Today in History, June 26: 1956: Under President Nasser, Egypt seized control of the Suez Canal.


South Africa's First Native Torah

The completion of the first Torah scroll inked from beginning to end in South Africa has stirred massive pride for dwindling Jewish communities once thought forsaken.

The completion of the first Torah scroll inked from beginning to end in South Africa has stirred massive pride, a fierce sense of excitement and unprecedented joy for dwindling Jewish communities once thought forsaken.

“There are thousands of Torahs bought elsewhere, such as in Israel and New York, and brought to South Africa,” explains Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Eitan Ash of the Chabad House in Savoy, an area of Johannesburg. “But this is the first Torah ever written in South Africa – and by a South African scribe.”

The historic scroll, which cost 250,000 Rand or about $35,000, took two years to complete. It was sponsored by the families of three departed members of the Savoy Jewish community: Gary Lazarus, Steven Mechanic and Deborah Gien.

“We wanted to make it a local Torah that affected as much as Africa as possible,” says Ash.

He and Rabbi Dov Ber Unterslak spearheaded the project and sent the Torah-in-progress on an eight-month journey throughout southern Africa, where locals had the opportunity to assist a scribe in writing its holy letters.

“We wanted to bring it to surrounding countries with small Jewish communities and give these people the opportunity to help write the Torah,” offers Ash. “Everywhere we went, people started to find about it. We became a sign in each country we went to.”

Accompanied by friends and relatives of Lazarus, Mechanic and Gien, as well as Yisroel Drutman, the native South African scribe, the Torah made its way to scattered Jewish hamlets in Maputo, Mozambique; Windhoek, Namibia; Harare, Zimbabwe; Pretoria, South Africa; and remote agricultural areas and rural locales on the outskirts of Cape Town and along the northern border of South Africa.

“A lot of these communities have never had an opportunity to write their letters in a Torah,” says Warren Goldblatt, Mechanic’s former business partner, who traveled with the Torah along its international route. “They felt forgotten by the larger Jewish communities, and they were honored to have their own letter in a Torah scroll. It became quite an exciting journey.”

“Jews were in tears,” adds Ash of the dramatic undertaking. “They were disconnected. To be able to write letters in a Torah literally transformed them.”

Unterslak was most struck by the group’s reception in Delmas, a small farming town in the Mpumalanga province, where 30 people, including the non-Jewish son of a former South African agricultural minister, gathered to welcome the Torah.

“He too was fascinated by what we were doing,” recalls Unterslak. “He said the fact that the Torah is being written for the first time in our town, our province, our country and possibly on our continent, is such a monumental occasion that it should be brought to the attention of the president and the entire country.”
South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein, left, prepares to write a letter in his country’s first-ever native Torah scroll.

To maximize the venture’s spiritual impact, the Torah was also taken to a South African community in S. Diego, Calif., and to a children’s rehabilitation hospital in Pretoria, where parents and siblings wrote letters in honor of its patients.

“The experience brought energy and strength to all the family members,” says Ash. “The families were very touched.”

On the 10th anniversary of Lazarus’s death, 500 people gathered at a grand fete held at the Savoy Chabad House to mark the Torah’s completion. Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein was among the attendees that danced, sang and partied in jubilant celebration.

“There was a great excitement,” says Goldblatt, who hopes to continue the work of reaching out to unaffiliated Jews all across southern Africa. “It was incredible, just incredible.”

For Unterslak, the heartfelt, awe-inspiring project is sure to leave an indelible imprint in the collective lives of the entire Savoy community.

“It was obviously a mind-blowing experience,” he marvels. “The experience alone of being part of the project would have sufficed with the gatherings we made for the sponsors’ families and work colleagues. But to go that one step further and include other communities made it a project that will remain with me forever.”


Soul Food, June 26

"The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, sometimes destroyed."
- Ernest Hemingway