Conversing with Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein

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Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein was appointed chief rabbi of South Africa at the age of thirty-two. Photo: M. Kruter

Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein was appointed chief rabbi of South Africa at the age of thirty-two. Photo: M. Kruter

From Johannesburg Shall Go Forth Torah 

South Africa’s first native chief rabbi, who is successfully strengthening Yiddishkeit on the home front, has gone global with a worldwide learning program.

Despite its relatively small size—an estimated population of 70,000—the South African Jewish community is thriving religiously. While the community is mostly traditional, it boasts a burgeoning ba’al teshuvah movement, due, in part, to Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, the dynamic and charismatic chief rabbi of South Africa.

Appointed to the position at the age of thirty-two, Rabbi Goldstein, who has a PhD in human rights and constitutional law, is a beloved figure in South Africa. A prolific author, commentator and vocal defender of Israel, Rabbi Goldstein has enviable reserves of energy, launching trailblazing programs such as Sinai Indaba, an annual Torah convention of the foremost international Jewish leaders and thinkers, and Generation Sinai, a highly successful parent-child learning initiative. His ingenuity, persistence and tireless efforts have resulted in thousands of Jews around the world becoming more connected and more engaged in their Judaism.

During a recent visit to the United States, Rabbi Goldstein stopped by OU headquarters in Manhattan to speak with Jewish Action.

Skyline of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Skyline of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Jewish Action: You are involved in so many aspects of South African life, and your influence extends well beyond the walls of the beit midrash. You even established an anti-crime project that brought down contact crime between 80 and 90 percent in its area of operation. Why do you invest so much of your time and energy in non-rabbinic pursuits? Do some segments of the South African Jewish community criticize you for this?

Rabbi Goldstein: Because the community is primarily traditional and respecting of Judaism, people naturally look to rabbanim to play a leadership role. In this position, one must be able to deal with politics, both Jewish and national.

In my inaugural speech, I stressed that the Torah is the blueprint for everything in life. It’s a mistake to compartmentalize and say, “Here’s the religious dimension of life, and here’s the secular dimension.” I try not to close the Gemara and then move on to the politics of the day. Everything is in the Torah; it’s all one.

I’ve been at the center of driving Community Active Protection [an anti-crime project]. CAP is manned by members of the Jewish community who oversee the vehicle patrols as well as a community call center and an analysis department analyzing crime trends. Many people ask, “What’s a rav doing fighting crime?” I realized that crime was one of the key issues affecting the community. Some view rabbanus as a clerical position—that’s not rabbanus. Rabbanus is saying you are a leader of Klal Yisrael; you have responsibilities. You need to ask: what do the people need? If they have guns [pointed] at their heads, it’s a sakanah. As a rav you have an achrayus, a responsibility, to deal with it.

The most recent Generation Sinai, a parent-child learning program launched three years ago in South Africa, took place in more than 100 schools in thirty-eight cities around the world, from Los Angeles to London, from Buenos Aires to Berlin. Photos courtesy of the Office of the Chief Rabbi of South Africa

The most recent Generation Sinai, a parent-child learning program launched three years ago in South Africa, took place in more than 100 schools in thirty-eight cities around the world, from Los Angeles to London, from Buenos Aires to Berlin.
Photos courtesy of the Office of the Chief Rabbi of South Africa

JA: In the US, where assimilation is rampant, secular Jews tend to be indifferent toward—or even intolerant of—Orthodoxy. South African Jews, even if not Orthodox, have great respect for Orthodoxy and Jewish tradition. How are you helping South African Jews move toward greater observance?

RG: It’s rare for a secular Jew to come into my office without putting on a yarmulke first. I can be in a public place and walk past someone whom I don’t even know is Jewish and he’ll stand up and greet me. If I need help with a certain project—irrespective of what the particular project may be—I just pick up the phone and even Jews who are very far from Yiddishkeit will run to assist me.

At the same time, I believe that traditional Judaism has a certain shelf life. If it’s not converted into something with more serious commitment, it can dissipate. One of my top priorities is kiruv. South African Jews are wide open to it. I have to use the opportunity now to reach out.

