On the Road With Africa’s Only Traveling Rabbi

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Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft with his road-worn Toyota.
Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft with his road-worn Toyota.Credit: Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Klerksdorp, South Africa

KLERKSDORP, South Africa — As he rises to greet the elderly Jews gathered in this old gold-mining town for a belated Israel Independence Day celebration, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft can’t help himself. “What a special occasion,” he marvels, surveying the remnants of a once-thriving Jewish community. “For a change, I’m here and it’s not for a funeral.”

Silberhaft’s business card describes his vocation as “the traveling rabbi,” and this is another of those long days on the road.

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As head of the Country Communities Department at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, his job is to provide religious services to about 250 rural communities and their estimated 1,400 Jews around the country without a full-time rabbi.

“Some of these communities have one Jew, some have no Jews. Often, my job is simply taking care of the cemetery,” he says. Altogether, he oversees the maintenance of more than 20,000 Jewish graves scattered around South Africa.

Wearing his other cap as CEO of the 25-year-old African Jewish Congress, Silberhaft, 51, also serves as chief rabbi of a host of tiny Jewish communities in 11 sub-Saharan countries.

ALL IN A DAY'S WORK: Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft's map showing all of the rural communities he serves in South Africa.Credit: Judy Maltz

Silberhaft explains that his job entails officiating at funerals, weddings and bar mitzvahs, making sure there is someone to lead services on the High Holy Days, and assisting dying communities in “winding down their affairs,” as he terms it. That often means putting the buildings that house their synagogues on the market and providing their sacred books with a proper Jewish burial.

He delivers religious books, when necessary, as well as kosher food. As part of the job, he interacts regularly with African heads of state, but also with impoverished Jews in far-flung places. For many, he is their sole connection to the Jewish world.

It is a job that could probably only exist in a place like Africa.

An Orthodox rabbi by training, Silberhaft has been traversing Africa for the past 26 years, clocking in thousands of kilometers a month. He discovered his calling when, as a young yeshiva high school student in Johannesburg, he was dispatched to one of these so-called “country communities” to lead services over the holidays. “I just go hooked to the travel and to the people,” he says.

Flattening headstones

Our day on the road begins early on Sunday in Johannesburg, which is Silberhaft’s home base. As he opens the passenger door of his road-worn car (whose license plate, TRRAVMS, stands for “Traveling Rabbi Rav Moshe Silberhaft”), he apologizes for the strong smell emanating from the trunk. He typically brings along kosher food when visiting country communities, and since the occasion is Israel’s 71st birthday, his trunk is packed with lots of fresh-fried falafel balls (the source of the pungent aroma), hummus, pita bread and an assortment of salads.

Before heading to Klerksdorp, about a two-and-a-half hour drive southwest of Joburg, we stop in Potchefstroom (aka “Potch”) to collect 89-year-old Beaty Kotzen, one of seven Jews left in this old university town. Potch was once home to an estimated 150 Jewish families, and its claim to fame is that one of the world’s richest Jews, Nathan Kirsh, was born and raised here.

Beaty Kotzen, 89, paying respects to her husband, parents and other family members buried at the Jewish cemetery in Potchefstroom, South Africa, May 2019.Credit: Judy Maltz

With the Jewish population virtually depleted by now, Kotzen usually joins her friends in Klerksdorp — total population 144,000 and the nearest town with Jews — for communal events.

En route to Klerksdorp, we stop at the local cemetery so Beaty can pay respects to her husband, parents and other family members buried there. “This is like taking a walk through history,” she notes, navigating her way around the Jewish plots.

Almost all the Jewish headstones here have been laid flat. This is not the work of vandals, Silberhaft explains — it is preparation for a not-too-distant future when there will be no Jews left in these parts to visit or tend to the graves. “We’ve been going to cemeteries around the country, flattening the Jewish headstones. It’s a massive job, but a way of preventing potential vandalism,” he says. “And while we’re at it, we remove the grass, plants and trees surrounding the graves — all to make the work of overseeing these cemeteries as low-maintenance as possible.”

Over the past four decades, South Africa’s Jewish population has shrunk dramatically: From a high of 120,000 in the mid-1970s to an estimated 50,000 or even fewer today. The decline in the rural towns began much earlier, though — as far back as the 1930 and ’40s.

The 'traveling rabbi's' sub-Saharan communities Credit: Haaretz

The Jews who first settled in the country in the mid-1800s flocked to these rural towns, where they worked as traders and farmers. At one point, according to Silberhaft, Jewish communities existed in some 1,650 rural locations around the country. “I’m talking about communities where there were enough men for a minyan,” he explains.

The early Jewish settlers, however, did not see their futures in these rural towns and encouraged their children to head for bigger cities where better educational and career prospects existed. And so began a large migration of South African Jews to the urban centers, with many parents eventually following their children.

