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Walking with Mandela – an ‘Elul moment’



The Goldman family have experienced many incredible moments, but few have come close to the time they took a spontaneous stroll with then-president Nelson Mandela. Every Elul, Rabbi Michoel Goldman reflects on how this encounter reminds him of the power of this month.

Writing on Facebook last week from the United States where he is based, Goldman shared a photo with the caption, “Yes, that’s Nelson Mandela with my young brother, Yisroel.” In the image, one can see the statesman smiling and shaking hands with the Jewish youngster.

Elaborating on the memory, he says, “Shortly after he was released from prison, and a few months before he was inaugurated as the first black president, making history, Nelson Mandela decided to take a stroll through the neighbourhood, experiencing what it was like to walk freely. He had recently moved to a home not far from us.

“Since he was already president-elect, he had security detail behind him. My father was coming home from synagogue, and noticed this African gentleman being escorted by two white men, and did a double take: ‘Oh My G-d! That’s Nelson Mandela!’ He and some of my siblings walked and talked to Mandela for an easy 30 minutes. What a surprise encounter! What a memorable moment!”

He tells this story every year at the same time. “Why? Because tonight begins the Jewish month of Elul,” he wrote on Facebook. “This is the last month of the year as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah 30 days from now.

“This month is very special, known as a month of divine compassion,” continues Goldman. “Rabbi Shneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad, taught that in this month, ‘the king is in the field’, meaning that while the high holidays are days of awe [like meeting a king in the palace], over these next 29 days, we get the rare opportunity to have a face-to-face encounter with our king, but ‘outdoors’, in a casual setting.

“Imagine running into the president when he’s not in the White House, but on a casual walk, and being able to bypass all the red tape of an official meeting? You could speak your heart and have an intimate moment without all the protocol. This incident makes it real for me every year. Let’s maximise the power of the coming month to meet the king, radiant, in the everyday stuff of ordinary life.”

His brother, Mendel Goldman, reflects on how the moment stood out for him. “My recollection is I was about 16 years old, it was a fast day, I think it was 17 Tammuz. My dad had just come home and said, ‘Guess who’s walking outside?’ Madiba had apparently just walked past our house and I think my dad saw him on African Street, which is just around the corner.

“It was quite funny because I was in high school at the time, and we had just been doing a mock election [as an educational exercise]. The high school was divided into different groups representing political parties, and I was part of the ANC [African National Congress] representation. So I had a whole lot of paraphernalia like ANC badges, flags, and T-shirts. Also, for my Barmitzvah, I got a camera from my uncle which I remember was quite an advanced camera for a teenager to have at the time.

“So I grabbed my camera, put on an ANC badge, and ran outside. Mandela was there with his daughter and two policemen. I remember after stopping and talking to us for a couple of minutes, he asked if we could walk with him. So, we walked from the bottom of African Street all the way up to Cheltondale Park near the Norwood Pick n Pay, which is probably 800m. I vividly remember us kids each having a turn to talk to him, and I was running ahead taking photos.

“When it was my turn to walk with him, I remember him asking which school I went to, and I told him Torah Academy. I explained that it was a Jewish school, and told him it was up the road from there. He asked what I was studying, and at that stage, I was doing a kodesh stream, so I told him I was learning from the Talmud. He asked me what it was about.”

While he doesn’t remember exactly how he responded, he does recall that, “I tried to make a good impression of my school so that he could have a good impression of the Jewish community.”

Responding to his brother’s thoughts on how the encounter ties into the month of Elul, he says, “As a child, I felt honoured to have met the president of our country. What I couldn’t get over was how such an important person was able to connect with everyone on whatever level they were on. For example, I was a teenager, 15 to 16 years old, and yet he was able to make a connection. This very much talks not only to the ‘king being in the field’ but also to the king being able to connect to everyone on their level.”

Their father, Rabbi Yossy Goldman, remembers “doing a double take and seeing the unmistakable figure of Nelson Mandela. I ran into the house and said, ‘Kids come quick, Mandela’s on the corner!’ He chatted to all the kids. I was just hovering nearby. My daughter, Zeesy, was holding the youngest, Nissen, who was a baby. Madiba tried to engage him, but he wasn’t interested. He said, ‘This one is fighting old battles!’ And when we told him Yisroel’s name, he said he was hoping to go to Israel soon, with [the late] Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris. And he did so, soon after that encounter.”

As the family walked with him, “he took the hands of my daughter, Sara [now Rebbetzin Sarah Feldman], and my son, Yisroel, and walked a full block holding their hands. He was like a zaida walking with his grandkids to shul.”

Feldman remembers the moment vividly. “I was eight years old. He held my hand and asked me all about school. I remember it clearly, and felt so special that he cared.”

Goldman says his son’s analogy to Elul is “beautiful and really fitting. This is a time when ‘the king’ is much more approachable and accessible. It’s a time of grace. Normally, getting an audience with a king isn’t easy. But this is a time when He doesn’t mind mixing with the crowds.

“I don’t know many heads of state who would do such a thing [that Mandela did that day], and take the time to chat to a bunch of children. He took such an interest in them, asking them what their favourite subject was at school, and so on. Politicians do it when they are running for election. But this wasn’t a photo op, it was genuine. He didn’t need the votes. That kind of humanity is very special.”

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