R. Hazdan keynote speaker at Chabad-Lubavitch event
Rabbis and guests from all over America and in fact all over the world, celebrated at a banquet, while followed by numerous viewers watching proceedings by webcast.
Rabbi Dovid Hazdan, spiritual leader of the Great Park Shul in Johannesburg and dean of The Torah Academy, was chosen to deliver the keynote address. He was the third South African to be honoured in this way. Rabbi Yossy Goldman of the Sydenham-Highlands North Shul and Rabbi Ari Shishler, director of Chabad of Strathavon, have addressed previous conferences.
In his address, Rabbi Hazdan said nobody could believe, when Chabad first came to South Africa, the degree to which it would change the face of Jewish life there. When Rabbi Mendel and Mashi Lipskar pioneered Chabad in South Africa in the 1970s, “the country was a very different place. The evils of apartheid had prepared a tinderbox of revolution and the tiny minority of white people had reason to be afraid.”
The Jewish community was stagnant in its religious growth, he said. He recalled the first mitzvah mobile and Succah mobile, part of “an unbelievable challenge to the status quo”.
It required tenacity and perseverance to prevail, he remarked.
Some 40 years ago, the Lubavitcher Rebbe introduced his education campaign. Using the example of a mountain partly covered by trees, but with large bare eroded areas, Rabbi Hazdan said “mountains produce trees, but trees preserve the mountains. Communities produce educated children, but educated children preserve our communities.”
He was proud that “Torah Academy has produced shluchim on every continent and in every part of South Africa, with a huge amount of leadership positions being held by the graduates of our school”.
In 1989, Rabbi Hazdan became the rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Wolmarans Street, Hillbrow, “which had an illustrious past, but a very precarious future, undermined by shifting demographics” and situated in what had become a dangerous area.
Many wanted the shul to close quietly, but a small band urged the building of a new shul in a better area. The negative voices said it was not a time to build a new shul.
Rabbi Hazdan saw it as a campaign to build a new shul, because the Rebbe had said it would be good for the Jews in this country until Moshiach came and even better after that.
“It was not a time to close shop,” Rabbi Hazdan said.
Following visits to a hospital emergency room and a hospice, he said they differed in one respect – “whether we believe we can make a difference. If we believe we cannot make a difference, we can wrap things up and arrange the demise in an orderly way.
“But if we do believe we can make a difference, then it is our responsibility to respond with alacrity, determination and with energy and power. We need to respond with the urgency of an emergency room.
“Pessimistic reports about the future of the Jewish people foster dejection and apathy. But tonight is filled with the Rebbe’s emergency personnel,” he said.
Rabbi Hazdan recounted that a few years ago, he addressed a gathering in South Africa of the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL), following a speaker who maintained that to reach out to others, we had to compromise our ideals; to reach out we had to be relevant.
Rabbi Hazdan said he was giving the opposite message. “We could only reach out to somebody else with integrity in our own commitment to our values, standards and religion.
“It is only by virtue of the fact that we have a tower of integrity in our own belief that we are able to reach one another. It is only if we are anchored to something higher, that we do not slip here below.”
Many South Africans were represented at the kinus, including Basil Lishansky, of the Great Park Shul, who introduced Rabbi Hazdan on video.