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Honouring the longest-serving rabbi in South Africa

  • Suchard 357
The average tenure of a rabbi in the US is five years. In the UK, it’s 10 years. When a rabbi serves a community for 46 years, it’s something unique. And, when that same rabbi has shared a special relationship with the South African community for 63 years, it’s an achievement worth celebrating.
by JORDAN MOSHE | May 03, 2018

Such is the case with Rabbi Zigmund Samuel Suchard, who was honoured at a dinner last Tuesday evening at the Sandton Shul hall on the eve of his retirement and becoming a Rabbi Emeritus of that shul.

Ivor Blumenthal, honorary life president of Sandton’s Beth Midrash Hagadol, told the audience: “Leadership is not about being in charge. It’s about caring for those who are in your charge. Regarding his community an extension of his family, Rabbi Suchard is a leader whose compassion is boundless and benevolence, all-encompassing.”

Those in the packed shul hall paid tribute to the rabbi and Rebbetzin Rochel, who together established a community in an area which, at the time, was nothing but a dusty expanse. “This area was a farmland, struggling for a minyan,” said Rabbi David Shaw, incoming senior rabbi of the shul. “Since then, under the guidance of our leader and educator [Rabbi Suchard], the area has flourished into something great. It is today the centre of Jewish life in Sandton, thanks to the pioneering spirit, creativity and innovation of one man. We all need to ride on the coattails of the righteous, and Rabbi Suchard has brought us to where we are.”

Born and educated in South Africa, Suchard was one of the first Yeshiva College scholars, enrolling with nine other boys in the school’s first class at  15. He spent 11 years in Lithuania’s famous Telshe Yeshiva, as a student and then as an educator in Talmud.

After being ordained by Rabbi CM Katz, he returned to South Africa as a senior lecturer at Yeshiva College and was also the founding dean of Menorah Girls High.

After serving as a dayan on the Beth Din and as a community rabbi to Sandton’s Beth Midrash Hagadol for almost 50 years, Suchard is retiring from his position and will be making aliyah to Israel this month. He will, however, still be connected to Sandton Shul in his capacity as its official Rabbi Emeritus.

Rabbi Suchard’s father taught him a poem by Rudyard Kipling, called If, which has had a lasting influence on his life. Blumenthal recited some of the poem’s verses last Tuesday night: “If you can wait and not be tired by waiting… If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue… If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run – Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it. And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

“These words,” said Blumenthal, “are of unique significance to Rabbi Suchard. To this day he has remained a patient rabbi, husband and father.

“If I asked you to close your eyes and envisage the shul, you would see the image of the Rav. If I asked you to envisage a talmid chacham, you would still see him. The image will always be that of Rabbi Suchard.”

Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, head of Glenhazel Shul and Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva College said: “We all know about the great things he has achieved in our community. But how many rabbis can skip rope at a simcha? I hope many of them know how? He feels simcha in a way we don’t understand… Wherever someone is in pain, he’s there. Wherever someone wants to learn, he’s there. His heart, his soul, his everything is there.”

Addressing Suchard directly, Tanzer said: “You are the Rabbi Akiva of our time. The great sage started again with four students after losing 24 000 brilliant minds to a calamity. You played the same role in South Africa after the destruction of Jewish life in Europe. Rebuilding something after destruction and hopelessness, you breathed life back into the Torah world and built something beyond comprehension. You have followed the lead of Rabbi Akiva before you.”

Rabbi Suchard and his wife then addressed the gathering. “Together we have achieved something great here in Sandton,” said Suchard. “I am fortunate to have served this community for 46 years and I consider it an honour from Hashem.

“I look forward to building this community even further. Even from Israel, I'll be a part of this community. What does it mean to be Rabbi Emeritus? It means I’ll be a rabbi of Sandton forever. I’m there to serve you as much as I can. Even when I’m in Israel, I’ll be with you and will be present at all your life events. I will always be a part of this.”

His wife, Rochel said: “Today, members from our community are spread out across the world.” From the beginning, we envisioned Sandton Shul becoming what it is today. We have never looked back. I’ve gained something from all of you. I’ve learned from all of my students and I thank them for everything.

“Rabbi Suchard is a doer,” she concluded. “To him, the community is a priority, and he is devoted to the quality of our shul... My husband is a leader, visionary and father to his community and family. A special man in a special place, with wisdom in his eyes and a smile on his face. That is my husband.”

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