Rabbi who beat the killer

Moshe Sil­ber­haft is min­is­ter to 3,000 Jews across Africa. It’s not just the oc­ca­sional at­tack by deadly in­sects that makes his job so dif­fer­ent

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features - BY JONNY NEW­TON

RABBI MOSHE Silb e r h a f t , a f f e c - tion­ately known as “The Trav­el­ling Rabbi”, seems to re­coil when he is asked if he ever dreams of be­ing a c o nventi o nal com­mu­nity leader. “No… I’m not a pul­pit rabbi,” he in­sists. “I’m an on-the-ground, hands-on, cer­e­mo­nial rabbi… and I’m as com­fort­able of­fi­ci­at­ing wed­dings as ex­hum­ing ceme­ter­ies.”

Sil­ber­haft is the African Jewish Congress’s “coun­try com­mu­nity” head and spir­i­tual leader to small con­gre­ga­tions within sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. As such, he has the largest con­gre­ga­tion on the con­ti­nent – 3,000 Jews in com­mu­ni­ties that stretch from Kenya to Cape Town and from Kin­shasa to Mada­gas­car.

He di­vides his time be­tween trav­el­ling up and down Africa – thou­sands of miles each year – and work­ing out of his of­fice in Jo­han­nes­burg. When I caught up with him, he had just re­turned from a f ew days with t he t i ny Jewish com­mu­nity of Mau­ri­tius and was about to j et o f f t o Cape Town. Ex­otic lo­ca­tions they may b e , b u t they cut lit­tle ice with Sil­ber­haft.

“It makes no dif­fer­ence where I go,” he says, shrug­ging his shoul­ders. “Peo­ple of­ten ask me where my favourite des­ti­na­tion is, but there isn’t one. For me there is no dif­fer­ence be­tween Zim­babwe and Mau­ri­tius – it’s the peo­ple that count.”

The sen­ti­ment ap­pears gen­uine. Sil­ber­haft has an al­most patho­log­i­cal de­sire to serve far-flung liv­ing com­mu­ni­ties and to phys­i­cally com­mem­o­rate the dead ones. For him, both jobs are vi­tal for pre­serv­ing Jewish iden­tity and legacy. Where roads and build­ings in re­mote corners of Africa were once named af­ter p r o mi n e n t lo­cal Jews, he pe­ti­tions to p r e s e r v e t hem, o r at least lay a plaque honouring their mem­ory.

“ E i g h t y years ago, the av­er­age res­i­dent in any small African town knew what a Jew was, and more im­por­tantly, what he rep­re­sented in a civic and busi­ness sense. To­day, most res­i­dents have no clue what a Jew is.”

Jewish ur­ban­i­sa­tion and mi­gra­tion has di­min­ished pro­vin­cial com­mu­ni­ties in south­ern Africa. As the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of Jewish set­tlers moved to the cities, rel­a­tively few were left be­hind.

Sil­ber­haft pas­sion­ately be­lieves that lo­cal peo­ple need to know what Jews did for this re­gion. “They up­lifted the pop­u­la­tion around them, build­ing schools and ed­u­cat­ing the wider com­mu­nity,” he says.

For the Jews who re­main, whether in Gabarone or Wind­hoek, Graaff-Reinet or Lusaka, Sil­ber­haft is the only link to a wider cul­ture and her­itage. “To ar­rive in a small town with a Jewish news­pa­per, a jar of gefilte fish or a box of matzah on Pesach, there is more ap­pre­ci­a­tion than when a Jewish city slicker re­ceives the great­est Yom Kip­pur hon­our at the most pres- ti­gious of syn­a­gogues,” he says. “The vis­its show that they have not been for­got­ten.”

So what is it that made Sil­be­haft nav­i­gate pot-holed African roads in­stead of com­mu­nal pol­i­tics? A sin­gle child born in Jerusalem, his par­ents moved to South Africa when he was five, to care for a sick grand­par­ent. A re­li­gious up­bring­ing was ce­mented at Yeshiva Col­lege in Jo­han­nes­burg, where as a teenager he was of­ten sent out to small com­mu­ni­ties to help make a minyan.

He re­mem­bers the tail-end of the pro­vin­cial Jewish hey­day in south­ern Africa with nos­tal­gia. “There was no real need for a rabbi to of­fi­ci­ate then, as many Jews of Lithua­nian de­scent were knowl­edge­able in Jewish rites. We were just there to make up the num­bers.”

Af­ter col­lege, he was con­scripted into the South African De­fence Force (SADF) where he served as a chap­lain to fel­low Jewish sol­diers. With the army, he trav­elled to the far­thest re­gions of the apartheid regime’s du­bi­ous proxy wars in­clud­ing a six­month stint in the jun­gles of what is now the Namib­ian-An­golan bor­der.

End­ing his ser­vice in 1989, he went to Is­rael to start his rab­bini­cal train­ing, miss­ing the re­lease of Nel­son Man­dela from prison but re­turn­ing in time to vote in South Africa’s first truly demo­cratic elec­tion.

In Novem­ber 1993, he was named as the sev­enth head of the Coun­try Com­mu­ni­ties depart­ment, within the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Soon af­ter, he com­pleted his rab­bini­cal train­ing, and earned the nick­name of the “trav­el­ling rabbi” when a doc­u­men­tary was made about him with that ti­tle. He rev­els in the soubri­quet, wear­ing a base­ball cap em­bla­zoned with the words and us­ing it on his busi­ness cards and e-mail ad­dress.

As an Ortho­dox min­is­ter, his views on de­nom­i­na­tions and in­ter­mar­riage are what might be termed non-tradi- tional, but he recog­nises that in his area of work, it helps to be prag­matic — al­though he bats away the sug­ges­tion that the smaller com­mu­ni­ties are more prone to in­ter­mar­riage.

“Quite the op­po­site in fact,” he says. “In my ex­pe­ri­ence, Jews liv­ing in small com­mu­ni­ties are far more aware of their up­bring­ing and con­scious of their Ju­daism.” As a re­sult they have lower lev­els of as­sim­i­la­tion than large Jewish cen­tres.

And when com­mu­nity mem­bers do marry out­side of Ju­daism? “I treat them no dif­fer­ently,” he says. “There is ab­so­lutely no dis­crim­i­na­tion from my of­fice. They, and their part­ners and chil­dren, are wel­come to a synagogue s e r v i c e o r events I offic i a t e j u s t the same.”

Sil­be­haft does not see the logic in driv­ing uno b s e r v a n t Jews away from Jewish life. He will not of f i c i - ate at mixed wed­dings, or con­duct non-re­li­gious cer­e­monies, but he has good re­la­tions with the South African Pro­gres­sive and Re­form com­mu­ni­ties. If some­one in Le­sotho needs a Lib­eral rabbi, he will do all he can to get one there.

His multi-de­nom­i­na­tional out­look spills over into his deal­ings with the wider com­mu­nity too. The di­min­ish­ing and near des­ti­tute Jewish com­mu­nity in Zim­babwe still finds the time and re­sources to help oth­ers that are not so for­tu­nate. An en­tire gen­er­a­tion of Zim­bab­weans has been smit­ten by HIV/Aids, leav­ing count­less or­phans in the care of their grand­par­ents. Sil­ber­haft has sup­ported the lo­cal Jewish com­mu­nity in es­tab­lish­ing a li­brary and re­source cen­tre specif­i­cally for


Rabbi Sil­ber­haft in Zim­babwe where he has helped to set up a li­brary for

Con­duct­ing a ser­vice for the dwin­dling com­mu­nity of Harare

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