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Farewell to Rav Kossowsky, a Torah giant and a gentleman




Kossowsky, a former chief rabbi of Zurich, led congregations around the world in a career that spanned decades, even serving as the rabbi of Johannesburg’s Sydenham Shul between 1978 and 1986. He perpetuated a family legacy of which Johannesburg Jewry was very much a part.

“The Kossowsky name was very prominent in the history of Johannesburg Jewry,” says Yossy Goldman, the rabbi of Sydenham Shul. “His father, Reb Michel, was the rav of the Beis Medrash Hagodol in Doornfontein, and a founder of Yeshiva College. His grandfather, Reb Yitzchok, was the head of the Beth Din here.”

Born in Tehran to Lithuanian refugees fleeing the Soviet takeover of the country, Kossowsky was raised in South Africa. He went to Israel for his rabbinic studies before moving to the US, serving at one point as a chaplain in the US Marines and working on his doctorate in sociology. He later returned to South Africa, where he played an instrumental role in the religious development of the Jewish community.

Says Goldman, “Reb Zalman was a colleague who carried himself with distinction. Tall and well-groomed, his rabbinic garb was traditional and stylish, and his forte was his dedication to the pastoral care of his community. He served our community, then numbering well over 1 000 families, and he did it single-handedly with no associate or assistant rabbi. That was more than a full-time job.”

Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva College, knew Kossowsky and his family well, working closely with him and his father in the creation of the Yeshiva College campus.

“Like his father, he was very much part of Yeshiva College,” says Tanzer. “He taught there for years and was an integral part of the campus. He was an expert in mikvaot [Jewish ritual baths] and supervised the construction of our campus mikvah.”

Kossowsky not only taught at the school but was a member of its governing board for two years. His father, Reb Michoel, was also one of the visionaries who founded the Mizrachi shul on the campus.

Tanzer describes Kossowsky as wonderful human being and a brilliant rabbi, a person who was always involved with the community but was never loud or boisterous, leaving a sterling impression on every person he met.

“He was a giving human being who was very sensitive and quiet,” recalls Tanzer. “He loved people, and people loved him.”

Kossowsky later served as a congregational rabbi to the Kenton Shul in London before accepting the role of chief rabbi of the ICZ (Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zürich), an umbrella organisation representing Orthodox, liberal, and secular Jewish streams in Switzerland.

Alan Porter, who served on the Sydenham Shul council during Kossowsky’s time, says that the rabbi “had a profound influence on our religious understanding”.

Author and radio personality Howard Feldman remembers his “courageous” ability to handle difficult students when Feldman was as a pupil at Yeshiva College.

Concludes Goldman, “He will be remembered for his kindness, compassion, and loving character, treating everyone with genuine ahavat Yisrael [love for fellow Jews].”

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