Subscribe to our Newsletter

click to dowload our latest edition



The making of a rabbi




“Do you see yourself as a victim of circumstance or an agent of change?” These are the words that Rabbi Dovid Hazdan, now the rabbi of Great Park Synagogue, heard when he was just 16. He’d arrived at a yeshiva in Kfar Chabad, near Tel Aviv. They resonated deeply with him.

The idea, he says, was “bold and unfettered”. It fired up this teenager from Warmbaths (now Bela Bela), who had just finished school and come to Israel to study Torah. “We could list forever the pain and blood-stained pages of our history, but to what end? I’m not a victim. I can affect the world.”

And this is where Hazdan put his energy. His father, Rabbi Israel Hazdan, was an inspiration in this regard. “He experienced the demise of his family by the Bolsheviks and Nazis, yet he picked himself up from the ashes of everything he’d endured. He was a positive, happy person. He never saw himself as a victim or behaved that way.”

So, despite thoughts of studying law, Rabbi Hazdan went to Kfar Chabad to learn the intricacies of the Talmud as well as the subject of philosophy: “This dealt with soul and journey and purpose – with the why.”

Hazdan had another father figure in his spiritual life, who he shares with so many: the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. “He promoted a vibrant, energetic Judaism. Reaching out to touch souls – even in Alaska or Vietnam – was deemed a sacred mission.”

Hazdan learned about the value of acceptance. “Acceptance is more than tolerance. It’s an embracing of life.”

While at the Yeshiva, Hazdan was encouraged to head for the Tel Aviv central bus station on Friday afternoons (while everyone else was relaxing) to look for soldiers and offer to put on tefillin with them or just connect. “We encountered people very different to ourselves.People have asked me over the years: ‘How could you stand there, with all kinds of distractions?’”

But Hazdan describes it as formative: “I wasn’t there to be influenced but to influence. It armoured me.” For him, it was about engaging with the world, trying to make a difference: “My belief was unshakable.”

It stood him in good stead when he spent two years in New Haven in Connecticut, interacting with Yale University students. Perhaps it helped foster a sense of humour when he became a camp counsellor for Californian kids who thought Moses was “a hero of a Hollywood movie”.

After six years studying Torah abroad, Hazdan returned to South Africa with his new wife, Feige, in 1983. “I couldn’t have fulfilled this role without a life partner who believed in what we were doing together. We have four kids and 10 grandchildren.”

In 1989, Hazdan was approached to assist as rabbi at the Great Synagogue when it was still located in Wolmarans Street, Joubert Park in Johannesburg. The decline of this old synagogue was perhaps the most challenging time for him and was his motivation for it being rebuilt in Glenhove Road. “Is there a need for it?” some asked. “Foolhardy,” others said. “We moved there in 2000. Today it’s vibrant and dynamic, serving 850 souls. We breathed life into it.

“We aren’t defined by our clothes or our cultures. We’re defined by a journey of soul. We’re all part of the same Breath of G-d,” says Hazdan.

And that is what he brings to his congregation. “It would be arrogant to say I’ve never questioned my path. Humans aren’t immune to challenges. But we win the battle. I have grown with this community and they have grown with me.”

For 31 years, Rabbi Mendel Rabinowitz of Greenside Shul has tried to infuse his community with what he calls the “integral beauty” of Judaism. This, he says, is a combination of wisdom and deed. “Judaism tells us it’s not just what you say, it’s what you do. What you say, you must do, and what you do, you become.

“When the Torah was given on Mount Sinai, the Jews responded with the words, ‘We will do and we will learn.’ That is the essence of Judaism.

“I come from a long line of rabbis, so religion resonated with me. My vision was to try to share that Judaism can be relevant to all parts of life. If Judaism is going to continue to be passed down from generation to generation, it needs to come with a love, with a beauty.”

Rabinowitz studied for six years – in Jerusalem and at the Yeshiva Gedola in Johannesburg – and then found himself in a community with a high number of academics. “Greenside is not a congregation of predominantly observant people, but they resonate with learning and understanding. It’s practically a Wits reunion here!”

So, he says, “Judaism has to be stimulating. You cannot say: ‘Do this because I say so.’ I have to engage on an intellectual level. Anyway, critical thinking is an important part of Jewish life.”

Aviva, his wife, is very much his partner. “It’s important to be complemented by a wife in this world. I’ve been blessed.”

This is not a job, says Rabinowitz. “I’ve known some of these people for 30 years, so you become a member of the family. When someone is in hospital, I want to be there. When I go to a wedding, I want to be there.

“If I have to think of ways to improve the qualification for rabbis, I’d advise introducing more knowledge on psychology, on counselling. You pick it up intuitively along the way, but it would be valuable to include this.”

He believes in imparting the human side of Judaism – “that’s the ethics, the morals, the compassion that it requires of every human being. Morality is not an optional extra in Judaism. These are not add-ons. These form the very fabric of Judaism.”

Rabbi Sam Thurgood of Beit Midrash Morasha in Arthurs Road, Sea Point, says his three great loves in life are Hashem, the Jewish people and teaching – and rabbinic life exists in the intersection of these passions.

“You have to love people,” he says.

Growing up in a traditional South African Jewish home in Durban North, Thurgood was set on studying actuarial science. He thought he’d go to Yeshiva for one year to enrich his Jewish learning. “There, things clicked together. I saw I could give in a way that is personally and spiritually satisfying without it ever feeling like a sacrifice.”

So, he thought he’d stay for two years.

“Learning Talmud was fascinating. I knew I would never get that through being an actuary. Although I had made the decision to become an actuary and become fabulously wealthy, it just couldn’t compete.”

He carried on teaching throughout what became seven years of rabbinic studies.

He also married after six years of Yeshiva. “My wife and I were 23 years old. I wouldn’t say I ever went looking for a rebbetzin, but I certainly found one.”

When the post opened in this Sea Point community, Thurgood took it on, aged 28. “We moved here with an eight-week old baby. A member of the community cornered me, saying: ‘Someone told me there’s a rabbi coming, who’s under 40 years old?’ So, I said: ‘But every day I’m getting closer to 40.’”

There were challenges: “I had people in their 60s coming for life advice. The real challenge was giving advice about teenagers!”

He finds great motivation from the resurgence of observance in Jewish life and the wisdom of the Torah. “You’re given this responsibility and I think Hashem helps.”

He’s inspired by 16th-century Talmudic scholar the Maharal of Prague, who “shows what anger does spiritually and its ramifications”.

He says kindness and humility are powerful counterforces: “Kindness is the goodness of your soul overflowing to others.”

Thurgood’s primary role lies in creating a spiritual home for people. “What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be Jewish? What responsibilities does that impose upon us? There are so many people who live in beautiful houses but don’t have a space where they can talk to G-d. Here they can.”

These three rabbis are just a fraction of the many homegrown spiritual leaders in this country who live their truth and are inspired to guide and care for their communities.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *