South Africa's travelling rabbi

By Moira Schneider, September 6, 2012
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He ministers to Jews in 13 African countries including Madagascar and Mauritius, and has received recognition of the contribution Jews have made to Zimbabwe from President Robert Mugabe.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, known in South Africa as the ‘Travelling Rabbi’, has possibly the most exciting rabbinical role anywhere.

As the spiritual leader of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ country communities department and the African Jewish Congress, Rabbi Silberhaft flies across the continent taking kosher food to isolated communities, maintaining far-flung cemeteries and performing life-cycle events.

The rabbi provides an account of his life in the book The Travelling Rabbi — My African Tribe, which was launched this week.

In April, Rabbi Silberhaft had a “very warm” meeting with Mugabe. Recalling his discussion, the rabbi said: “He said he was mindful of the contribution the small Jewish community made towards the welfare of Zimbabweans.”

He added that Mugabe had reminisced about Dr Mike Gelfand, a Jew who had been his family’s doctor.
In July, the rabbi accompanied the Israeli ambassador when he went to meet King Mswati 111 of Swaziland.
For his part, King Mswati lauded Israel’s development activities in his country over the years, including in agriculture and in running eye clinics.

Before things improved in Zimbabwe, Rabbi Silberhaft used to travel there every six weeks with medication and everyday necessities that were in short supply.

In the book, the rabbi records an encounter with the retired Archbishop of Central Africa at a Jewish community event in Botswana.

“He peppered his conversation with the words nu and gevalt, which prompted me to ask him why.

“‘Ich reid Yiddish’ (‘I speak Yiddish’), he replied, proceeding to explain that his mother had been a domestic worker in Johannesburg and the lady of the house had never learnt English. When her husband died, he regularly accompanied the children to shul to recite Kaddish, and is totally fluent in this traditional prayer.”

Rabbi Silberhaft says he does not judge individuals — his prime motivation is to keep the dwindling communities together. So he has over-ridden a ruling of the Johannesburg Beth Din that anyone who has married out of the faith cannot hold an official position in a congregation and cannot get an aliyah unless he has a yahrzeit for his parents.

“That can’t apply to our communities because many of the men are married out,” he said. “In Kimberley, every Jewish man is married out of the faith and yet, in their small numbers, they sustain the 141-year-old congregation.”

Although he spends 60 per cent of his time traversing the length and breadth of this country and beyond and gets physically tired, he loves his work. “It’s brilliant,” he says. “Country people are amazing.”

Last updated: 11:54am, September 6 2012