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Community’s strength is strong foundations

  • Simon
This past Sunday, around 750 people flocked to the Cape Town International Convention Centre – among them, around 150 learners from Herzlia High School – as the Sinai-X roadshow concluded its run with a high-energy event in the Mother City. Rabbi Zev Leff, one of three headline speakers, shared his thoughts on the event, and on the South African Jewish community in general.
by SIMON APFEL | Apr 13, 2016

Clad in classic Rosh Yeshiva attire - black hat, white shirt, black frock - Rabbi Zev Leff is regarded as one of the most colourful and creative Torah thinkers of this generation.

At this year’s Sinai-X event, Leff spoke about the art of decision-making and explored the Torah requirement to reflect broadly and deeply before drawing conclusions. But if there’s one thing he has clearly made up his mind about, it’s his admiration for the South African Jewish community.

“There is a certain derech eretz in South Africa which I haven’t seen in too many other places,” he says.

“This is especially evident among children here. There is a respect for parents and teachers the likes of which one hardly sees in Israel. And it’s not false, it’s not just etiquette.

“We know that derech eretz is the foundation of Torah. And I think South African Jews are taking their strong derech eretz foundations and graduating to the next level, which is Torah.”

The Rosh Yeshiva and communal leader of Moshav Matityahu is visiting South Africa for the second time after winning over wide-ranging audiences with his sharp wit and analytical acuity at the 2011 Sinai Indaba. 

“The Torah presented at these events is the genuine product,” says Leff. “People know they are coming for serious, authentic Torah learning – and they come in extraordinary numbers. These aren’t people who are necessarily 100 per cent committed to Torah, but they are nevertheless interested enough to want to learn.”

Of course, there are important sociological factors behind the success of events like Sinai Indaba and Sinai-X, and initatives such as the international Shabbos Project, which the South African community pioneered.

“The fact that there is one chief rabbi and an organised, unified, yet diverse group of rabbonim under that banner, as well as one kashrut, tends to foster unity,” he explains. “In the US everybody is to themselves, there is more room for dissension and isolationism. In South Africa, you don’t have the luxury of machlokes (argument).

“There seems to be a deep respect for Torah itself among even the less observant South Africans - perhaps rooted in the great Lithuanian Torah families from which the majority of the community stems,” he continues.

“If Torah is denigrated and diminished, and this is what children grow up with, then there isn’t much hope. But if Torah is respected - as it seems to be in most South African homes - then there is always a good chance it will re-emerge, reinvigorated, somewhere down the line.”

Leff paid tribute to Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein for the manner in which he has built on these foundations.

 

“The Chief Rabbi is smart and canny and understands people. He knows how to do things and how to get them done. He is also humble and personable - people want to work with him and help bring his grand ideas to fruition. There is a respect and affection for him across the community - talmidei chachamim (advanced Torah scholars) relate to him as do those of a more secular persuasion.”

And what of the Chief Rabbi’s latest initiative - a DIY Torah learning programme focused on Pirkei Avot, called “Avot101”?

“I think the South African community is thirsty for Torah learning - as their attendance at Sinai-X exhibited - and it wouldn’t surprise me if this learning programme takes off in the same way the Sinai events and the Shabbos Project did,” says Leff.

 

“Pirkei Avot can be learned on many levels, and also contains ideas that promote both derech eretz and Torah learning itself. Its lessons are accessible and applicable to everyone, men and women, young and old, Torah scholar and novice, alike. I think it’s an excellent choice.”

 

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