A closer study of Torah brings Zevi back to his roots

DAVID SAFFER talks to a globetrotting rabbi who has returned to his native South Africa on a mission with a difference

INSPIRING Jewish education in the Rainbow Nation is in the safe hands of Rabbi Zevi Weinberg.

The South African-born rabbi has led a study-based globetrotting life in recent years, but has returned to his roots to promote insights into chassidus - the inner dimension of Torah.

Based in his home city of Johannesburg together with Leeds-born wife Devorah Leah, the couple are also set to bring innovative programmes to the local community.

"I've studied all over the world but have the deepest connection to South Africa," Rabbi Zevi said.

"I understand the people very well, know what makes them tick, what mentality they have and relate very well to them.

"The goal of the role is people should be enlivened by chassidus as it gives a warmth for Judaism and of fellow Jews."

The youngest child of New Yorkers Rabbi Levi and Sterna Weinberg, Rabbi Zevi, 27, has three older sisters and three older brothers.

The Big Apple though would be a future place of learning for the youngest of the Wineberg clan.

"The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, sent my parents to South Africa in 1984 to strengthen the Jewish community," he said.

"I was born shortly after their arrival in Johannesburg and have vague memories of apartheid."

The future educator's formative years were against a backdrop of a period of immense change in the country.

In the year of the youngster's sixth birthday, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after serving 27 years of a life sentence on Robben Island.

The first South African democratically elected president (1994-99), Mandela prioritised reconciliation, combating poverty and inequality.

"I remember Mandela's election in 1994 although not specific events," Rabbi Zevi recalled.

Growing up in Johannesburg, the future rabbi revelled in an Orthodox environment.

"Both my parents were inspiring," he said. "My father is an incredible teacher and very warm in his nature.

"My favourite part of growing up was the Shabbat table. I loved it because he'd always tell the most interesting stories.

"My father was a very wise man so had lots to share and took every opportunity to teach us. If we were just walking down the street we'd discuss all sorts of rabbinical issues.

"My mother was also incredible. Whenever we had guests to the house she'd make a great impression.

"Both my parents provided the strongest part of my education that I received."

A pupil at Torah Academy (Chabad School) until the age of 15, his studies continued at Lubavitch Yeshiva in Toronto and Ohr Elchonon Chabad in California for a further four years.

"At Torah Academy I gained a lot and my yeshiva experience was incredible," he said.

"Studying on the West Coast had a major impact on me because Rabbi Ezra Schochat was a very illustrious teacher and I found his teaching truly inspirational."

Rabbi Zevi moved to New York for 12 months where he helped younger students prior to a similar post on the other side of the world in Melbourne, Australia, for two years.

Rabbi Zevi completed his rabbinical studies in South Africa before a further learning period in New York.

Following his marriage to Devorah Leah in 2009, Rabbi Zevi continued to study in New York but has now taken up his educational role in Johannesburg.

"The post centres on chassidus, which inspires me the most," he said.

"A person carries out many roles in a day such as being a parent or a businessman, but there is also a personal experience they display in every area.

"If someone is not interested in their job they just do it so you don't see the personal experience invested in the job. But if a person is excited by the job and invests their whole soul in it, you can see how this is an expression of the person.

"Chassidus shows you the life and energy behind the laws, mitzvot and anecdotes.

"Whereas Judaism and (Jewish) holidays could just be a bunch or rituals, chassidus makes every holiday an experience and expression of coming closer to Hashem."

Rabbi Zevi will be working in Glenhazel, Johannesburg.

"It's a relatively religious and learned community," he said.

"The Hamaor Centre was set up by my father six years ago and brings synthesis between halochas (Jewish laws) and mysticism.

"I'll be teaching in a community of 60,000 Jews.

"It's a wonderful place and has a very strong Jewish community in terms of Jewish pride and Jewish affiliation.

"The community is one with the least amount of assimilation, most people keep kosher and kashrut of the highest standards is available.

"Most Jews class themselves as Orthodox, many are affiliated and Reform is almost non-existent. There is also incredible integration culturally.

"The relationship with non-Jewish people is very positive, respectful and understanding."

As to the future, Rabbi Zevi will be returning to his youth for inspiration.

"Growing up in South Africa gave me a very strong love for nature and hiking," he said.

"I'm hoping to write a book on animals in the Torah one day because people can learn from the different natures of animals.

"I've also always had a very strong interest in scientific ideas. Before I got involved with the study of chassidus I really wanted to get involved in this field.

"I've found chassidus brings out a deeper dimension of understanding things in the world, why and how things work so it has enlightened that scientific area as well."

Although the primary age group Rabbi Zevi will be teaching is 20s and 30s, he'll also be investing time in the next generation of South African Jews.

"Devorah Leah and I ran a summer camp in Connecticut earlier this year," he explained.

"We'll be setting up a Sunday programme where kids can develop a Jewish experience through different skills.

"Among the workshops, we'll be teaching children how to make parchments and quills for writing, there will be cookery activities and also art 'n' crafts.

"When it comes to Shabbat, we'll be running Shabbatons and discussion groups.

"Another role I'll be taking on is to bring new programmes into the community such as book drives and encouraging people in a workplace to wear tefillin and shake the lulav and etrog."

Judaism in South Africa is on the up and Rabbi Zevi is among the new generation of rabbonim leading the way.

For his parents-in-law, Rabbi Reuven and Ruth Cohen of Leeds, it's also fitting that a touch of Yorkshire spirit and traditions will influence Jews thousands of miles away as the Rainbow Nation continues to develop in the post-Mandela era.

© 2011 Jewish Telegraph