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Rabbi Tanzer celebrates his second barmitzvah

  • Robbi Tanzer Profile 2
The name Rabbi Avraham Tanzer is synonymous with youth Torah education in Johannesburg, and has attended many a barmitzvah at Yeshiva College, the school he helped build. This Sukkot, the community joined him in celebrating his second barmitzvah, and his 83rd birthday.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Oct 11, 2018

The community paid tribute to a man who played an instrumental role in establishing Yeshiva College more than 50 years ago, and raising the bar of Jewish education in South Africa.

There were celebratory shul services, and a lavish brocha held at Glenhazel shul on Yeshiva College campus, featuring renowned Jewish acapella group, Kippa Live.

“Rabbi Tanzer is known by all for his kindness and ways of peace,” says Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein. “Despite his soft-spoken gentleness, he has played a major role in transforming the Johannesburg Jewish community.”

Goldstein and Tanzer are close friends and associates. “Today, the Yeshiva College campus, with its school and minyanim, is a powerhouse of Torah learning and living that has had an impact on the entire Johannesburg Jewish community and, by extension, South African Jewry and the Jewish people worldwide. At its heart has been the brilliance, warmth, kindness, and clarity of vision of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Tanzer,” Goldstein says.

Tanzer was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1935, and arrived in South Africa in the early 1960s to take up the position of associate Rosh Yeshiva at the school, which had been in existence for only 10 years at the time. He was brought out for what was supposed to be a two-year stint.

Tanzer was reluctant to leave his native city for South Africa, but felt that the commitment was not particularly onerous, and that he could return home if the need arose. “My wife, Marcia, was the one who was eager to come,” laughs Tanzer. “She’s from Baltimore, and wasn’t reluctant the way I was. When I told her about the offer, she replied, ‘Great! When do we leave?’”

Tanzer describes the culture shock he experienced upon arriving in the country. “In those days, the South African Jewish community was nowhere near what it is today,” he says. “The community had very little religious understanding. There was no natural Jewish constituency, and so it had to be created almost from scratch.”

As part of this task, the then 27-year-old Tanzer was also expected to further the education development of the recently established Yeshiva College Boys High School, then catering only for a small number of male students. Asked at the time by the Zionist Record to describe his vision for the school, Tanzer said, “Our aim is to see the Yeshiva College grow, both in scope and in the number of students, and to produce a generation of Torah-conscious Jews who will inspire the community by their example.”

He certainly made every effort to see this happen. Tanzer explains, “We set out to expand the school, and in those days could achieve this only by going from door to door and telling local Jewish families about what we had to offer. This school, which today is so much more than what we knew then, was built up brick by brick, student by student.”

One of the school’s first pupils, Chaim Cohen, remembers these formative years clearly, as well as the impression this man made on him and others. “Rabbi Tanzer arrived in South Africa and the Yeshiva when I was in Form 3 (Grade 10) as it was then known,” he says, “and has been my rabbi for the past 55 years.”

He continues, “Rabbi Tanzer would often impress on students that when a person passes on, the only thing they leave behind of great substance and importance is their name, something which lives forever. He cared for every person individually, and ensured that no student was ever turned away from the Yeshiva if they couldn’t afford the fees. He always insisted that a Torah education was far more important than the payment of school fees.”

After his initial two-year term was up, Tanzer and his wife opted to stay and develop the community further. Over time, alongside his contributions to the school, Rabbi Tanzer became the founding rabbi and leader of the Glenhazel Area Hebrew Congregation, a community of 750 families, catering to the individual needs of many groups of congregants. His involvement in both the shul and school continues today, and he remains the Rosh Yeshiva of the entire campus.

Tanzer maintains that his work in the community is only part of a greater effort of multiple people, and stresses what a privilege it has and continues to be for him to be involved in it.

“Whatever you are and whatever role you play in life, you need to do your utmost always,” he says. “Hashem will always do the rest. We cannot see around corners or know what we are going to become, but if we can look back and feel content, then we are truly blessed.”

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