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Three torahs, three dayanim, and one big celebration

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JORDAN MOSHE

The streets of the shtetl reverberated on Sunday as hundreds of Jews came together to pay tribute to prominent personalities of the local Beth Din with a festive hachnasat sifrei Torah (inauguration of Torah scrolls).

Led by a band playing from atop a flatbed truck, the procession moved from Corbel Crescent to the Yeshiva College campus in celebration of the decades Rabbis Moshe Kurtstag, Boruch Rapoport, and Zadok Suchard devoted to Johannesburg Jewry.

The revelry was certainly a fitting final salute to these giants who have collectively served the community for more than 50 years, and who are stepping down as dayanim (judges) of the Beth Din. In their honour, three Torah scrolls (donated by the Cyrildene Shul) will become available to any minyan (prayer quorum) in the community in need of one on loan.

Young and old filled the streets as the procession ascended Long Avenue, arriving at the gates of Yeshiva College. The elated crowd escorted the rabbis and Torah scrolls into the main Yeshiva College Shul, where Durban’s Rabbi Pinchas Zekry addressed them.

“South Africa is lucky to have such great rabbanim,” said Zekry. “It is indeed an outstanding shidduch (arranged marriage) that we have between South African Jewry and its dayanim. We cannot take for granted that we have one Beth Din which unites all of us.

“They have given prestige to our community’s different establishments, from kashrut to conversion. When you go to Israel or anywhere else in the world with a certificate from South Africa, they don’t need to check it. South Africa is trusted. The Beth Din is trusted.”

The accomplishments of the retiring dayanim is clearly a testament to this. In a career spanning 40 years, Kurtstag served as head of the Beth Din after initially taking up the position of dayan when he arrived from Israel in 1976. He retired to Telstone, Israel, two years ago, but returns to South Africa frequently.

“Serving on the Beth Din of South Africa was a privilege. This is the most unique community in the world, something I recognised very early on. This community is the envy of the rest of the world because of its unity.

“What can I say about my work here? They call us the old guard. We always tried to stand for high standards, halacha, and keeping up the reputation of this community. We were always looking at the community to see what we could upgrade or improve.”

He expressed confidence in the dayanim who will take up the reins as he and his colleagues step down. “We are handing over to the new guard,” he said. “We are handing over into good hands.”

Rapaport said that the event was the most appropriate way to acknowledge the role of the Beth Din and its dayanim. Born in the United Kingdom, he moved here in 1985 to take up a position at the Beth Din, assuming responsibility for litigation, conversions, kashrut, and divorces for 33 years.

“The ninth principle of the thirteen principles of faith affirms pure belief that the Torah will never change,” he said. “That principle tells us that the sifrei Torah [Torah scrolls] we brought in today are the very same ones our zaidas [grandfathers] had, that the Vilna Gaon had, and that Moshe had. It hasn’t been changed. The standards have been maintained.”

He affirmed that South Africa’s Beth Din consistently tried to maintain these inherited standards and raise them where possible. “If there were any changes, they took place within the framework of tradition of South African Jewry.

“My plea to the incoming dayanim is, irrespective of your backgrounds, maintain the standards that have been maintained for the past 100 years. If you want to change, do so within the framework.”

Suchard thanked the community for affording him the opportunity to enhance his personal growth and take his religious experience to new heights. He served as dayan on the Beth Din for more than three decades, and also built a thriving community almost from scratch in Sandton, helping found King David Sandton along the way.

“It was really an honour and a privilege to be part of the Beth Din for more than 30 years,” he said. “When you’re part of the Beth Din, Torah comes alive. You implement what you learn. The matters of the Talmud and shulchan aruch [code of Jewish law]come alive. We came to appreciate our Torah, what was in it, and could apply it to real life.”

He believes the Beth Din is the heartbeat of our community. “The younger dayanim who will carry on our work are wonderful people,” he affirmed. “They are tzaddikim [spiritual leaders], scholars who will serve the beautiful South African community in the correct way.”

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein said those present at the event would cherish its memory for years to come. “Everyone who has participated here this afternoon has a sense of participating in a milestone event of our community,” he said. “It’s an occasion we will carry with us in our memories forever.”

Beyond paying tribute to the Beth Din as an institution, Goldstein said that the event was a celebration of and tribute to the three men, their personal lives, and contributions. “We are here to express our love for them as human beings we connected with.

“But it’s also a celebration of Torah. A Torah represents everything, and a true talmid chacham [Torah scholar] is a living embodiment of the Torah. What better way to pay tribute to people who represent the essence of Torah than with sifrei Torah?”

He concluded, “These sifrei Torah are here for the community. They will have a home here but are available for loan to any shul or minyan that needs one. These Torah scrolls represent our dayanim not just because they embody the teachings of the Torah but because these Torahs are dedicated to serving the community.

“Our dayanim and their families have been like sifrei Torah. They have been on loan to the community to serve and teach us with selflessness and dedication.”

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