When Silberhaft’s position was created 70 years ago (he is the seventh rabbi to fill the job), it was because so many country communities lacked a critical mass of Jews.

Intermarriage rates in these towns were, predictably, high and for that reason it was the Board of Deputies — a lay organization that represents all of South African Jewry — rather than the Orthodox-run Chief Rabbinate that assumed the responsibility for servicing them.

One of Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft's main roles these days is providing sacred books with a proper Jewish burial after synagogues are closed and sold off.Credit: Judy Maltz

It takes an unusually open-minded Orthodox rabbi to feel comfortable in a job that requires regular interaction with assimilated Jews, and Silberhaft clearly fits the bill.

“What I’ve learned is that if you show respect for non-Jewish spouses and let them understand how they fit into the picture, and you don’t ostracize the Jewish spouse for marrying a non-Jew, you gain an incredible amount of respect,” he says. “I’ve never had the problem of a non-Jewish spouse pulling a Jewish spouse away from me. In fact, quite the contrary.”

Just 11 men left

Except for one couple, who are away for the weekend, the entire Jewish community of Klerksdorp is waiting outside the synagogue to greet the rabbi as his familiar-looking white Toyota pulls into the driveway.

During its heyday Klerksdorp was home to about 200 Jewish families, including 30 doctors — once a tremendous source of pride. Today, there are just 29 Jews left, only 11 men among them, meaning it is hardly ever possible to hold a full prayer quorum for services in the synagogue. (Although most of the Jews here are not observant, they still identify as Orthodox — like most South Africa Jews — and would therefore not consider including women in a minyan.)

The all-purpose room has been decorated with Israeli flags for the occasion and, in addition to Middle Eastern fare, Silberhaft has also brought along leftover boxes of matza. It just so happens that Pesach Sheni (“Second Passover,” an opportunity for Jews in ancient times to participate in a Passover sacrifice if they missed the original date) falls on this date, providing an opportunity for a double celebration.

The Jewish community in Klerksdorp celebrating Israel's Independence Day, May 2019. The town was once home to 200 Jewish families, but today there are just 29 Jews left.Credit: Judy Maltz

After filling their plates at the buffet tables, the Jews of Klerksdorp seat themselves around long tables and begin to reminisce about the old days. Varda Subel, who has been living here for 60 years, recalls a time when there were so many Jewish children in this town that the local synagogue could not contain them all on the High Holy Days.

“In my family alone, there were so many Subel cousins here that we had our own soccer team,” she relays with pride.

Sitting at this table are the last Jewish farmer in Klerksdorp and perhaps the only Jew to have worked in the local gold mines. All their children and grandchildren have long moved on, many overseas.

Hillary Kotzen, 46, and her daughter Daniella (they are not related to Beaty Kotzen) are by far the youngest participants in the gathering, pulling the average age of the community down by quite a bit. But that might not be for long. “We’re thinking of making aliyah,” says Hillary. “We’re very concerned about the current situation in South Africa.”

For the past 15 years, the remaining Jews of Klerksdorp have held a communal Passover seder in this room. This was the first year they didn’t — and probably won’t ever again. “There weren’t enough people around,” explains Marlene Waks, a bubbly woman who, along with her husband Michael, heads the Jewish community here.

The old and much grander synagogue in Klerksdorp was sold in 2003. Since then, the community has been using this smaller facility that once functioned as a church. A few months ago, it too was put on the market.

“It’s terribly sad,” says Waks, “especially for those members of our community who are now alone without any family. It’s as though their security has been taken away. But what can we do? It costs too much to run this place.”

Marlene and Michael Waks, leaders of the Jewish community in Klerksdorp.Credit: Judy Maltz

Jackie Shall, who was born here 88 years ago, laments: “I never thought I’d reach a stage where the congregation would diminish to the state it is. I thought I’d pass on beforehand.”

This could be Silberhaft’s last visit here. Several months ago, the Board of Deputies notified him — in a move that caught many South African Jews by surprise, including the rabbi himself — that the Country Communities Department will be shuttered at the end of the year.

Nobody wants to ruin the festive mood by bringing up the subject, but many gathered in this room are no doubt wondering who will officiate at the next funeral.

Take a deep dive into 'the BDS heartland', with Haaretz's special project on South Africa's Jewish community:

■ Jews are leaving South Africa once again — but don’t blame BDS
■ On the road with Africa’s only traveling rabbi
■ These South African Jews hate the occupation as much as they hate BDS
■ From Auschwitz to Rwanda: Drawing new lessons from the Holocaust in South Africa
■ This South African synagogue caters to Jews of all colors 
■ The Jews working to leave their mark on Rainbow Nation
How do you keep Shabbat if you’re running after elephants?

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