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Farewell to gentle philanthropic giant, Ben Rabinowitz



“It’s the end of an era,” says Judge Dennis Davis, on the passing of his friend of 45 years, Benjamin Rabinowitz. Fondly known as “Ben” or “Bennie”, this Cape Town icon left his mark on almost every aspect of South African society, from newspapers to the orchestra, cricket to education. His philanthropy, wisdom, expertise, and energy were directed to the past and future: from supporting a memorial to the Jews of Birzai, Lithuania, to saving the Cape’s coastline from development.

Rabinowitz passed away on 9 May at the age of 89 after an illness. “I don’t think there was anyone more generous in ensuring that organisations benefitting the public were supported,” says Davis. “If others with the resources gave to the extent that Bennie gave, South Africa would be a very different place.”

“How do you fill the shoes of a giant?” asks his goddaughter, Mia Feinstein. “You can’t, but you can certainly learn many things from the life of Bennie Rabinowitz. He was a mensch and embodied ubuntu [I am because you are]. He practiced Yiddishkeit, fought like a lion, and had the heart of a teddy bear. He personally fought to save our magnificent Sea Point promenade when developers wanted to demolish it, and won. I know many generations will be thanking him.”

Rabinowitz graduated as a top student from South African College High School (SACS) and obtained blues for cricket and athletics. He was the under-16 rugby captain, although he was notoriously shy. He went on to study at the University of Cape Town (UCT), obtained a distinction in Constitutional Law, and then studied law at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He became increasingly involved in property, textiles, and finance. Semi-retired since 2005, he served as a trustee, patron, chairperson, and board member in numerous spheres, and essentially became a full-time “good Samaritan”.

He did everything “below the radar”, and even as he aged, “he always had the fire of justice in his belly”, says Davis. He remembers how Rabinowitz “saved the Weekly Mail (now the Mail & Guardian newspaper) “when no other businessperson had the courage to do so”, and how he was “a generous donor to the Progressive Party when it wasn’t particularly popular”.

“Our upbringing was very different to a lot of our friends,” says his daughter, Lesley. “We were exposed at a young age to a lot of politics, people from different walks of life coming to the house, to music, art, theatre, and books. Albie Sachs was my dad’s cousin, so from a very young age, we were aware of [the struggle]. My mother would take us to sit outside Roeland Street Jail while she went to take Albie food, and unbeknown to us, she was also smuggling notes out in the lid of the thermos flask.”

“Bennie, my cousin on his mother’s side, was my hero at school – a great athlete who broke the school record for the 100 yards [91m], a top cricketer and rugby player who also got good marks,” says Sachs. “In the darkest days when I was in prison, Bennie and Shirley were anchors of affection. Bennie made one of my dreams come true – inviting me to attend the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. The story of how I persuaded Nelson Mandela to be there is for another day. I spent 10 days in total delight.”

“He loved jazz, and I remember going with him to Abdullah Ibrahim’s final farewell concerts, which kept happening until [Ibrahim] left the country,” says his daughter, Susan. He also became chairperson of the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO).

“Ben was a powerhouse in the orchestra, not only because of his philanthropy and large personality but his powers of persuasion to garner support for it,” says Louis Heyneman, chief executive of the CPO. “He couldn’t say no to a request from a friend for a ticket to a sold-out concert. So, CPO staff had to make miracles happen because we couldn’t say no to Ben!

“He believed in the value of great music to give meaning to the lives of so many. He took great pleasure in entertaining many of our leading artists. He contributed hugely to the fiscal management of the CPO and Cape Town Opera.”

“When Reverend Bernie Wrankmore was on a hunger strike at the Kramat on Signal Hill, we were taken up there to give our support. When I came out of school one day, there were my parents protesting outside St George’s Cathedral,” remembers Susan. Her mother, Shirley, who was a force in her own right, passed away in 2012.

“Bennie loved Hermanus and had a holiday home there for many years,” says community member Jonathan Lipman. “Had it not been for the foresight and perseverance of ‘Uncle Bennie’, there wouldn’t be a vibrant Jewish congregation in Hermanus today.”

He wasn’t looking for accolades, says Davis, and yet they still found him. He received the Mayor’s Medal for Philanthropy; the Inyathelo Award for Lifetime Philanthropy; the Paul Harris Fellow Award from the Rotary Club of Sea Point; the Spectemur Agendo Award from SACS; and the UCT President of Convocation Medal. “We heard about that one only the day before,” says Lesley. “He really preferred to stay out of the limelight.”

He was on the boards of many Jewish and wider organisations, and supported “all manner of Jewish causes”, says Davis.

“It wasn’t always about him funding things, it was about him connecting the right people with the right people, and he was prepared to chair things until they were back on their feet,” says Lesley.

He was the founding patron of LEAP Science and Maths Schools, which provides free maths and science-focused education to economically disadvantaged students. The organisation said Rabinowitz was a “generous visionary with the ability to connect people, and enabled LEAP to grow from its original concept to being a fully-fledged high-impact organisation”. Service Dining Rooms, which has been serving hot meals to the needy since 1935, also thanked him for his support.

The co-founders of Inyathelo first worked from a back room of the Rabinowitz home when setting up the organisation. Through organisations like these, Rabinowitz helped everyday South Africans, every day.

“He was a father, husband, brother, grandfather, uncle, cousin, friend, colleague, sportsman, lawyer, godfather, and best joke teller,” says Feinstein.” He had chutzpah, he loved to kvell, kibbitz and sometimes kvetch, he was mishpocheh to many, loved to nosh and fress, but overall brought so much naches into our lives.”

His daughters say he lived by the words, “I expect to pass through this world but once, any good, therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now, let me not defer it, nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

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