A giant has fallen: the passing of John Moshal
Though he hailed from the smaller Jewish community of Durban, the impact of philanthropist and communal patriarch John Moshal was felt across the length and breadth of the South African Jewish community. His death at the age of 81 in London on Tuesday, 26 October, is an unquantifiable loss, but he leaves a legacy that will reverberate across generations and around the world.
While he cared deeply for all Jews and the wider community, his passing will be most keenly felt in the KwaZulu-Natal Jewish community. It was in Durban that he was born on 30 March 1940, and where he committed himself to a lifetime of service, becoming honorary life president of the Council of KwaZulu-Natal Jewry.
Born John Hillel Moshal, he was educated at Durban Preparatory School and Durban High School (DHS) and the University of Natal, where he graduated in chemical engineering. “More than 100 years ago, John’s father, Max, and my father, Phil, were at DHS together,” says Roger Ellison. “A generation later [1953 to 1957], John and I were also at DHS together, closely followed three years later by my brother Brian and John’s brother Brian.”
“He would always refer to the Moshal family legacy, which started when his family first arrived in South Africa in the late 1800s,” says Durban resident Alana Baranov, who had the honour of working on a book about the Moshal family. “The book was called Setting a Quiet Example, and that’s such a great way to describe John,” she says.
“He would always tell me that the word ‘Moshal’ translates to the word ‘example’, and that he was proud of the legacy of his uncle, Sol, who in his day was the doyen of the community. John really wanted to mirror his life, and walk in his and his ancestor’s footsteps,” says Baranov.
Moshal started Control Logic, and built it into the largest industrial electronics company in South Africa. He sold 50% to Engelhard Industries and this share passed to Anglo American Corporation. In 1984, he sold out completely and moved on to his other interests. His business activities were many and varied, allowing him to pursue the philanthropy that was so central to his ethos.
Community member Cheryl Unterslak says, “John came from very humble beginnings, and would refer to himself as a ‘simple engineer’. He always fought injustice, backed the underdog, and disliked bullies of any kind, be it at school, the pulpit, in community affairs, and in general.”
“He always stressed that he was a team with [his wife] Anna, and that the family did everything together as a team,” says Baranov. “He named the family trust JAKAMaR, after each family member: John, Anna, Karyn, Anthony, Martin, and Richard.”
Through this humanitarian foundation, he established a number of upliftment projects around the world. These included Chiva Africa, which provided HIV/Aids training for local health professionals; the Moshal Scholarship Programme, which has provided hundreds of full scholarships to needy students; the importing of refurbished computers and their distribution to disadvantaged KwaZulu-Natal schools; DIVOTE, which rehabilitates victims of terrorism in Israel; and assisting homeless, abandoned, and abused Jewish children in the Ukraine through the Tikva project.
Unterslak worked with Moshal on a number of causes, including DIVOTE, Talmud Torah, and the PJ Library. “When he started DIVOTE, his goal was to be able to give every Jewish person in South Africa the opportunity to support victims of terror in Israel. John could have done all his chesed for the families on his own, but he chose to be able to give everyone the opportunity.
“John cared deeply for all the Jewish children in the KwaZulu-Natal region and since 2005, regardless of what school they were in, ensured that they would be able to receive Jewish education,” she says. “He believed passionately that Jewish education should start as young as possible, and that one had to give a child the opportunity to know what it is to be a Jew, including the rich history of the Jewish community of KwaZulu-Natal. He remembered his lessons at the Talmud Torah classes in Durban, and had an old sepia photograph wearing a Talmud Torah blazer, from which the logo that we use for Talmud Torah emanated.”
Baranov says “John was proud of the fact that his office in his later decades was his childhood home that bought and restored to its former glory. He would spend his days when he was living in Durban in his office, surrounded by the memories of his childhood and family.”
His interests and passions were wide and varied. “He had the most amazing rock and gemstone collection that he could talk about for hours!” says Baranov. “He also had an incredible collection of watches. What was also surprising for a chemical engineer was that he really loved the ancient texts from ancient Rome and Greece, and he read a lot of that.”
Affectionately known as the “corporate grandfather” of the business world, “he always had time to listen to everyone who came to him for business or community advice”, says Unterslak. “John always said that he was there ‘to put oil on the squeak’. And he did that in abundance! He changed people’s lives, and treated everyone the same no matter if they were head of a corporation, a school child, or a beggar.
“John kept notes from every single meeting,” she says. “In those notebooks, some of his enormous generosity is recorded. He was a giant of a man, an absolute tzaddik. His legacy in the Durban Jewish community, the South African Jewish community, and the greater community in South Africa and overseas is enormous. John always said that he didn’t like to invest in brick and mortar, and I know that the legacy he built is much, much greater than any structure.”
“John was always so proud of Anna, and they were a great team,” Unterslak says. “He got an enormous amount of naches, happiness, and pride from all his children and grandchildren. The whole family continues his legacy.”
“He would always tell me his favourite quote from Pirkei Avot: ‘It’s not for us to complete the task, but neither can we step aside from it’,” says Baranov. “He would speak about how his family would travel ‘below the radar’, but ‘when we leave, we leave a world of good in our wake’. That’s really what he embodied.”