REFLECTION ON 10 YEARS OF SERVICE
The sincerity and genuineness of Jews living in country communities had me hooked at the age of thirteen. Participating as a student of Yeshiva College’s programme of conducting Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in country communities, I was sent to Messina. On route, my travelling companions and I made various stops to greet Jews living dotted along the way. I did those trips for six years, until the Messina community closed. Thirteen years later, in 1993, I was appointed as Spiritual Leader to the Country Communities. The leadership qualities and care my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi AH Tanzer showed to everyone in his community was an inspiration to me then, and constantly continues to be so ten years on.
This has been a wonderful decade in my life. I have been privileged to be of service, spiritually and practically, in significant moments in the life cycles of individuals and of communities. The weddings and birthdays, bar and bat mitzvahs, brises and naming ceremonies have always been joyous. I have received pleasure from connecting isolated people to the Jewish world via the too-brief trips I make into their lives; delivering a current Jewish newspaper or new calendar before Rosh Hashanah, some kosher food, or a well-timed box of matzoh or bottle of kiddush wine in the weeks before Pesach.
Other times have been painful. Sadly, I have had to comfort the bereaved; bury children, speak through suicidal despair; counsel elderly rape survivors; navigate the homes of people beaten to death; care for abandoned elderly people (some childless, some rendered effectively so by emigration); and try to prevent cremations.
Driving countless miles, I have retraced footsteps of English and German Jewish pioneers, of Eastern European immigrants, of their children and children’s children. I feel astounding pride when I see signs commemorating the permanent and positive mark left by someone in a small town long after their actual departure, a street called ‘Levy’ or ‘Mizrach’; and the same pride when the mark is quieter, less visible to the public eye. Missing the ‘Golden Days’ of those rural communities, I nonetheless honour their traces. I share the responsibility of ensuring that, for the benefit of generations to come (be they here or around the world), their historical remnants are retained.
At a community level, my department has restored and rededicated, and in one instance even relocated, cemeteries. I have participated in the closing of shuls, and in the continuity of opening others. When communities so want, I have conducted valedictory ceremonies, to help congregants who worshipped in the walls of the shul to allow their powerful memories to live on, rather, in their hearts and thereby feel some emotional closure.
I remove foundation stones from shuls that close and re-erect them in the local Jewish cemetery. I make inventories of a shul’s assets, of the silverware, of the religious apparatus (including pointers, bechers, the torah covers made often by the women of the communities, minute books and other records). The archives of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and of Beth Hatefutsoth are excellent repositories for many of these artefacts. I make every effort to ensure that whatever is left of an old shul is used in a new one. Thus, the pulpit or ornate magen david ceiling from different shuls have been relocated and installed in others. I bring Sifrei Torah to Johannesburg in order, where possible, to have them repaired and put back into usable circulation.
Since the Jewish body is deemed holy, Jewish burial ground, unlike shuls, remain eternally sacred. Thus, communities continue spiritually even in the absence of residents. Books are also sacred. Holy books, scriptures, Sifrei Torah that are frayed or damaged beyond repair, or rendered pasul, are buried in labelled and sealed genizot in Jewish cemeteries around the country, never to be opened. While most communities maintain their cemeteries beautifully, a handful are more complacent, abandoning them to overgrown weeds and filth. My Department encourages communities to take responsibility for the long-term financial security of their cemeteries, in order to ensure their maintenance.
People often ask what motivates me after ten years of touring the length and breadth of South Africa. They know that more often than not my pastoral commitments take me away from my wife Mandi and my children Yossi and Leah. I honestly assure them that, irrespective of the difficulties, every tour I undertake is a new experience that brings unique challenges; and at no point have I experienced a loss of motivation or enthusiasm. A particular person, smile, handshake, gesture, joke, story or memory along the way renews my positive energy to serve. For this reason, I thank every member of the country communities, without exception, for welcoming me into your hearts and families. Journeying from home to home, from one significant event to another, I have felt part of the fabric of a wonderfully diverse Jewish family that extends throughout our beautiful country. I thank all the people along the way, the Jews and Gentiles, whether they speak English or Afrikaans or Zulu or Sotho, for warmly welcoming me into their communities, Simultaneously, I thank my own family for understanding and accepting my time away. I thank my parents and grandparents for teaching me the necessity of making a positive difference in the lives of others. I pray that my children’s lives will also be enriched by the blessing of participating in the lives of others.
Finally, my work would be impossible without the support I receive from our Country Communities Chairman, Max Strous, our National Director, Yehuda Kay, and all the members of the Board who have seen the value in the activities and work of the Country Communities Department. To you all I say a hearty thank you.
Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft