Foreword by the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks

I have known of Rabbi Silberhaft’s work for some time and have been privileged to have met him and learn of his experiences. As spiritual leader of the country communities of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and African Jewish Congress for the past 18 years, his work knows no bounds. No request is left undealt with, no matter how small or how large.

In the troubled circumstances in which he has operated, Rabbi Silberhaft’s dedication and personal care are deeply appreciated by all with whom he has come into contact and who unhesitatingly speak of his enthusiasm and his devotion to duty.

I am well aware of the comfort and security he has given to so many people over so many years who are isolated and need the spiritual and practical guidance that Rabbi Silberhaft has so ably given. His concern for the lives of so many and his ability to relate to each individual and become their friends is quite unique.

Throughout this time, Rabbi Silberhaft has been the personification of that famous Talmudic phrase: Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh – all of Israel are responsible for one another.

Without his commitment and enthusiasm which comes at times of considerable personal sacrifice for his family, many communities would cease to exist. Reading this book, it is so heart warming to see how much he has done to ensure that people are able to survive; that their welfare is properly taken care of and their simple needs for food and money are properly dealt with.

Continuously travelling across the length and breadth of half the African continent, Rabbi Silberhaft - or The Travelling Rabbi as he has become known – has reached out to every Jew in love. In doing so, he has helped enhance individuals’ and communities sense of Jewish identity and heritage, connecting them to fellow Jews throughout the ages.

We read in the Torah – Judaism’s most sacred text – of Moses’ great speech to the Jewish people just before they enter the Promised Land more than three thousand years. Moses had led the Jewish people out of Egypt and out of slavery. For the past 40 years, he had led them through the Wilderness. But it had not been an easy journey.

The Jewish people were not a nation to inspire confidence. They were quarrelsome, ungrateful, indecisive and at times disloyal. Yet, despite this, Moses sensed that something great had happened to them, something whose significance went far beyond that time, that place and this people. He believed, he knew, that this people would be the carriers of an eternal message, one that would have an effect not only on itself but on the civilisation of the world. But only if successive generations of Jews took it upon themselves to hand down their beliefs to their children and their children’s children.

Just before Moses said these words he made an even more poignant request: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). The sixteenth-century commentator Rabbi Moses Alshekh was surely right when he said that these two verses are connected. We can only pass on to our children what we ourselves love (Moses Alshekh, Torat Mosheh to Deuteronomy 6:6).

We cannot order our children – or anyone – to be Jews. We cannot deprive them of their choice, nor can we turn them into our clones. All we can do is to show them what we believe, and let them see the beauty of how we live.

Throughout his 18 years of service, and as is shown in this book, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft has helped countless number of Jews experience the beauty of Judaism. He understands that the Jewish people has survived not just because of an inheritance of faith, but rather because Judaism has been bought alive in each generation and then handed on to those generations not yet born.

What is evident from reading this book is that Rabbi Silberhaft has a clear purpose to his work, to his travels, to his life: to ensure people love God, love Judaism and love simply being Jewish. Nothing could be simpler. Nothing could be more beautiful. And, as you will read, few people do this better than The Travelling Rabbi, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft.


Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks
April 2012/Nissan 5772






By Mandy Wiener

It is by no mere coincidence that as a 14-year-old yeshiva bocher in the 1980s, Moshe Silberhaft found himself journeying to a far flung town in the very northern reaches of the country to assist in celebrating chagim, the Jewish festivals. As the prolific Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel remarked, ‘In Jewish history there are no coincidences’. It would prove to be beshiert, an undertaking that would seem to be pre-ordained, destined to happen. It would set him on a life journey that would result in his making scores of similar trips over the next 30-odd years, traversing the country’s roads and byways as he carried the message of Yiddishkeit with him, in his capacity as the rabbi to the country communities in which he is affectionately known as ‘The Travelling Rabbi’.