To keep one’s integrity as a rav, one has to be learning; otherwise, one becomes a community worker and not a rav

In 2011, we launched Sinai Indaba (Indaba is a Zulu word for a “gathering of the tribe to discuss important matters”), an annual Torah convention which has featured prominent speakers such as former Chief Rabbi of Israel Yisrael Meir Lau, Rabbi Berel Wein, Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, Rabbi Yissocher Frand, Dr. David Pelcovitz and Israeli singer/songwriter Yonatan Razel. That first year, more than 3,000 people attended. In the years since, attendance has grown. In 2013, around 6,500 people came. At Sinai Indaba, we try to show that Torah Judaism is not a narrow ceremonial religion but a way of life, a way of thinking. Judaism does not just belong in the shul; it’s wide-ranging and exciting and applies to how you run your business, how you interact with your family. One day of Torah inspiration can have an incredible impact.

JA: I have been told that even those who are nominally observant in South Africa say, “The shul I belong to but don’t go to is Orthodox.” Is it easier or harder to influence nonobservant Jews who affiliate with Orthodoxy?

RG: It’s much easier to influence them, because at least they know that when they are looking for Judaism, there’s only one address. All of our Jewish day schools are Orthodox schools—the curriculum, rebbeim, the teaching, kashrus. It may be that many students in the schools are not properly mitzvah observant, but they are in an Orthodox environment and that makes it easier to reach them.

JA: Tell us about your own family’s journey toward Torah observance.

RG: I grew up in a very traditional home and went to a Jewish day school. My father has strong recollections of his grandfather who was shomer Shabbos when he arrived in South Africa from Lithuania (he remained so until the end of his life). It made a big impact on my father. My parents were always very involved in the shul as well as the school. We were all affected by the ba’al teshuvah movement in South Africa. I became very close to my rosh yeshivah, Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein, zt”l. In my position as chief rabbi, I spoke with him regularly. His passing was a great personal loss for me.

Sinai Indaba, an annual Torah convention held in Johannesburg and other cities in South Africa that features prominent speakers from around the globe, drew more than 6,500 South African Jews this past year. Pictured here are Rabbi Berel Wein, Rabbi Goldstein and Rabbi Paysach Krohn.

Sinai Indaba, an annual Torah convention held in Johannesburg and other cities in South Africa that features prominent speakers from around the globe, drew more than 6,500 South African Jews this past year. Pictured here are Rabbi Berel Wein, Rabbi Goldstein and Rabbi Paysach Krohn.

JA: A unique aspect of the South African Jewish community is its unity. How do you explain your community’s success in staying unified?

RG: South African culture emphasizes unity and working together. The South African Jewish community’s motto is “Unity in Diversity.” We have one hechsher, one beth din, one united communal infrastructure. We also have an outstanding network of schools, with 90 percent of Jewish children in Orthodox Jewish schools, a mixture of Modern Orthodox, Chareidi and Chabad institutions.

I go out of my way to engage with all segments of the community. I visit numerous shuls and have relationships with as many rabbanim as possible. When dealing with different segments of the community, the core currency of credibility is learning, being rooted in Torah. I go to the Yeshiva Gedolah of Johannesburg for a learning seder for a few hours in the afternoon and give a Gemara shiur in my home in the morning. People ask me how I manage a learning seder. There may be many e-mails that go unanswered and phone calls that go unreturned until the following day, but I have to learn; it keeps me fresh and sane. To keep one’s integrity as a rav, one has to be learning; otherwise, one becomes a community worker and not a rav. Rabbanus and Torah need to be at the forefront of everything.

I host a monthly luncheon for rabbanim and an annual three-day rabbinical conference so that we have an opportunity to debate issues in the community. We have Orthodox rabbis from across the spectrum working together in an atmosphere of good chavershaft [camaraderie]. This kind of unity is a top priority. One of the main objectives of having a chief rabbi in the first place is to consolidate the unity in the community.

JA: In your position, where you can’t please everyone, you manage to maintain your integrity without alienating your constituents. You walked out of a Yom HaShoah presentation when a teenage girl got up to sing. You refuse to cave to political correctness at the expense of halachah, yet you maintain your popularity. How do you do it?

RG: You have to work with your core principles; it’s the key to communal leadership. If your leadership is going to be based on what is most pleasing to people, you have no compass. People appreciate honesty. The covenant of faith binds all Jews and connects us; it gives expression to the concept of Jewish peoplehood and unity. But it must be comprised of Torah principles and values, calling us to a higher destiny.

