JOHANNESBURG - The Israeli Presidential Conference, Facing Tomorrow 2013, filled the airwaves this past month, with global luminaries converging on Israel to share their vision for a better world.

Only a few days earlier on the other side of the world, deep in the heart of the Diaspora, another international conference was taking place, with similarly lofty ideals. This was South Africa’s third annual Sinai Indaba - a unique event in terms of its scope, variety and vision, and not just among South African Jewry, but perhaps even worldwide.

“Sinai Indaba is built on three pillars – ‘Unite, Inspire, Discover,’” said South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, who introduced the initiative in 2011. “It is a time where Jews of every persuasion gather together - transcending the barriers that usually lead to fragmentation within the Jewish world – to celebrate, reaffirm and strengthen the moral vision and core values that form the very fabric of our society, and perhaps most importantly, all in a spirit of warmth and unity.”

“Indaba” is a Zulu word that describes a tribal gathering where the important affairs of the day are discussed.

“Sinai Indaba is, in a sense, the in-gathering of all the partners of the South African Jewish Community,” Goldstein explained. “It is an opportunity to discuss our business – that of creating a better world -and to recommit to the founding values of our partnership.”

South Africa’s chief rabbi opened Sinai Indaba III in Johannesburg to a colossal audience. Speaking about the power of words – central to the Sinai Indaba ethos – he related the remarkable story of how Nelson Mandela circumvented the prohibition on quoting activists banned by the Apartheid government, delivering a four-and-half-hour speech in the dock before he was sentenced, which could indeed be quoted, and which, ultimately, sustained the country’s liberation movement over the next four decades.

“Words create worlds,” said Goldstein. “Sinai Indaba is about the power of words, but not just any words, Torah words – words of light and wisdom permeating our everyday lives and our seemingly mundane actions, and filling them with purpose and sanctity.”

He noted that Sinai Indaba’s guiding principle is that Torah Judaism is not merely a religion, confined to the transcendental or the ceremonial, but rather, is an all-encompassing way of thinking and living - an idea illustrated by the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot which states, “Turn it (the Torah) over and over for everything is in it,” and the Midrash that relates how G-d “looked into the Torah and created the world.”

“Torah is indeed the blueprint for every facet of human existence,” said Goldstein. “The Torah offers us the framework with which to create a loving marriage and nurture children, to be ethical in business, to be sensitive in our interpersonal relationships and compassionate and generous with those in need, to run a modern economy and judicial system, and to relate to G-d and lead a meaningful life, connecting to ultimate truth.”

And those delivering the words of Torah at this year’s Indaba constituted an impressive bunch indeed.

The line-up included global statesmen, icons, visionaries, philosophers and storytellers – people who, in the words of Shimon Peres, have dedicated their lives to “setting the goals and paving the routes to free the power and wisdom within all of us.”

For many at the Indaba, UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was the conference’s major drawcard.

One of the Jewish world’s great universalist thinkers, and with a knack for delivering big, important addresses on big, important occasions, Sacks didn’t disappoint, crafting impossibly eloquent dissertations on subjects such as faith, creating a better world and “the dignity of difference”.

Sacks shared top billing with Ambassador Yehuda Avner. Languid, graceful and dignified, the 85-yearold advisor and speech writer to five Israeli prime ministers, and former Ambassador to Great Britain, oozed statesmanship. He spoke in world-weary tones but with exquisitely ornate diction, lamenting Israel’s position as a “tiny land on a huge continent of enmity” contending with “a hostile and souring public mood,” but at the same time, filling his audiences with hope and a sense of responsibility.

Among the other speakers, the great Jewish icon and holocaust survivor, Esther Jungreis, brought audiences to tears with monumental talks on faith after the holocaust and finding meaning in life’s vicissitudes; Rabbi Paysach Krohn, perhaps the great maggid of this generation, threw himself into his tales of the remarkable and the inspirational, leaving his audience spellbound and spiritually enriched; and Oprah Winfrey’s resident psychotherapist, Gary Neuman, cut an immediately likeable figure, delivering a series of warm-hearted, practical, and often very funny seminars on raising happy children and creating flourishing marriages.

Also popular were Rabbanit Yemima Mizrachi, one of Israel’s most popular female educators, whose words tumbled forth with barely pause for breath, full of care and concern, warmth and humor, and with an Israeli straightforwardness that was immediately engaging; and the effervescent, hugely charismatic Dayan Yonoson Abrahams of the London Beth Din, who wooed locals with his surprisingly in-depth knowledge of South African rugby and cricket sporting trivia, before launching into searing discourses on the nature of Jewish Law.

Other standouts included Rabbi Ozer Glickman, a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University and distinguished merchant banker, who applied his Torah knowledge and business acumen to a forensic examination of economic enterprise as a vehicle for spirituality; Manchester’s celebrated Rabbi Yossi Chazan, who drew on a deep reservoir of Torah knowledge to convey complex mystical concepts in a way that was both clear and accessible; and noted Jewish historian, Rabbi Berel Wein, who discussed his latest work, The Legacy: Teachings for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis, with co-author, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein.

The award-winning ensemble, The Heart and the Wellspring, beguiled audiences with their unique blend of traditional Jewish folk music and Chasidic niggunim, setting the seal on what can perhaps be described as the Woodstock of the South African Jewish community, but with more clothes and better toilet facilities.

And better logistics. Sinai Indaba III was an undeniably slick affair – from the slow-reveal teaser marketing campaign and billboards and banners that blanketed out half the country, to the ushers and timekeepers tasked with holding up “5 more minutes” and “Please finish now” placards in front of speakers straining to cram their life’s work into a 45-minute package. From start to finish, it felt like a high-level academic conference.

The Sinai Indaba roadshow rolled on from Johannesburg to Cape Town and then on to Port Elizabeth and Durban, drawing unprecedented crowds. The country’s major convention centers pulsated, as crowds bustled between venues, scanning their programs, animatedly discussing the speakers, embodying the “Unite, Inspire, Discover” ethos.

By the end, some 6,500 South Africans had passed through Sinai’s gates, including 4, 500 in Johannesburg and 1,700 in Cape Town, representing more than ten percent of the country’s Jewish population. (To put this in context, imagine 500,000 Israelis gathering at this year’s Presidential Conference.)

South Africa’s incorrigible chief rabbi closed out Sinai Indaba III by launching a countrywide campaign to keep one entire Shabbat as a community (surely an unthinkable ask for any other diaspora community), and deserves much of the credit for another remarkable conference – one which, as Avner quite rightly remarked, “simply has no peer anywhere in the world.”

“There is a deep human need to come together to celebrate and reaffirm the values and ideals we hold precious, and to unify around a shared moral vision,” said Goldstein in closing. “This is what Sinai Indaba is about – a Torah-inspired magical moment of Jewish unity.”

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