Chief Rabbi Mirvis: 'Apartheid made me who I am'


Sitting on a wicker chair overlooking the lush gardens around Mount Nelson Hotel - a stone's throw from his former school - Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is looking thoughtful.

Outside, views of Table Mountain in the winter sunshine catch the attention of tourists, but the South African-raised rabbi's regular visits to Cape Town are rather different - they are something of a journey into his soul.

At the heart of every trip he makes to the city - last week he was there to help celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation - is a stay with his 90-year-old father, Rabbi Dr Lionel Mirvis, whose influence on his son has been profound.

"I owe so much to my father - my knowledge, my quest for community leadership, my passion for the rabbinate," the Rabbi says.

A congregant at Rabbi Mirvis Senior's Wynberg Hebrew Congregation remembers an 11-year-old Ephraim as "the most delightful child, always smiling".

"I'm very fortunate in that I was given many opportunities to lead services, to leyn regularly and then, from the age of 15, every year, I took services in various communities in the Cape and I enjoyed that immensely," Rabbi Mirvis adds.

In fact, the Chief always wanted to be a rabbi. And the fact that his father is a rabbi and that he hailed from a family of community leaders inspired his choice.

"I suppose that, from an early age, I appreciated the opportunity for making a deep impact on society that exists within the rabbinate," he reveals, although his faith in society was tested by apartheid.

"There is no doubt whatsoever that growing up within the apartheid era fashioned the type of person that I became.

"I grew up detesting the policies of the government of the country in which I was living."

His rejection of South African politics, however, was formative and gave him "a very strong resolve to try to change the world of which I was a part, to fight for the rights of minorities, to recognise the divinity within every single human being and to appreciate this in a context of Jewish faith and religion".

His insistence on inclusion - such as his move to expand the role of women in Orthodox synagogues and his decision to host an address by an imam - was partly influenced by his experience of apartheid, he says.

The Chief Rabbi's late mother, Freida, was principal of the only training college for coloured teachers of pre-school children in South Africa during apartheid.

"She was a selfless person who was committed to her own community and also to South African society, and that certainly had a profound influence on me," he explains.

Rabbi Mirvis attended Cape Town's Herzlia High School, the community's day school, and regards himself as having been "very fortunate" to have had the opportunity to socialise with Jewish schoolchildren and strengthen his Jewish identity there.

But, he stresses, "the primary educational influence in my life has always been my home and that prepared me for my life ahead."

He also credits being a part of "United Synagogue-styled" communities growing up in South Africa as helping him to grow up seeing "every person coming into shul as being of equal importance, regardless of how they got there on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

"I was brought up never to be judgmental, to be thankful that they were there and not somewhere else," he continues.

Rabbi Mirvis also has a rich heritage of Yiddishkeit on both sides of his family.

"My grandmother was Ray Katz, who was the legendary head of the Women's Zionist Organisation in South Africa for many years and, when she was well into her 70s, she and my grandfather made aliyah, fulfilling the ideology that they passionately believed in," Rabbi Mirvis says proudly.

"Seeing my grandmother at that time occupy a role which very few women occupied, one of overall community leadership, was certainly something which inspired me enormously."

Freida's great-grandfather, Velvel Cohen, founded the first matzah factory in South Africa, originally called the Rand Steam Matzah Factory.

During the Anglo-Boer War, Mr Cohen got personal permission from President Paul Kruger to import the wheat for the matzah.

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