Over the past 18 years in that capacity, Rabbi Silberhaft has encountered all manner of roads along the way and many of those so succinctly mirror the experiences he has dealt with among his community as he serves as its spiritual leader. Each resident of every town that falls within Rabbi Silberhaft’s congregation has a deeply personal story to tell about a simcha or a tragedy in which he has played a pivotal role, providing guidance and authority where often it is lacking. He has brought a unique intimacy and personal understanding to the office in which he serves, and is considered a friend to most congregants as he features prominently in significant events throughout their life cycles, from a baby’s bris to his barmitzvah to his marriage, and occasionally to his funeral.

I am privileged to be able to personally attest to this. Rabbi Moshe’s early travels to the then Northern Transvaal introduced him to the Wieners of Pietersburg and a close friendship developed between his family and mine over the unfolding decades. In a fractious Jewish community, which was waning in its twilight years, Rabbi Silberhaft provided leadership and a sense of belonging. He was a lifeline to a Jewish world so far removed from the one in which we were living and he would continue to provide spiritual and religious guidance to me long after I had travelled the N1 south towards Johannesburg.

As a 12-year-old, I stood before Rabbi Silberhaft in the quaint shul in Polokwane as he presided over my batmitzvah. Sixteen years later, as a kallah under the chuppah in the similarly atmospheric Lions Shul in Braamfontein, Rabbi Silberhaft married my husband and me. He also officiated at the marriages of both of my siblings, and has become a dear friend to my father over the years. He has been present in times of celebration and of difficulty. He has even fulfilled what is surely one of the most bizarre requests made of a country community rabbi – hosting my father’s beloved Labrador for a week while my parents prepared to make aliyah!

This is precisely the attribute that has endeared Rabbi Silberhaft, the shepherd, to his vastly disparate flock. He has empathy, and a profound understanding of each of his congregant’s circumstances. He does not cast judgment, nor does he force upon any of his members that to which they do not voluntarily subscribe. In the words of my father, ‘He has the ability to talk with kings and presidents at one moment and the next, to break bread with ordinary men, of whatever colour, creed or religion.’ Regardless of a Jew’s level of devotion, they are welcomed into the fold with a kind word and a kosher meal. When Rabbi Silberhaft’s car makes an appearance on a dusty platteland road or in some forgotten backwater, it brings with it far more than its mere practical contents. There is no doubt a boot brimming with kosher meat, Kiddush wine, newspapers, calendars and other paraphernalia, but, more importantly, Rabbi Silberhaft’s appearance brings a familiarity, a belonging, an acknowledgement of what it is to be Jewish.

As he has crisscrossed the country and the 12 sub-Saharan countries which he covers, Rabbi Silberhaft has dedicated himself towards his obligation to unite the Jewish community, rather than perpetuate separation. While he encourages members to become more observant and more actively involved in their religion, he accepts them for what and who they are. For him, above all, a Jew is a Jew.

I have had the good fortune to travel many roads, both literally and figuratively, with my rabbi and close friend. Over the following pages, you too will be allowed that privilege. It is a journey that features the colourful characters of the gramadoelas, remarkable tales of faith and devotion and oozes the warmth and sincerity of the Jews of the country communities. It is the story of a travelling rabbi and his unique African tribe.


Mandy Wiener
Special Investigative Reporter
Author of Killing Kebble: An Underworld Exposed







It is written in our sacred Jewish texts that in every generation sparks from the soul of our teacher Moshe Rabbeinu ‘descend and clothe themselves in the body and soul of the sages of that generation’. There is no doubt that the sparks of these leadership qualities, with almost a realisation of prophetic vision – or was it Hashgacha Pratit (Divine Providence)? – that put a young man, Moshe Silberhaft, our prophet’s namesake, in the right place at the right time to assume responsibility and leadership for so many of our forgotten Jews.
Suzanne Belling













“The Travelling Rabbi: My African Tribe” by Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft as told to Suzanne Belling was launched at Beyachad on Sunday, September 9 by Jacana, the publishers, and at the Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre the following Wednesday evening by the Union of Jewish Women. In the picture Rabbi Silberhaft signs a copy of the book while Suzanne Belling, publisher Mike Martin and Gus Silber, guest speaker at the first launch, look on. Photograph by Mike Belling



For well-known journalist, author and filmmaker Gus Silber, the SAJBD’s ‘Travelling Rabbi’ Moshe Silberhaft has a job to be envied. Few people, after all, have the opportunity of visiting so many remote and interesting corners of the country and establishing a first-hand rapport with South Africa’s multifaceted communities.


