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Jewish Journal

S. Africa Makes Bold Chief Rabbi Choice

by Geoff Sifrin

December 25, 2003 | 7:00 pm

At a time when South Africa's Jews are anxious over the future of the Jewish community, the religious body representing most Jews has taken a bold step by choosing a young man with little experience as chief rabbi.

The decision by the Union of Orthodox Synagogues to appoint as chief rabbi Warren Goldstein, 32, has been hailed by many as an inspired move that will inject fresh energy into the troubled Jewish community of 80,000. Goldstein will take over in January 2005, when the current chief rabbi, Cyril Harris, retires after 17 years.

Goldstein is rabbi of a dynamic Orthodox congregation in Johannesburg and a scholar of Judaism and law -- but some say he's too young to be chief rabbi. The role of chief rabbi is high-profile and political. He must interact with the government and participate in national interfaith and interracial forums.

Because the government relates to the chief rabbi as the public face of South African Jewry, he must be accepted as a spokesman by a broad cross-section of the community, from secular to ultra Orthodox.

South Africa is a religious society, with most citizens identifying with some faith: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, traditional African faiths or others. The chief rabbi sits on national bodies with other religious leaders, such as the National Religious Leaders Forum, which deals with the moral regeneration of society, among other issues.

Those who applauded Goldstein's appointment said his youth will contribute to his effectiveness. He was in school when apartheid reached its era of decline and is untainted by it. The first time he voted was in the 1994 elections that ushered in democracy.

"His youth is a huge asset," said Harold Novick, president of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues. "The younger generation looks up to him,"

Harris said that Goldstein's selection is "a statement of being proudly South African Jewish. It is his generation who will stay here and build this community. This is an admirable and forward-looking appointment."

The selection committee, which included a diverse range of Jewish groups, recommended Goldstein from a short list of five. Others were much older and more experienced.

One criterion was that the appointee be South African-born or someone who had lived in the country during the transition from apartheid to democracy and who understood South African politics. Previous chief rabbis all have been born abroad. The candidate also had to be a Zionist.

Goldstein, who as a lawyer is licensed to appear before the country's High Court, is a fourth-generation South African who was ordained in 1996. His father is a High Court judge.

Together with Dumani Mandela, Nelson Mandela's grandson, Goldstein wrote a book this year called, "African Soul Talk," about values for the new South Africa. His doctoral thesis deals with Jewish law's relevance to human rights and modern constitutional law.

Goldstein is well-known for urging South African Jews to discard their negativity and see the enormous positive aspects of South Africa and its post-apartheid future.

"Apartheid poisoned our national soul, and now we need to heal it," he writes in his book. "We have had our political miracle; now we need our human miracle of the rebirth of the South African soul."

During Harris' 17-year tenure, South Africa went through a dramatic period as it negotiated the road to democracy. Harris was a high-profile public figure, urging Jews to help end apartheid and embrace the changes of the rebuilt country. He provided an engaging, outward-looking face for South African Jewry, which made many Jews proud.

However, older Jewish leaders have pushed for young people with fresh ideas and fewer axes to grind -- and who had less experience of apartheid -- to be placed in key leadership positions in the community.

Other recent appointments include Yehuda Kay, 28, national director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies; Zev Krengel, 31, chairman of the board's council in the Johannesburg area, where most South African Jews live; Krengel's brother, Avrom, 35, chairman of the South African Zionist Federation; and Rabbi Craig Kacev, 32, acting director of the South African Board of Jewish Education.

Goldstein said he sees three main goals: strengthening the Jewish community, which has lost many members due to large-scale emigration; promoting healthy interaction between Jews and the broader South African society, including advocating for Israel in a country where most sympathies lie with the Palestinians; and building the South Africa economy.

On the AIDS question -- South Africa has one of the highest infection rates in the world -- Goldstein said that "the Torah and Talmud offer a way of living with an important sexual ethic."

On emigration, he said, "We must encourage young people to remain and build the country."

However, he said he would not try to persuade any particular Jewish family to remain.

"I would not want to be responsible for convincing someone to stay, then seeing them hijacked or attacked the next day," Goldstein said. "I would rather focus on getting people to be proud of South Africa, whether they stay or go."

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