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Op-eds

Visionary advice prevented collapse of SA community

  • Parshas Ki Tetze - Rabbi Yossi Goldman
People around the world last Shabbos commemorated the 25th yahrzeit of my saintly teacher and mentor, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of righteous memory. Everyone from chief rabbis and Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin to supermodel Naomi Campbell weighed in. They praised the rebbe as a colossal scholar, thinker, moral voice, and a pioneering activist for what he did to transform the Jewish world after the Holocaust.
by RABBI YOSSY GOLDMAN | Jul 11, 2019

He trailblazed the philosophy of outreach – initially shunned by other religious movements, and today embraced by virtually everyone – and his immense influence has built Chabad into the biggest Jewish international movement with thousands of shluchim (emissaries) in every corner of the world, from Paraguay to Perth, Santiago to Siberia.

But for us in South Africa, the rebbe’s influence is much closer to home. First, he sent his students here from the United States to serve this community as rabbis at a time when we had hardly any home-grown rabbis, and rabbis from overseas would not come here because of political fear and uncertainty, never mind the rand exchange rate.

Second, he repeatedly gave his assurance that our anxiety about our political future was exaggerated, and that in his considered opinion, we had nothing to fear, and nothing to run away from.

During more than forty years of leadership, the rebbe took an unusual interest in our community. He was well-aware of our special relationship with Israel, our strong sense of tradition, and how central synagogue life is to our community. Rabbis and businessmen alike regularly asked the rebbe for guidance for decades, and his responses were unequivocal.

The rebbe was completely dismissive of the perceived need to emigrate. He said that we should not be afraid, and we should carry on with our good work. Some people were even advised to return here after they had already emigrated. And, they did very well.

But, people wondered, how can a rabbi or anyone sitting on the other side of the world tell people not to leave a danger zone? Wasn’t this irresponsible?

My answer is simple. For any person sitting on the other side of the world to answer questions of such magnitude, he had to be either a prophet … or a fool. Well, one thing’s for sure. This giant of a man, this extraordinary Torah sage and saintly luminary, was certainly no fool.

In the end, his assurances were vindicated and, looking back they were quite prophetic, as South Africa achieved a “miraculously peaceful transition to democracy”.

In case you aren’t familiar with the rebbe’s track record, let me share with you one tiny fraction of his visionary advice on a major international crisis.

Israel, May 1967. A war is looming. Egypt is massing troops, and threatening to drive the Jews into the sea. The whole Jewish world is in panic. People are bringing their children home. Will there be another Holocaust? G-d forbid!

Only one Jewish leader was confident and optimistic. The rebbe. He insisted that his students must remain in Israel, and he predicted that there would be a “great victory”. Who could have imagined Israel’s miraculous triumph in the Six-Day War?

So, the rebbe was not just a rabbi. He was not even just “a rabbi’s rabbi”. He was nothing less than a holy man, and a great visionary. He inspired thousands of South Africans to remain here, and build our country and our community.

At times, when leading Jewish activists here were building museums to remember the soon-to-be-defunct Jewish community of South Africa, the rebbe was insisting that we build more Jewish institutions and increase the programmes offered here. And, he was sending young rabbis and rebbetzins here from abroad to help do the job. Amidst all the pervasive negativity, the rebbe was inspiring us all to stay, be strong, and build a brighter future.

To the man who stemmed the impending collapse of our community, we should all feel eternally indebted.

In 1990, when FW De Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela, as historic and exciting a moment as that was, it created new apprehension and uncertainty. What would the future now hold for South Africa? Would there be reconciliation or revenge?

On that very day of the great Madiba’s release from prison, Rabbi Koppel Bacher was in New York and saw the rebbe, who gave him a personal message for our community. “Tell them they have nothing to fear, and that South Africa will be good until the coming of moshiach!”

But today, once again, the prophets of doom are out in full force. It reminds me of what Mark Twain said when he had the flu in London back in 1897, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

We’re still here. And whatever political party you support, you must admit that we are far better off today, and there is much more reason for hope and optimism, than just more than a year and a half ago.

The rebbe left us physically in 1994. But his words are eternal, and his message continues to give us hope and confidence that, slowly but surely, we will rebuild our beautiful country, and keep our own community strong and vibrant.

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