Silber was speaking at Sunday’s launch at Beyachad of ‘The Travelling Rabbi: My African Tribe”, Rabbi Silberhaft’s new book recounting his eighteen years and counting as Spiritual Leader to the SA Country Communities and also to the countries affiliated to the African Jewish Congress. The hefty 360-page tome, which includes numerous color illustrations, is replete with insights and anecdotes that bring alive not only aspects of Jewish country and small town life, but life outside the main urban center in general. As such, it will make enjoyable reading for anyone interested in getting to the tachlis of what it means to be a South African. It was co-written with veteran journalist and Jewish communal professional Suzanne Belling, a former editor of the SA Jewish Report, and is published by Jacana Media.


Silber’s entertaining presentation was illustrated with clips from his 2011 documentary ‘Shalom The Beloved Country’, an intimate on-the-road look at Rabbi Silberhaft’s work in rural South Africa, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. In making the documentary, he accompanied the rabbi on a number of his visits, recording his interaction with remaining Jewish residents, his inspection of the cemeteries and meetings with members of the larger community with whom he works. It was a project close to Silber’s heart, given his own background growing up in Potchefstroom in what was then a sizable Jewish community. Few Jews today remain in the country areas and small towns, but the legacy they left has not been forgotten.


Rabbi Silberhaft’s forthright, no-nonsense approach to his work, combined with an approach to those he ministered to, including those who were inter-married, that was completely non-judgmental were identified by Silber as reasons for his success. In addition, he had the instincts of a true sleuth in his ability to track down a Jewish link in the places he visited, be it a living individual, a grave or a building. Through his work, he had become the public face of the Jewish world for innumerable people living far from the Jewish population centers and for many Jews their only link with their Jewish heritage and the greater Jewish world.


Rabbi Silberhaft is seventh in a line of rabbonim who have held the post of spiritual leader to the country communities since the establishment of the SAJBD’s Country Communities Department in the early 1950s. Without belittling his predecessors’ achievements, however, he has succeeded in imprinting his own vision and personality on that position that has created for himself a unique profile, not just in South Africa but across the Jewish world. This is in no small part attested to by the fact that the foreword was contributed by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, outgoing Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth and with whom Rabbi Silberhaft has had extensive dealings.


Silber’s address was preceded by a short message from Judge Ralph Zulman, the current Chairman of the SAJBD Country Communities division. He paid tribute to Rabbi Silberhaft for his extraordinary dedication, and for the multiple inter-personal and organizational skills he brought to bear in carrying out his multi-faceted functions.


Some Perspectives


I am delighted and honoured to write about a truly remarkable man, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft. I have had the pleasure to meet him on many occasions, in my role as president of the Commonwealth Jewish Council. I have seen first-hand, the vital work that Moshe does, to ensure that the Jewish communities in the sub-Saharan African countries – especially the smaller ones – are able to continue their Jewish customs and heritage, whether through services, simchas, availability of kosher food, or even through receiving medical and other essential supplies. There is a deep history, culture and legacy of the large Jewish communities that once lived in those countries. Sadly, today, many of these communities have dwindled in size, but it is the dedication and passion of Moshe that keep those Jewish communities thriving – and that is a wonderful achievement. Mazel tov and may your great work continue for many years to come.


