JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — It’s been a hectic week (August 11~17) — in both senses of the word. Both senses? Hectic as in busy, and hectic as in the South African vernacular meaning heavy, excellent, or enjoyable. From my base in Johannesburg, I took 2 two-day, one-night jaunts to Botswana and Swaziland (each about 4 hours in opposite directions from Jo’burg). Here in the big city, a calm Tuesday morning unexpectedly turned into a flurry of photo opportunities. Rabbi Moshe “The Travelling Rabbi” Silberhaft and I spent a lot of time together this week. Before my first leg of this Jewish Africa photo project, I was simply unable to get an email reply out of him. Now, he won’t leave me alone. I’m joking, of course. We both share a passion for Jewish community preservation though our respective work is hardly similar: me to document in photographs, he to provide spiritual and logistical support. But I think the depth of commitment to our missions is equal. In our travels, we’ve talked much about Jewish life in the region, of course, be we’ve also shared and confided certain personal experiences and tribulations. He is no longer that hard-to-get-a-hold-of-Rabbi that everyone told me to contact. He is not merely an indispensable source of assistance and introduction. Rabbi Silberhaft has become my friend, and I am his.
There is hardly a dull moment in this man’s life. His days are filled with incessant phone calls, emails, and texts, and he is everyone’s problem solver — such is the life of the Travelling Rabbi (which he elucidates in his book, The Travelling Rabbi: My African Tribe). “I could have made millions in property,” he told me. “But I took this path instead.” I know he’s never doubted his choices or his calling. In there lies another parallel in our missions. As we bounded along the country highways and byways, I told him that I often feel as if I am traveling in a bubble because it is hard to convey the overall experience of one of my Jewish photo tours. Certainly, I meet individuals in each community with whom I share experiences, but those encounters are but a single link in the overall chain of events. Some of my journeys are so cultural and work intense that time and experience rushes by in warp speed, yet I travel in a slow motion. On this point, the Rabbi and I are one. “My Board thinks it’s cushy traveling and staying in five-star accommodations,” he told me. “But the fact is they have no idea what really happens out here. “I do,” I said. “I know exactly how you feel.” This week has been one of those intense times that is hard to capture. I’ll try. On Sunday morning, we set off for Gaborone, Botswana with a Sefer Torah on the back seat. Both outbound and inbound we made a few quick stops to photo cemeteries or former synagogues in some country towns. The Rabbi was delivering the first Torah to Botswana which was welcomed that evening in the traditional Hachnasat Sefer Torah celebration. There’s only a small, mainly Israeli ex-pat community there involved in the diamond industry, but it is spirited. With no synagogue, the front parlor in a Jewish home is used as a prayer room on Shabbat and main holidays. With little Jewish life to photograph otherwise in Botswana, the event was a remarkable photo opportunity to represent that country in my Jewish Africa project. A few days later, one of my images accompanied an article in the weekly South African Jewish Report newspaper.
On Wednesday, we drove in the opposite direction to the Kingdom of Swaziland, a place I never imagined I’d go to twice in my life. The Rabbi’s daughter, Leah, joined us. The purpose of the trip was to do a pre-opening of the Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft Library at the Kobe-Ramokgadi Advanced Learning Academy (the official launch of the library will be in a few months time with a delegation from the Johannesburg Jewish community in attendance). He has been given the honor for organizing the books that will fill its shelves (it is the second library bearing his name, the other being the Rabbi Moshe Library in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe).
The school is the brainchild of Geoffrey Menachem Ramokgadi, a South African who has lived in Swaziland for many years and who adopted the Jewish faith. He represents the tiny Jewish community of the country. Interestingly, he named the school in part “Kobe” in memory of the victims of the Kobe earthquake of January 1995 because he found the event so traumatic and moving. There is a signboard in front of the school in both English and Japanese outlining these facts. He also incorporated the more recent tragedy of the March 2011 tsunami.
Sandwiched between those excursions was Tuesday (see previous blog post for details). On Friday morning, I met with Elona Steinfeld. She is the research coordinator of the South African Friends of Beit Hatfutsot (Tel Aviv, Israel). I first met Elona last year on leg #1 of my Jewish Africa photo survey project. When I popped my head into her office a couple of weeks ago, I was so pleased that she remembered me, and she was her usual welcoming self. She and her colleagues work tirelessly documenting the Jewish history of South Africa.
The research centre has thus far published five remarkable books on different regions of the country focusing in particular on the “country communities” (i.e. the small Jewish communities in outlying areas that are, in many cases, no longer in existence save for an old cemetery or former synagogue). Elona graciously gave me nearly two hours of her time for an in depth chat about various aspects of Jewish life here in South Africa. In the evening, I attended Shabbat services at the Sydenham-Highlands North Hebrew Congregation. It is Rabbi Silberhaft’s usual synagogue. He invited me to join him as a visiting Chazzan from Israel, in town for a wedding, was to sing. The mood was festive and spirited. During the service, one of the wedding party family members welcomed me to join about 100 people for a special dinner (held in the adjacent function hall). They invited me yet again for a meal at their home on Monday evening when the children will be presenting the patriarch of the family with a Sefer Torah which has just arrived from Israel. To end the week, and again at the invitation of Rabbi Silberhaft, I attended a Saturday evening talk by Moshe Arens at Beyachad (the Jewish “headquarters”). He is a man who has worn many hats. He is an Israeli aeronautical engineer, researcher and former diplomat and politician. He was a member of the Knesset between 1973 and 1992 and again from 1999 until 2003, and also served as Minister of Defense three times and once as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Arens was the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and was professor at the Technion in Haifa. When the “official” photographer didn’t turn up, the organizer of the event summoned my services.
This trip has been one of quality of photo opportunities over quantity of photographs. With so many unexpected moments and photo opportunities on this trip, serendipity has been the theme of my journey thus far. That’s something else the Travelling Rabbi will understand. ### end
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