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Philanthropist Sam Sher passes on

“Sam has departed. South Africa has lost its glory” declared Rabbi B Grossnass; “The whole community is in mourning over the loss of a tzaddik in our time and one of the most wonderful philanthropists in our city” lamented Isaac Reznik in a ChaiFM tribute. Anguish was felt across Johannesburg, Manchester and many towns in Israel.






Written by Sam’s grandson DAVID SHER

“Sam has departed. South Africa has lost its glory” declared Rabbi B Grossnass; “The whole community is in mourning over the loss of a tzaddik in our time and one of the most wonderful philanthropists in our city” lamented Isaac Reznik in a ChaiFM tribute. Anguish was felt across Johannesburg, Manchester and many towns in Israel when friends, family and beneficiaries of the late Samuel Michael Sher, learnt of this exceptionally humane philanthropist’s passing last Monday.

Born in Anterlypt, Lithuania during 1926, Samuel (known to many as Sam) immigrated to South Africa with his parents during 1927 and settled in Doornfontein. His family was religious and Sam attended Shul first in Bertrams and then in Berea; his non-frangible bitachon (faith) and selflessness are attested to by the thousands who came into contact with him. Working during the day, he attended night school, trekking to and from the CBD each evening in order to study.

Sher Sam 

RIGHT: Sam and Rose Sher


Qualifying as a pharmacist, and through his vivaciousness and perspicacity he eventually built up a pharmaceutical portfolio and prospered. He married his wife Rose in 1956 at the Great Synagogue; she remained his devoted companion for well over half a century.

Sam was always communally engaged; he was Senior Warden at the Oxford Shul and became Chairman of the United Hebrew Congregations of Johannesburg alongside Chief Rabbi BM Casper in 1987. One of his particularly outstanding endeavours was his support of the fledgling ba’al teshuva movement in South Africa and beyond. Ever a visionary, he recognised the proficient capability of Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch and sponsored the new Torah Centre building in Yeoville (opened by Mayor Harold Rudolph); the only Shul still functioning in that area.

The Chofetz Chaim Shul in Raedene and Rabbi Aaron Pfeuffer’s Yeshiva Maharsha were other formative ventures and he led the purchase of the magnificent new premises on which one finds this latter key institution today. In 1987 the Torah Centre celebrated the first Sefer Torah to be completed in South Africa in over 50 years due to his munificence (he paid for many such scrolls); this event was captured inter alia by The Citizen newspaper.

A great lover of Israel, the Vilna Gaon Shul was built by Sam and opened by his wife Rose several years later in Jerusalem and the venerated Etz Chaim Yeshiva of Jerusalem was assisted in being kept afloat by him. A Kollel and Synagogue followed during 2005 in the Modi’in Illit area of Jerusalem and one of the world’s most majestic Shul Arks was unstintingly donated by him to a vibrant Betar Congregation. In his later years he was an unwavering supporter of the Kollel Yad Sha’ul and the West Street Shul.

Never one to exhibit his affluence, he lived unassumingly, often rapidly striding the some three miles to the Torah Centre every Shabbos from Houghton for many years (He learnt Tehillim by heart on these walks).

He became a confidante of many of Israel’s most distinguished Rabbis and of those in Johannesburg. Samuel’s empathetic style endeared him to his manifold employees (some of half a century standing) who revered him for the way he treated them, as he did all he met, with dignity and compassion. Assisting countless brides to marry, he never refused to provide to any individual in need; “Giving is better than receiving” was the dictum he lived by and he would give away costly medication gratis to those in need.

On his visits to Israel a burdened orphanage was assisted discreetly and a wedding hall was secured by his and Mendel Kaplan’s intervention to enable the marriage of impecunious couples.

Myriad causes in South Africa and Israel, – most of which he never made known to his family and friends – benefitted from his kindness of heart. He is survived by his 3 children, 11 grandchildren and 1 great grandson.

May his memory serve as a blessing.

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  1. Choni Davidowitz

    Jan 20, 2014 at 6:29 pm

    About 10 years ago my wife, daughter and myself were walking along a crowded pavement/ road in Meir Sharim. (the ultra religious area of Jerusalem).

    As we were strolling along a very tall ultra orthodox man accidently bumped into me. var’shkuldig mier (excuse me) he said. dos magt nit ous; I replied in broken Yiddish (Yiddish is the only language spoken in the area). Listening to me the Rabbi said; fun vanit kumst to. (from where do you come from). Drom Africa I replied; (from S.Africa I replied).

    Do kenst efser a Mr. Sam Sher ?( do you perhaps know a Mr. Sam Sher he asked.). Quite surprised I pointed to my wife and said. Ot is Mr. Sher’s shwetzer (This is Mr. Sher’s sister). It was as if an angel came down from Heaven. The rabbi got so excited that he called all his friends in the area to meet Sam’s sister.

    Imagine bumping into this rabbi amongst this crowded area. Sam Sher donated a large sum of money for the orphanage that the Rabbi supervised. 

  2. jack shnaier

    Feb 20, 2014 at 2:43 am

    ‘I knew Sam Sher since Habonim days.We were Gedud Trumpeldor and we met every Saturday night at the Doornfontein Talmud Torah premises in Beit St Doornfontein.This was around 1944.Sam was Rush Gedud.I met him on many occasions thereafter,especially at Oxford Shul.I used to see him walk through Norwood to his house in Houghton.He was a great philanthropist, not wishing to boast about his success in life & sharing his wealth with the community here & in Israel. He will sadly missed’

  3. ariel

    Mar 28, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    ‘Everyone at the Kollel Yad Shaul remembers Mr Sher for his great warmth and kindness. He was up at the crack of dawn and at his davening place long before any of the younger members. He learned Torah and loved Israel and every Jew. Johannesburg and South Africa was privileged to have him as a Jewish leader; rarely have our community leaders been so religiously inclined. Who else was friends with both Rabbi Sternbuch and Chief Rabbi Harris and Chief Rabbi Casper? On cordial terms with the likes of Rabbi S Z Auerbach and Rabbi Pinkus?

    In England too he was known as a supporter of Gateshead Yeshiva and the Shaarei Torah Yeshiva in Manchester. All this was done behind the scenes. The whole community mourns the passing of this humble yet great man. ‘

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True kindness



Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?

The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.

Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.

This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.

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In the brave steps of Abraham



In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.

The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.

While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.

Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.

At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.

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My kind of hero



The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.

That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.

Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.

Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!

Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.

There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.

Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.

His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.

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