JA: You grew up in South Africa; you saw apartheid. How do you react when Israel is referred to as an apartheid country?

RG: It’s a defamation of the Jewish State. It’s the modern blood libel, total sheker, total lies. Furthermore, it’s an insult to the real victims of apartheid. If everything is apartheid, then nothing is apartheid. The South African legacy is on the line now. South Africa is a very religious country with millions of Christians, and the real power lies in the Evangelical and Protestant churches. I’ve been working closely with church leaders. Our message to the South African government is: “Don’t take sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Be a force for peace; don’t be a force of division.”

In December of 2012, at the ANC [African National Congress—the majority party in the South African Government] conference in the city of Mangaung, I composed an open letter, signed by a number of Christian leaders representing more than ten million Christians, calling on the ANC to not support the boycott movement against Israel. It said don’t be anti-Israel; be even-handed in your approach. I had a debate with Cyril Ramaphosa, the newly elected deputy president of the ANC. I told him, “We don’t expect the South African government to become pro-Israel, but we do expect it to be even-handed, not to foment divisions.”

JA: What are the Jewish community’s internal challenges—globally and in South Africa?

RG: My recent book, co-authored with Rabbi Berel Wein, The Legacy: Teaching for Life from the Great Lithuanian Rabbis, seeks to capture moral and strategic vision for Klal Yisrael today. It covers the key values that the Jewish world urgently needs. [For example,] darchei noam—interactions with one another must be done with more gentleness, more refinement, more derech eretz. We could have very bitter disputes, but why must derech eretz be thrown out in the face of those disputes?

Another one of the biggest problems facing the Jewish world today is Jewish ignorance. We have pockets of tremendous knowledge and learning and then we have vast oceans of Jewish ignorance. The key to kiruv is learning Torah. The Midrash says: “The light of the Torah will bring them back to the good.” That’s one of my key philosophies. It’s not about getting people to do anything initially; it’s about teaching Torah in its purest form.

In 2007, I presented a beis midrash-style educational program to two of the biggest networks of Jewish day schools in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The vast majority of the children in these networks are not shomrei mitzvos. I proposed that high school students should have a choice: instead of learning Jewish studies as an academic subject, they could learn Gemara and Chumash within the context of a beis midrash-style of learning. Currently, this model is successfully operating in three high schools. More than half of the students in these schools opted to learn in the program. They’re getting a taste of real Torah learning.

JA: You’ve gone international with “Generation Sinai”—a Jewish unity initiative that has parents and children learning together. Why go global?

RG: Because parents and children learning Torah together is the life-blood of Klal Yisrael. We launched Generation Sinai—a parent-child learning program—in South African day schools three years ago. Our plan was to have parents go to their child’s school and learn with him or her on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, close to Shavuos. This past year on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, tens of thousands of parents and children across six continents got together to study the same section of the Torah in their individual schools. The program took place in more than 100 schools in thirty-eight cities around the world, from Los Angeles to London, from Buenos Aires to Berlin, in English, French, Spanish, Russian, German and Hebrew. This was done together with some remarkable partners such as Project SEED in the United Kingdom and Ayelet Hashachar in Israel.

Parents brought their children to school in the morning and then sat down and learned with them for half an hour—fathers with sons and mothers with daughters. We provided the textual materials on the topic. For children who don’t have a parent or parents, we encouraged grandparents and aunts and uncles to get involved.

After the first Generation Sinai event, there was this incredible outpouring of emotion. People were so moved. Secular parents had never sat down with their children to learn Torah before; they had never experienced anything like this. Every school participated, from Chareidi to traditional.

We hope to expand the program to more Jewish communities around the world. Jews are separated by oceans and mountains, continents and climates, language and culture, but we have one Torah that can hold us all together. Sharing Torah is what Generation Sinai is about. It is about sharing our Sinaitic legacy with the next generation, and in so doing, ensuring our Jewish future. Generation Sinai attests to the spiritual power of Torah learning and the strength of Jewish unity.

My work in South Africa is far from complete. I see it as a primary responsibility to spread Torah as far and wide as possible, in its most compelling and profound form. South Africa is a great and proud Jewish community, and I consider it an honor to serve it.

Listen to Rabbi Goldstein speak about the thriving Jewish community of South Africa at www.ou.org/southafrican-jewish.

Bayla Sheva Brenner is senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing Department.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2013.

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