Traveling with the Travelling Rabbi

EAST LONDON, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa — “Hold onto your kippa!” I shouted above the howl of the wind and roar of the jet engines as we reached the bottom of the airplane stairs. “Let’s take a selfieeee!”

A windy selfie with Rabbi Silberhaft, East London Airport. East London, South Africa

A windy selfie with Rabbi Silberhaft, East London Airport. East London, South Africa

We had just landed at East London airport on a 6:10 a.m. flight from Johannesburg, about 75 minutes away. Just a few days previous, Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: a day-long adventure to the Eastern Cape Province cruising around to inspect several Jewish cemeteries and a couple of former synagogues. Being up at 4:00 a.m. meant I was tired out even before we took off. But this would not be a day soon forgotten because traveling with the Travelling Rabbi (he uses British spelling, I use the American spelling) is never dull and always full of serendipity. It is also an honor.

This was not our first outing together, not by any means. Since the start of my Jewish Africa project in August 2012, we’ve journeyed in and around Johannesburg and taken excursions to Swaziland and Botswana together. We’d even been on a plane before on a jaunt to Livingstone, Zambia. It is an understatement and no exaggeration to say he has been the king pin in my southern African Jewish journeys because he’s connected me to so many key people and opened so many photographic doors for me. But this was the first time to fly “there and back” in day. We were day trippers, yeah!

THE TRAVELLING RABBI NEVER REFUSES a photo op. Not that he’s vain, by any means. I think he just secretly enjoys the limelight — and 5 star perks — his demanding job affords. He likes to be in the picture, literally and figuratively speaking.

Snapshot over, time to get our wheels for the day.

“I booked a Merc,” he said. Mmm, I pondered. A Mercury? “A Mercedes,” he clarified with a twinge of glee. I told him that I don’t actually like Mercedes. No, not because of some personal boycott of German automobiles, but because I’ve never really had a comfortable ride in one.

“Good sturdy cars,” I said. “But the ride always feels stuffy and hard to me.”

A few minutes later, him behind the wheel and me as the First Captain, the Rabbi tried to synch up his iPhone to the built-in hands-free system. It didn’t work.

“That’s the way the Mercedes bends,” I said (repeating an old joke I heard donkeys years ago) and thinking, “So much for 5 star cars.” For the next 9 hours, my silent mantra was, “Please say I’ll ring you back. Please say I’ll ring you back.” (The Rabbi makes and receives a lot of calls.) I think I can say that without fear of retribution because the good Rabbi acknowledges that his driving at times gives me unwanted thrills.

RABBI MOSHE SILBERHAFT IS A MAN of many kippas. He is the President of the African Jewish Congress Zimbabwe Fund and Spiritual Leader & CEO of the African Jewish Congress. But it is for his work of the last 22 years as the official Country Communities Rabbi of South Africa (and the Southern African region) for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) that he is truly known and which really drives him. We are in the Eastern Cape for merely 10 hours to inspect Jewish cemeteries in King William’s Town, Queenstown, and Dordrecht, three bucolic towns that today have no Jewish life to attend to. A day like today is par for the course on his hectic itinerary.

“Where ever there were trading posts and business opportunities, you can find Jewish history in South Africa,” he said. But by now, after all my visits and travels in this majestic country, I knew this. I wanted to know what made those pioneers give up their lives back home for these far-flung landscapes. Certainly, they had to be motivated by more than financial opportunities.

“We got out here in just over a couple of hours,” I said in Dordrecht, our furthest point from East London airport. “Imagine the journey back in the day. It would have been a 3-day trek.”

As the Country Communities Rabbi, Rabbi Silberhaft oversees everything from the A to Z of religious, cultural, logistical, historical, even personal, needs of long-dormant communities like Dordrecht and of those communities clinging on, like the 100 or so souls who make up the East London Jewish community (whom I had the pleasure of meeting a couple years back). In many ways, the Rabbi is truly a one-man show. And with many people in those communities aging, the Rabbi’s schedule can change at a minute’s notice when, for instance, he is summoned to officiate a funeral.

But his job is not always so emotionally demanding. I think it’s more mentally challenging because being on the go so much can be grueling, especially if there is no way to plan too far ahead. On this point, he and I relate well.

