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Actions and words – Tony Raphaely’s honourable life story



“When I think of the word ‘mensch’, it’s you who comes to mind.” This was how Anthony ‘Tony’ Raphaely’s granddaughter described him, shortly before he passed away from cancer on 17 September. A businessman, philanthropist, author, and family man, Raphaely spent periods of his life in South Africa and abroad. As a strong Zionist, he chose to be buried in Israel.

Even when illness took away his ability to speak, he continued to live by his values. Just three weeks before he passed away, Raphaely made the long trip to Australia for his grandson’s Barmitzvah. And when he had to write notes to communicate, “His letters were marked by an amazing sweetness,” says his brother, Denis Raphaely. “He was incredibly brave and never complained. He lived life as an honourable person.”

Raphaely was born in Cape Town in 1939. His brother remembers him battling with academics and a stammer, “which he mastered with incredible discipline”, and that he first went to Wynberg Boys High School and then to a boarding school. He moved to London at the age of 18, and lived there for six years before returning to South Africa, where he worked as a commodity trader in the business his grandfather, Leo, founded in the early 1900s.

Throughout the 1960s, he travelled extensively and lived in Peru, Iran, and Hong Kong. He met his wife-to-be, Penny, while visiting London in 1968. She and Tony’s sister, Pene (also pronounced Penny) were good friends, and Pene made the shidduch. They were married for 52 years, until his death.

They got married in London, and then moved to Johannesburg where they had four sons. “He and Penny raised them to understand the importance of family,” says his cousin, Betty Rajak. “When my children got married, he ensured all four of his sons were there, no matter where they were in the world. He also bought my kids their first dog, which they named Tony!”

Raphaely continued to work as a commodity trader in the 1980s and early 1990s until his retirement in 1995, at the age of 55. “His professional life and achievements pale in comparison to his real passions, which were his family, the Jewish community, and his charitable work,” says his son, Mark. “He didn’t simply give to charity. He was a leader who created forums for others to give, and he inspired them to do so.”

For example, after Raphaely’s son, Nick, and his friend, Jasper, founded the Link-SA Trust for Tertiary Education, “my dad soon realised the immense need to educate a new generation of South Africans and was the organisation’s sole fundraiser for almost 25 years”, says Mark.

“He advocated on behalf of students whose names he never knew and who never knew his, and put tens of thousands of underprivileged students through university. Many have gone on to senior positions in business, law, engineering, and medicine.”

“He really left a legacy, and he did it without a fuss, and as anonymously as possible, supporting as many causes as possible,” says Denis.

He followed in the footsteps of his Raphaely ancestors, and served as chairperson of the Great Synagogue in Johannesburg, forging close friendships with Chief Rabbi Bernard Casper and later with Rabbi Dovid Hazdan.

On his passing, Hazdan wrote, “The Raphaely family has been builders of our congregation for generations. Tony was a past chairperson of our community in the challenging closing years of the Great Synagogue in Wolmarans Street. His strength, tenacity, and determination kept our community alive and enabled our new Great Park campus to materialise. While others spoke about what needed to be done, Tony simply got it done. When the shul moved in 2000, Tony was incredibly proud to re-lay the foundation stone that his great uncle, Siegfried, had laid when the original shul was built in 1913. He was a very proud Jew, and faced each day with courage and strength.”

In his work with the South African Board of Jewish Education, Raphaely was tireless in ensuring that every Jewish child in Johannesburg who wanted a King David education could have one regardless of their financial position.

Mark says he was also a continuous supporter of the Johannesburg Chevrah Kadisha, an organisation his great grandfather founded in the 1880s. He brought attention to the needs of impoverished Jews in Johannesburg, and did what he could to ease their plight. And, he identified that there were countless Jewish seniors whose families had left South Africa. Many didn’t have the means to travel abroad to visit their children and grandchildren. With this in mind, he founded The Bobba Project, in which he single-handedly raised funds to send these grandparents overseas for a month-long visit to their families.

“He was acutely aware of how blessed he was to be able to be an integral part of his children and grandchildren’s lives, and wanted to ensure that any bobba or zaida who was physically up to the journey could travel overseas to spend a Pesach or Rosh Hashanah with their families,” says Mark.

“He was a phenomenal storyteller. It started with adventure stories to entertain his kids on long car rides, but he also wanted to use this talent for good. To that end, he wrote stories about Russian refuseniks in the 1980s to raise awareness of their plight, and also about the life of Isaac Ochberg who saved Jewish orphans from the pogroms and gave them new lives in South Africa. His daughter-in-law, Nikki, is the granddaughter of an Ochberg orphan.”

In 2019, he published a photographic book titled A Handful of Sand which, in a series of pictures, captures the beauty and diversity of the Cape Town Jewish community. “He did this as a gift to the community which raised him, and also to provide an eternal memory of Cape Town Jewry,” says Mark.

In his final years, while battling cancer, he wrote a historical novel in two parts called From Saratov to San Francisco – Five generations of one family’s stay in South Africa. This incredible saga tells the story of a penniless teenager who leaves Eastern Europe in the late 1800s, and chronicles his family over 140 years.

“He said that writing these books kept him alive,” says Denis. “It’s incredible that he could write books even while he was so ill.”

“In the book, he was able to share his wealth of knowledge on the history of South Africa, the commodity trading world, his love for travel, the importance of giving back when Hashem has given so much, and the value of family,” says Mark.

“It was a life well lived, without any doubt,” he says. “He lived the way we all should: he worked hard, had fun, and gave back in so many ways. For him, the idea that we’re all small players in a much bigger story was at the forefront of his mind, and even in his final days, he continued to highlight that we Jews bear responsibility not only for our own welfare, but for the welfare of society at large. The world is so much better because he lived in it. May we all learn from his incredible example.”

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