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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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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