and came to South Africa to serve as a young rabbi prior to World War Two.
The Johannesburg Beth Din still has sole responsibility for Kosher supervision, gittin (divorces), dinei Torah (Legal disputes), and geirut (conversion). Former notable Dayanim (“Rabbinic Judges”) on the Beth Din are Rabbi Baruch Rappoport a graduate of the Gateshead Yeshiva in England, South African-born Rabbi Z. Suchard a graduate of Telshe Yeshiva, Cleveland, and Rabbi D. Isaacs who was one of the first South African-born Jews to become a rabbi. These rabbis all led large communities. The Beth Din still employs many full-time and part-time “mashgichim” (“supervisors of kosher production”) and because South Africa is so far from the main centers of Orthodox Jewish life, it must ensure the highest standards of kashrut (“keeping kosher”) for itself. The Beth Din also provides an extra “mehadrin hashgacha” (“extra strict supervision”) for those who are more stringent in their personal dietary observances.
Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, known as the Ponovezher Rov and Rosh Yeshiva of Ponovezh in Lithuania and later in Israel, used to visit South Africa frequently. Many of the funds he gathered to build the new Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnai Brak in Israel after the Holocaust came from the generosity of South African Jews. He would consistently urge his fellow “landsleit” (“members of his community’) to be more religiously observant as best he could. He was able to do this and retain the absolute love and adoration of his followers in South Africa.
In one of the older Jewish neighborhoods in Johannesburg, known as Doornfontein, there was even a Ponovezher Synagogue that was built by the Ponovezher Jews of Johannesburg, made up of hundreds of Jews who came from the town of Ponevezh in Lithuania or had learned in its Yeshiva and who had then moved to South Africa. Before the Holocaust they, like many others like them, supported their families and communities in Lithuania.
After the Holocaust, when all was gone, they turned their attention to helping the survivors who were rebuilding Torah life in Israel and when Rabbi Kahaneman called on them to help him, they gave so much that he could at least rebuild the physical buildings of the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnai Brak, Israel. This was but one way in which the Lithuanian Jews of South Africa, in spite of their own communal and personal challenges and struggles, have always been ready to be among the greatest supporters of Torah in the world.
One can see the seeds of Torah moving through the rabbis and the yeshivot that they had learned in, as mentioned in this article, such as Mir, Telz, Hebron, Gateshead, Ponevezh, Ohr Somayach, being planted, growing and flourishing into the present.
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 at[email protected]