Lord [Greville] Janner of Braunstone,
QC President, Commonwealth Jewish Council


During the apartheid years in South Africa, we were shunned by the international communities and it was impossible to make inroads into the neighbouring states to interact with the Jews living there. But, with the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid, Seymour Kopelowitz, a former national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, and I decided to create an African Jewish Congress to strengthen South Africa with the Jewish community internationally as well as place us in a position to influence leaders in African countries. The inaugural meeting was in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1993, as this was the country of our main focus. Ilan Steinberg, the deputy director of the World Jewish Congress – to which we were informally attached and into which we were more recently formally accepted – flew from New York to open the congress. I welcome the launch of this book detailing the travels of Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, who is universally liked and admired. This has to do with his personal interaction with individual Jews in small, even isolated, communities. Their only one-on one contact with a pastoral rabbi is Moshe Silberhaft. He is their rabbi as much as if they lived in a mainstream South African community with a synagogue and spiritual leader. They don’t have that, but they have him. Many of these Jews are married out of the faith and are halachically ignorant about the rituals of Judaism. But Rabbi Silberhaft treats them, one and all, as full Jews and is totally understanding of their own uncertainties. He helps them through these in a caring and supportive manner, which is evident in this book. Personally, I find him efficient, savvy and quick to grasp issues. He knows his turf – and he knows it well.


Mervyn Smith
Founding president of the African Jewish Congress,
a vice-president of the World Jewish Congress and past national chairman
and president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies


I always make a division between the work that Rabbi Moshe does inside South Africa and that which he does in neighbouring states. In my mind, they have a different emphasis. As a member of a country community, I know how much his visits and contacts are appreciated by those who live outside the big communities but who are still determined to be part of the South African Jewish heritage. He brings spiritual and religious support as well as practical advice and expertise. But perhaps the most important thing is that he makes his flock feel that they are still part of a vibrant and active community and that their contribution to Jewish life, however small, is an important component of the whole. Now for the ‘neighbouring states’. People often ask, why do Jews remain in these far-flung outposts? The answer is that for as many Jewish people as there are, there are as many reasons! And often the reasons are private and must be respected as such. Rabbi Moshe understands these feelings and handles many difficult situations sympathetically but firmly. He has the ability to give his congregants the confidence to uphold as many aspects of Jewish life as are practical. He has an amazing knack of being non-judgmental. That spiritual support is as important to them as physical or emotional support.


Ann Harris
Vice-president, African Jewish Congress


This is a timely book recognising the distinguished career of a seasoned Jewish communal worker. Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft possesses all the personal attributes required of his demanding job. He is not only a spiritual leader, but also a skilled diplomat. He is a social entrepreneur, a welfare worker, a trouble-shooter and a problem-solver. He is the glue that holds together a small and scattered flock, striving to preserve the Jewish mitzvot. To the governments of the countries he visits, he represents the civil face of the global Jewish people.


Michael Schneider
World Jewish Congress emeritus secretary-general
and former CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee


I have known Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft for close on the entire 18 years that he has served the community. In more recent years I have had the privilege, as chairman of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies Country Communities Committee, to work closely with the rabbi. His dedication to his task is quite remarkable. He has accurately been described as ‘The Travelling Rabbi’. He has travelled the length and breadth of South Africa visiting its diminishing far-flung Jewish communities. Indeed, he numbers his flock not only among the few remaining Jews in these places but also beyond our borders in Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Zambia, Namibia and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. In my view he is truly the face of our community who is known to those who would otherwise be forgotten Jews. No task, be it presiding at a wedding, a bris, a barmitzvah or a funeral or the setting of a tombstone, amongst other duties, whenever there is a need and wherever it may be, is neglected by him. I wish him well. May the Almighty grant him many more years in good health to continue his important work.


Judge Ralph Zulman
Chairman, South African Jewish Board of Deputies
Country Communities committee


Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft has for many years, with great dedication and kindness, served the Jews of the country communities across South Africa, and in many other African countries as well. This fascinating book, filled with colourful anecdotes and interesting nuggets of history, is an opportunity to get a glimpse of Rabbi Silberhaft’s well-known, warm and tenacious commitment to all those he serves. The stories and events recorded in this book teach us all about the power of compassion and loyalty to uplift the lives of all those we come into contact with.

Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein Chief Rabbi of South Africa