AS WE ZIPPED OVER HILL and through dale, we were treated to some extraordinary vistas and colors and comely pastoral hamlets — the sorts that made me fall in love with this country on my first visit in 2000 — leading us to our first stop of the day, King William’s Town Jewish cemetery. I was shocked to see it in such a mess, until I wasn’t.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft (L), speaks with his restoration man Selwyn in the Jewish cemetery. King William's Town, South Africa

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft (L), speaks with his restoration man Selwyn in the Jewish cemetery. King William’s Town, South Africa

We met Selwyn, a Jewish man in his 60s from Johannesburg who’s been the Rabbi’s cemetery restoration point man for at least five years. He works where ever the Rabbi needs him and he then hires local laborers. The restoration requires, among other things, laying upright headstones down flat and affixing them to the top of the their respective grave. Though moving the headstones from their original positions may seem problematic, even offensive, to some people, doing so is smart for time’s wrath and the occasional vandal’s stupidity pose much less risk to the reclining stones. The burial ground must also be demarcated by a sturdy wall or fencing. With hundreds of Jewish cemeteries across the country, Selwyn seems gainfully employed for the foreseeable future. He joined us for our further-flung jaunts.

Synagogue (former). King William's Town, South Africa

Synagogue (former). King William’s Town, South Africa

Before speeding off to Queenstown, we made a fast stop at the former King William’s Town Synagogue and Community Hall. I’m not certain when they ceased to be functioning, but I am always pleased to see these old buildings still standing and maintained. Currently, the synagogue building is the Potter’s House Christian Church signaled almost whimsically by a Magen David at the top front. Inside, above neatly arranged rows of chairs, the flags of South Africa, the United States, and Australia hung from the rafters (I read later those flags were flying because the church was founded in the US and then became huge in Australia).

Jewish cemetery. Queenstown, South Africa

Jewish cemetery. Queenstown, South Africa

UPON REACHING QUEENSTOWN, we dusted off the crumbs of some food supplies we had picked up in King William’s Town. There, out in the middle of a beautiful no where, we pulled up to a magnificently maintained cemetery announced by a Magen David and “HEBREW CEMETERY” in English and Hebrew atop the cemetery service building. Out here, it just sort of seems so unexpected even though I knew I was going to a well-preserved cemetery. We merely stopped there en route to Dordrecht, another 45 minutes or so afield.

Synagogue and Community Hall (former). Queenstown, South Africa

Synagogue and Community Hall (former). Queenstown, South Africa

In Queenstown, too, the former synagogue and community hall are still standing in fine shape. In fact, the foundation stones are still in place at the front of the buildings. In many cases, they are removed and preserved elsewhere when a community closes its doors. Today, the buildings house the Khululeka Kids High/Scope Early Learning Centre. That’s always more comforting than a disco (as I once saw in Adelaide, New Zealand). But, hey, whatever it takes to keep the past in tact. Rabbi Silberhaft was also pleased to see the site being employed as a place of learning.

EVEN IN DEATH, Jews and Muslims just don’t seem to able to keep themselves apart. I’m always amused to find Jewish and Muslim burial grounds side by side. Consequently, I wasn’t entirely surprised to find this scenario, even out here in this beautifully rustic place.

As we pulled up to the Dordrecht Jewish cemetery, the first thing the Rabbi pointed out had nothing to do with the Jewish sector.

“Look, Jono,” he said drawing my eyes to the adjacent Muslim cemetery. “Notice anything unusual about the star? It looks like a Magen David.”

“Oh, wow,” I guffawed. “That’s funny.”

Muslim cemetery with Magen David, adjacent to the Jewish cemetery. Dordrecht, South Africa

Muslim cemetery with Magen David, adjacent to the Jewish cemetery. Dordrecht, South Africa

I’ve seen Jewish and Muslim cemeteries side by side in many places around the world, the General Foreigners’ Cemetery in Kobe, Japan and one in Durban, South Africa are two examples that come to mind. The surprising, even comical, thing was the egregious design error on the Muslim cemetery: a 6-pointed star — a Magen David, for my money — resting comfortably next to a crescent moon, the symbol of Islam (the star should have only 5 points). With all due respect, this was funny. Who knows? Perhaps it’s an offering of peace from our Muslim brethren.

IT WAS 1:30 P.M. We needed to be at the airport by 4:15 and we had some 200 kilometers (120 miles) of meandering ground to cover, plus we had to drop Selwyn off where we met him, not to mention we needed to return our Merc.

As we high-tailed it back to where we started, I maintained chatter with Rabbi Silberhaft as much to keep him awake as myself. I don’t like falling asleep in the car, but I was exhausted. Each stop had been a photographic whirlwind blur. In fact, the entire day felt like a blur. We’d used just about every hour of the day, flown over a 1,500 kilometers (800 miles), driven just shy of 500 kilometers (300 miles), and I had banged off nearly 1,000 images.

And to think the Travelling Rabbi does this sort of thing regularly. I was impressed. It’s what he does, though he’s made no secret of the fact that he’s got his sights set on retirement in a couple of years down that long and winding road.

“What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?” I asked him as we relaxed in the airport lounge before boarding.

“A full morning of meetings from 8:00 a.m.,” he replied.

I didn’t have the heart to say I’d still be sleeping at that time.

NOTE: Read more about the Travelling Rabbi in my blog post from February 2, 2013.

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