From school to semicha – the rabbis that came from King David
Jewish values and Zionism have been the core ethos of King David Schools over 75 years of existence, but for about 40 alumni, a King David education inspired them to become rabbis.
Sandton Shul’s Rabbi David Shaw completed his primary and high school career at King David Linksfield, matriculating in 1977. Shaw grew up in a traditional home, and he and his family became increasingly observant over the years. “I was one of three or four in my year in high school who were religious,” he recalls. “I was inspired by my Jewish Studies teachers.”
Yet, Shaw’s Jewish Studies classes took an unexpected turn in Grade 10. “I was actually kicked out of the class by the rabbi who taught us,” he laughs. “He said there were four stages to doing teshuva (repenting), and I put up my hand because I was a top student in Jewish Studies, and said, ‘The first stage is that you have to sin if you’re going to repent.’ He thought I was mocking, but I was actually quite serious, and he skopped me out.”
Having trained in classical chazanut, Shaw started the King David choir during his time at the school. He also joined Bnei Akiva during his primary school days. “King David gave me many opportunities,” he said. “I was in the Eisteddfod when I was in primary school, which was helpful and gave me an advantage in terms of speaking. It was a nurturing environment.”
After school, Shaw studied in Israel and then in South Africa at the Jewish Students University Program, which he later led, which ran under the South African Board of Jewish Education. To date, Shaw has spent more than 25 years in education in South Africa and Australia, the former including time spent as the head of the Division of Informal Jewish Education, and the latter setting up an internationally renowned department of informal Jewish Studies.
Shaw said the influence of his King David teachers and connection to his King David contemporaries lingers to this day. “Between those of us from our year that are still here in South Africa, there’s a special bond,” he said.
Rabbi Shmuel Moffson grew up in Emmarentia, a Jewish neighbourhood from which numerous Jewish students went to King David Victory Park (KDVP), including Moffson and his three siblings. Growing up in a traditional shomrei Shabbos home, Moffson says there were two specific school tours that fuelled his growth in Yiddishkeit: ulpan and encounter.
“On ulpan in Grade 10, we went to Israel for four months, which developed my Hebrew skills tremendously as well as my attachment to Israel and Yerushalayim,” he said. “Being away had a big impact.”
Attending the first encounter in 1975, called Counterpoint, had an even bigger influence on the path Moffson’s life ultimately took. “The organisers enlisted the top Kiruv outreach personalities from America as well as using the local talent at prominent religious organisations,” he said. Kiruv, a movement of Orthodox Judaism that reaches out to less observant community members, encouraging them to believe in G-d and live life according to Orthodox Jewish law, was already undergoing a revolution in the 1970s, said Moffson.
“Encounter had a tremendous impact on me and my grade. Fifteen students became and remain shomrei Shabbos,” Moffson said. “Then there was lot of follow-up with the participating organisations – Kollel, Yad Shaul, and Chabad. They all motivated me to go to Yeshiva. Five or six of us from my grade went to various Yeshivot in Israel, which was unheard of at the time. I attribute a fortune of my growth and motivation to go to Yeshiva and do outreach to King David.”
For ex-Davidian rabbis, Moffson said, there’s a familiarity that makes you more relatable to people of all levels of observance. Currently working with young professionals, Moffson has two religious centres from which he runs various programmes: the Arch, as well as a centre attached to his Glenhazel home. “Increasingly, my agenda has become to keep the community together,” he said.
Rabbi Danny Sackstein of Sunny Road Kehilla attended KDVP High School between 1984 and 1987. Coming from a more traditional than observant home, it was his school experiences that laid the foundation for his later rabbinical journey. “King David exposed me to the incredible Zionist dream of establishing a Jewish state,” he said. Participating in the school’s Zionist quiz, Sackstein was inspired by the miracle of Israel.
His ulpan tour to Israel furthered his love of the Jewish homeland. “The experience had a great impact on me, not only did I see the Zionist dream in reality, but it was there that I had my first real exposure to Shabbos and Judaism. A seed was planted deep inside of me that was later to flourish.”
Rabbi Ricky Seeff, the general director of the South African Board of Jewish Education (SABJE), the controlling body of King David Schools, exemplifies the enduring value of a King David education. Seeff matriculated from King David High School Linksfield in 1999, and later went on to work at both the high and primary schools at KDVP before taking on his current role. “I think I’m the only ex-Davidian to have been a teacher and a principal and now the director of the SABJE,” he said.
“I loved King David and everything the school had to offer, which is probably why I ended up working there.”
Though he initially had no intention of becoming a rabbi when he matriculated, joining friends on an MTA programme in Israel led Seeff on a path to more committed observance. After completing an engineering degree, he remained involved in Bnei Akiva and ultimately completed his semicha to become a rabbi.
When Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein asked Seeff to run a Beit Midrash for advanced Jewish Studies at KDVP High School, he grabbed the opportunity. The rest is history.
“That sense of connection at King David really fostered in me a passion for community, while the love of Yiddishkeit came from encounter and similar experiences,” said Seeff, reflecting on his experience as a student.
Speaking of the King David ethos today, he said, “It’s like an incubator for Jewish values, Jewish awareness, and Jewish identity that affects our students, especially within the immersive environment we offer. There’s something for everybody.”
“All kids, irrespective of their observance level, are getting a Hebrew education and a connection to community. There’s this overriding sense of: I’m a Jew, and I’m part of the community, and that’s invaluable.”