South Africa can solve its deadly problems - Chief Rabbi Goldstein

Doreen Wachmann chats to an amazing man who is helping sort out rising crime and bitter labour relations

POST-apartheid democratic South Africa, with its high crime rate and recent deadly labour conflicts, is still in its formative stage.

One man who is helping to shape that new society in a moral direction is South African Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, whose Bill of Responsibilities to mirror the South African Bill of Rights was introduced into the South African national school curriculum this year.

Rabbi Goldstein, who was the youngest ever chief rabbi appointed at the tender age of 32, says he owes his vision of contributing to society through Torah ideals to his family.

He said: "My family always had very strong Jewish values. A very important part of our upbringing was how to treat and greet people, to have a strong ethic of sensitivity, a strong work ethic and commitment to family and community.

"A very important lesson my father taught us was that life is about what you do and not what you become. It is not about positions and titles but about making a difference.

"That's why Judge Ezra Goldstein went to the bench and became a High Court judge because he could do more good from that position although an advocate is a much more lucrative career.

"He fought for his ideals - the concept of making a contribution to society."

Before the break-up of apartheid in the 1990s, Judge Goldstein used his position as a High Court judge to assist the anti-apartheid political parties.

Rabbi Goldstein said: "He campaigned to help them get votes and used his position to help those prejudiced by apartheid.

"For example, one of the functions of a judge is to review all criminal sentences with care.

"He always took very seriously if someone was in jail and should not have been there and did everything in his power to help those in distress who justifiably required his help.

"He used his position in the late 1980s, the twilight years of the apartheid regime. There was a lot of important work to be done. He was able to do that on the bench."

Although many Jews benefited from the wealthy lifestyle of whites in apartheid South Africa, Rabbi Goldstein said: "The break-up of apartheid was a very positive development for South Africa and by extension for the Jewish community.

"Living in a country where there is an oppressive regime that is suppressing the vast majority of its citizens is not a healthy place to live from a moral or life-style point of view."

But the chief rabbi does admit that South Africa today does have its share of problems like its very high crime rate and acrimonious labour relations, which led to last month's Marikana mine disaster.

But he is doing his bit in tandem with other faith leaders and government agencies to try to sort them out.

He said: "Immediately I took over as Chief Rabbi in 2005, I realised that unless we did something as a community to address the crime problem then it presented a major threat to communal life.

"You can't live with violent crime. I established the anti-crime organisation CAP (Community Action Protection) in an area of Johannesburg covering 130,000 people."

CAP, which is manned by Jews, runs vehicle patrols, a community call centre and an analysis department that analyses crime trends. Although it is Jewish-led, CAP serves the wider community.

Rabbi Goldstein said: "One of our regions has quite a significant Muslim community. We work very closely with them to the benefit of all. CAP has grown up in areas where there is a strong Jewish presence."

As an executive member of the South African National Interfaith Council, Rabbi Goldstein recently went to Marikana where more than 40 people died as a result of police action against a miners' strike.

Rabbi Goldstein said: "We went as interfaith leaders to visit the situation and bring support and comfort.

"We met the mine management and the injured miners in hospital to get a first-hand perspective and bring support."

He added: "The matter is very complicated. There are a lot of people involved in trying to heal the differences. We went to feel for ourselves what was going on and to bring support and religious solidarity with a national tragedy. It remains tense."

But he is very hopeful that South Africa can heal its wounds.

He said: "South Africa has a long history of being able to resolve conflicts. There is quite a depth of skill and culture in conflict resolution.

"South Africa is a very strong multi-cultural and multi-religious society. There is a strong emphasis on involving faiths and communities, certainly the four major faiths of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism." In fact, 10 years ago Rabbi Goldstein co-wrote with Nelson Mandela's grandson Dumani Mandela, African Soul - When Politics is not Enough.

Rabbi Goldstein said: "Dumani was at university with my brother. I was telling him about Judaism and he was telling me about African culture.

"We started an email correspondence on values from African and Jewish perspectives. The email correspondence became a book."

And it was that book which inspired the chief rabbi to launch his Bill of Responsibilities to mirror South Africa's Bill of Rights which has now been introduced into all schools and many media organisations.

He said: "There is a warm openness to the Jewish contribution to South Africa. I feel passionately that the Torah has a lot of wisdom to offer the world."

But despite his overwhelming support for the current South African government, Rabbi Goldstein is not afraid to put his head above the parapet.

He recently received front page headlines when he called on South African Deputy Foreign Minister Ebrahim Ismael Ebrahim to resign after he called on people not to visit Israel.

Rabbi Goldstein said: "He did not resign but my open letter to him had a big impact. Newspaper reports afterwards said that government sources were not happy with him. He's been chastened by it."

In a strong position to challenge the claim that Israel is an apartheid state, Rabbi Goldstein speaks and writes frequently on the subject all over the world.

So much for his role in South African society, but what about South African Jewry itself?

In contrast to the turbulent history unfolding around it, South African Jewry has a unity and cohesion which should be the envy of Jewry elsewhere.

The country's around 75,000 Jews are 90 per cent Orthodox.

Rabbi Goldstein said: "Charedim form part of our structure. They recognise our Beth Din and kashrut.

"We have one hechsher, one Beth Din, one united communal infrastructure.

"We have an outstanding network of schools, with 90 per cent of Jewish children in Orthodox Jewish schools, which are a mixture of Zionist, charedi and Chabad.

"All the outreach movements are strong. Ohr Sameach, Mizrachi, Bnei Akiva Aish are all doing well. Over the last 30 years the ba'al teshuva movement has had a lot of success, with many traditional families coming on board."

"I inherited the situation. It is about putting a lot of emphasis on unity and working together which is very much part of South African Jewish culture. The South African motto is Unity in Diversity."

Rabbi Goldstein has added to that success by founding the Sinai Indaba convention.

He explained: "Indaba is a Zulu word meaning a gathering of the tribes. The Sinai Indaba is an annual convention bringing top international Jewish speakers. More than 3,000 people attended our last convention."

He also established the Generation Sinai Indaba, which takes place a few days before Shavuot when parents and children link up in all the schools to learn for half an hour at the start of the day.

He said: "About 12,000 parents and children were learning together across the country at the same time. It is a powerful spiritual parenting experience."

The chief rabbi also initiated a Beit Midrash learning programme in Jewish schools which significantly raised the standard of text-based Torah study.

Recently qualifying as a dayan, law graduate Rabbi Goldstein has published the Hebrew book Sefer Mishpt Tzedek to assist dayanim on cases of competition law.

His book Defending the Human Spirit looks at Torah law from a human rights perspective on issues such as poverty alleviation, women's rights, politics and government.

On top of all this, Rabbi Goldstein says: "My office is always the final port of call for communal problems. There's a lot going on."

So what does he do to wind down?

He replied: "I keep my sanity with regular cycling on my exercise bike. Learning Torah, for which I set aside a significant amount of time, keeps me fresh and inspired. And a very important part of my balance is my family.

"I try to spend as much as time as I can with them in the mornings and early evenings before functions when the kids go to sleep.

"It is very important for my responsibility as a parent and is also very refreshing."

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph