Hail to the chief (rabbi)

Think Again: Even his most ardent backers among South African Jewry could never have imagined Warren Goldstein would emerge as forceful leader.

Rabbi Warren Goldstein_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rabbi Warren Goldstein_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I am just back from my first visit to South Africa. The occasion of the visit was the first-ever Sinai Indaba. (For the uninitiated, “indaba” is a Zulu word for a gathering of tribal leaders to discuss important matters, and is frequently used in Africa today for any large gathering.)
The Sinai Indaba consisted of well-known speakers across the Orthodox spectrum, headlined by former chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. The communal response far exceeded the organizer’s expectations: Some 3,000 attended in Johannesburg, 500 in Cape Town, and 200 in Durban. At the El Al security interview prior to my flight home, my interrogator apologized for not having made it to any of my sessions, by way of letting me know he had been there. He estimated that 40 percent of those in attendance were, like him, non-observant – though such estimates are notoriously difficult in a traditionally minded Jewish community like this one, in which almost all Jews belong to an Orthodox synagogue and would automatically don a yarmulke to listen to Torah-related lectures.
THE MOVING force behind the Sinai Indaba, as with so much else regarding today’s South African Jewry, was Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. Originally appointed in 2003 at the tender age of 32, Goldstein has proven a surprise both to those who expressed wonderment at his initial appointment, and to supporters. Even his most ardent backers could never have imagined that the softspoken young rabbi would emerge as a forceful communal leader. They envisioned him as primarily suited for a ceremonial role on the strength of his doctorate in law and book of e-mail correspondence with Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Dumani Mandela, entitled African Soul Talk – When Politics Is Not Enough.
Goldstein, however, had another model in mind – that of the traditional Lithuanian rav as problem-solver. It became clear to him soon after assuming his position that he would find himself presiding over the rapid withering away of South African Jewry if the rate of violent crimes in the Jewish neighborhoods were not reduced dramatically. The resulting initiative, CAP (Community Active Protection) represents perhaps the premier contemporary example of an entire Jewish community marshaling its resources – intellectual, financial, and voluntary manpower – to address a threat to the community’s continued viability.
Over the last four years, the rate of monthly crime incidents involving the use of weapons has plummeted 80% to 90% in the major Jewish neighborhoods of Johannesburg. In the greater Glenhazel area, the largest Jewish concentration, there were 20 reported contact crimes per month on the eve of CAP’s launch in 2006. Today there are fewer than two per month.
At present, separate private security providers, under a unified CAP control center, are securing the public space in 12 neighborhoods, with a total of 150,000 residents (most of them non-Jewish).
In every other Jewish community in the world, the CAP initiative would almost certainly have been under the aegis of one of the secular communal bodies. But in the unique context of South African Jewry, the position of chief rabbi still carries sufficient respect for him to take the lead on major communal undertakings. In a similar fashion, many prominent Jews who are nonobservant in their private lives eagerly responded to Goldstein’s requests for assistance with the Sinai Indaba, providing, for instance, the Facebook page, valuable advertising space on telephone and electric poles throughout Jewish neighborhoods, and plane tickets to the various local venues.
Remarkably, in a country of nearly 50 million people, with a Jewish population of only 75,000 today (down from a peak of 120,000), Goldstein has emerged as a major national figure. He was the moving force behind a national Bill of Responsibilities, and the principal draftsman.
South Africa is the only country in the world to have enacted such a bill. The Bill of Responsibilities is frequently broadcast in the media, and syllabi have been created for teaching it at every grade level in the school system.
British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is the most respected public voice of religion in Britain today, by virtue of his own eloquence and the default of any competitors: The incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury is an empty suit, and the Muslim clerics, who enjoy the most fervent religious following, are primarily engaged in threats against the “deniers” and demands for autonomy.
But only in South Africa has a core Torah perspective – that of life seen through the lens of duties, not just rights – so thoroughly permeated public discussion. And that is due almost entirely to Rabbi Goldstein.
IN MANY WAYS, Goldstein is a representative product of South Africa’s unique form of non-observant Orthodoxy. His father was a judge in Pretoria, the capital, and the family is of Lithuanian descent, as are almost all South African Jews. The Goldsteins were traditional, but not Shabbat observant. Today, not only are both of the chief rabbi’s brothers religious, so are his parents. That, too, is part of the story of South African Jewry.
Mitzva observance was nearly a dead letter at the time of Goldstein’s birth in 1971, apart from a small group of German Jews, who arrived in the mid-’30s, and an active Bnei Akiva centered around Yeshiva College in Johannesburg, founded by Rabbi Avraham Chaim Tanzer of Cleveland’s Telshe Yeshiva. South African Jews, nevertheless, always generously supported Orthodox shuls, demanded rigorous observance from their rabbonim, and contributed of their time and money to a myriad of communal institutions. All were ardent Zionists. A high percentage – even among those active in anti-Apartheid politics – were inclined toward Revisionist Zionism. When Menachem Begin visited as leader of the opposition, no hall could be found large enough to accommodate him.
Today, 20%-25% of Johannesburg’s Jews are Shabbat-observant, one of the highest percentages of any Jewish community in the world. It is rare to meet anyone in the religious community who is not himself a ba’al teshuva or the child of ba’alei teshuva. Yet because the community is so traditional, the transition to religious life rests easily on these newly observant Jews. Because their parents always considered themselves Orthodox, if non-observant, most ba’alei teshuva did not face the intense parental opposition of their counterparts elsewhere in the world, and indeed many parents joined their children.
The teshuva revolution in South Africa largely began with the arrival of a kollel from England in 1970, headed by Rabbi Naftoli Shakovitsky, son of the former rabbi of Gateshead, the most insular community in Europe.
When the black-garbed and bearded rabbis first appeared on the Witwatersrand University campus, the Jewish students, each of whom had a picture of a similar- looking Lithuanian ancestor on the mantle over the fireplace, were fascinated. Soon they were literally hanging out of the windows at the Monday night classes in the building housing the kollel.
ON MY last Shabbat in South Africa, I spent nearly four hours with the leadership of the South African Union of Jewish Students. Some were religious, some not, but because of the homogeneity of the community and the fact that almost all were educated in Jewish schools, whether secular or religious, the lines of demarcation were not as sharp as elsewhere, and it was not immediately clear which were observant and which were not. They shared a deep knowledge of Israeli affairs and a taste for sharp and articulate debate. On American campuses today, it is rare to find a Jewish student who can identify July 4, 1976, as the day of the Entebbe rescue, if he or she has even heard of Entebbe. Each of these students recognized the date immediately.
Jewish emigration from South Africa has largely stabilized, but no one knows what the future holds. The students themselves varied widely in their assessment of the future for local Jewry. But of one thing I’m confident: These products of South Africa’s unique Jewish milieu will, like their chief rabbi, leave their mark for the good on whatever Jewish community they find themselves whether in their native land, Israel, or elsewhere.
The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997 and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.