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Laurence Perez - at centre stage of Jewish destiny

  • ShiraPerez
The South African Jewish community has produced exceptional leaders who have gone on to become captains of industry on the local and international circuit, occupying the most senior positions in business, finance, medicine, and the arts.
by SHIRA DRUION | Nov 30, 2016

Rabbi Laurence Perez, executive director of World Mizrachi, stands out from the crowd for his numerous achievements, all of which he takes in his stride.

Rabbi Perez has spent his life dedicated to furthering religious Zionism. His trajectory began as head boy of Yeshiva College in Johannesburg. He then made aliyah, moved onto Yeshiva studies and service in the IDF.

Ten years after high school, he got married to his wife Shelly and they spent a further two years learning in a kollel before they returned to South Africa for a supposed two-year stint, which fast became 15 years.

The Perez family returned to Israel in July 2014 and currently live in a small town called Yad Binyamin which is home to approximately 800 families, and is situated in the south of Israel not too far from Rehovot and about 20 kilometres from Tel Aviv.

“For me personally, living in Israel fulfils a deep sense of homecoming. I had felt, almost on a daily basis, a deep desire to return to Israel, as somehow the Land and State of Israel were and are inextricably linked with both the destiny and destination of the Jewish people in general and my family in particular. 

“Both sets of my grandparents made aliyah at different stages and my parents and siblings and families all live in Israel - so there was also an additional sense of homecoming in this respect. It is really special to have us all together in Israel.”

During his tenure in South Africa, Rabbi Perez was instrumental in strengthening the Mizrachi community and Yeshiva College. He served in a variety of positions, including as executive director of Mizrachi, rabbi of the Mizrachi Shul, as well as managing director of Yeshiva College.

“All of these positions enabled me to grow enormously and greatly enhanced my ability to understand the needs of Diaspora communities, so I can best serve them. I learned the intricate nuances that one needs to understand in order to run a school, organisation and shul, which is obviously particularly relevant in my current position as executive director of World Mizrachi where I am visiting communities around the world.”

His passion is tangible as he speaks about the work he does. “My position entails enhancing the relevance and impact of the core values of Mizrachi around the world - deepening Jewish identity through a connection to Torah values, the people of Israel and Jewish community, as well as to the Land and State of Israel. 

Perez’ two priorities are to strengthen Mizrachi branches around the world with the best possible lay and professional leadership and to create an aligned movement where the whole is greater than the individual parts.

The second is to work within Israeli society and the religious Zionist community to enforce a sense of responsibility for Diaspora Jewry. 

“Over half of the international Jewish people live outside the borders of Israel. Israel has an enormous pool of talent to serve in positions of communal, educational and rabbinic leadership.

“We work towards tapping this talent and encouraging service in positions in Diaspora communities. We currently have around 50 people in training programmes preparing to serve Diaspora communities, as well as seven couples who recently left to serve communities abroad.” 

Rabbi Perez is nostalgic as he speaks about South Africa. “I think, we all miss different things about South Africa. In principle though, we all miss the close regular interactions with the many people with whom we had and have deep and meaningful relationships, both family and friends. 

“Additionally, when one has been in a country for so long, there is a great sense of familiarity with how the system works and that is not so easy to recreate overnight - especially learning a new language and culture.”

Yet, his love for Israel is deep. “Israel, with all its challenges, is a dynamic and vibrant country on the move. She has a strong economy and there is a tangible atmosphere of joie de vivre in embracing life's opportunities.

“Above all, there is a profound sense of homecoming and being at the centre stage of Jewish destiny. This is a humbling privilege and one which cannot be quantified in magnitude.” 

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