SOUTH AFRICAN BNAI ISRAEL SYLVANIA MISSION 2013

INTRODUCTION
While I was hoping to blog everyday I find myself almost a week into the trip with my 1st opportunity to blog now at the airport on Tuesday morning, as we are about to part from the city of my birth beautiful Cape Town.

My heart is heavy with mixed feelings as we have spent the most wonderful 5 days here in perfect weather in the presence of my dear mother Miriam who Fortunately I had the privilege to see in March when my brother & I made a 90th birthday celebration for her here. It is a rare blessing to have been able to see her face to face twice in 1 year. We have also had the pleasure of our middle child our son Ari & his dear wife our daughter (in law) Hayley who arrived a few days before us & are staying a few more days to be with my mother before going on to Johannesburg where we might have an opportunity to connect next weekend.

We are a fantastic group of 25 including Ari & Hayley who have jelled together and are getting along beautifully. We arrived last Thursday night at midnight after 2 exhausting flights 1st from Detroit to Amsterdam then onto Cape Town direct, the 2nd flight almost 12 hours with a 7 hour time difference.

Our hotel the Protea in Sea Point a gorgeous beach area where many of Cape Town’s Jews live, was recently upgraded and at a beautiful location near the ocean.

1ST DAY- JEWISH CAPE TOWN
HERZLIA JEWISH DAY SCHOOL
We started with the Herzlia Jewish day school where I spent all 12 years of school before going on to the army and college. It is hard for our group to envisage a Jewish community of some 16000 with a day school on 6 campuses comprising a student body of 2100 which is an extremely high percent of the children of the community. We began with an assembly during which the students were working on a recycling project and their excellent marimba band entertained us. We saw their new state of the art gym recently donated and just dedicated. While the original buildings in which I spent those 12 years are still there they are incorporated within a much larger campus which for our group was more like a college campus than a typical Jewish day school in the USA. Herzlia is 1 of the best known jessie schools in the world and I received a superior education there both in secular and Hebrew studies.

MY FATHER’S SHUL
From there as we headed to the Jewish campus downtown we passed 3 of the 4 homes in which I grew up all still looking good as the neighborhoods are still very desirable. Then a deeply emotional visit to my dear late father Jakub’s former synagogue now an antique oriental furniture store. Fortunately it was open for business so I introduced our group and explained my background to the owner who was glad to let us in and poke around. I’m sure though he would have been happier had we bought something; had we been in the USA, I’m sure he would have found some avid customers.

My father served there for over 30 years from 1950; I was brissed there in the hall which is now a Jehovah’s Witness church, had my bar mitzvah there and my soul is imbued with fond deep memories of events and sounds in this great building that shaped my persona and especially my career. Standing in the large space now crammed floor to ceiling with antiques, I shared legends of the famous former Vredehoek shul with our group, showed them where my mother and I sat and where the bimah was once located. We were even able to climb the stairs to the women’s balcony, it having been an Orthodox synagogue like most in South Africa. I could hear my father’s resonating tenor piercing the commotion of the weirdly juxtaposed business that was now being conducted in this former holy space that was so integral to my life. Ari was overwhelmed by the associations, for he never met his Gpa Jakub who died 27 years ago and Ari has only heard many legends of his Gpa who devoted his life to am yisrael and survived the Warsaw Ghetto and several concentration camps as well as the loss of his 1st wife and daughter my half sister.

When I grew up I wanted very much to become an architect of synagogue design, partly as a result of the influence of this place. Having followed in my fathers footsteps to become a cantor I devote my life to what happens in these spaces rather than the spaces in which these services were contained. It was the sounds of my father’s music and voice that influenced me more than the bricks and mortar. Still the memories are so profound…

JEWISH CAMPUS
From there we headed to the campus that now includes the Great Synagogue, erected over 100 years ago, its predecessor building (the 1st built in South Africa), the Jewish museum ( now housed in the old shul as well as in a new impressive building), the Holocaust which includes testimony from my dear mother Miriam, the Jewish library, a kosher restaurant and other communal institutions and offices. When I grew up there, there was only the synagogue; now thanks to its visionary leaders it is a world class campus of Jewish life. It is worth noting that although the numbers of the Jewish community have dropped 40% over the last 40 years, the infrastructure has vastly intensified so that the blessed residents of this unique Jewish community are Jewishly far better off than before.

Our group was fascinated to hear the amazing work Richard & the Holocaust Center do particularly on South Africa’s unique racist history and we enjoyed an interesting tour of the Museum of South African Jewish history. The Great Synagogue, also known as the Gardens Shul because of its beautiful location in the beautiful botanical gardens, is not open for visitors on Fridays so I arranged with the Cantor Ian Camisar to open for us as it is a spectacular building not to be missed,

GROOTE SCHUUR HOSPITAL & U OF CAPE TOWN
The lovely Cafe Riteve on the Jewish campus hosted a delicious buffet kosher lunch for us after which we headed to the suburbs to visit the massive famous Groote Schuur Hospital where Dr Christian Barnard performed the world’s 1st heart transplant. Then we headed to the close by University of Cape Town campus where I received my Bachelors And Honors degrees. It is 1 of the most beautiful campuses in the world built on the slopes of the mountain. The campus Rabbi Thurgood showed us around particularly the Kaplan Center for Jewish studies which has its own building.

SHABBAT
For Friday night services we attended the Marais Rd Sea Point Shul well known in SA as once 1 of the largest Jewish congregations in the world. The cantor is a good friend of mine and our group was thrilled to find out there is another Cantor Ivor (his name being Ivor Joffe) and our group despite the fact that the women sit in the balcony, enjoyed a typical South African Friday night shul service with cantorial music and male choir, a tradition I grew up with. The dynamic Rabbi is a good friend of Toledo’s Chabbad Rabbi. Our group was surprised by the large crowd of several 100 who attend Friday night rather than Saturday, a South African tradition. Upstairs the women in our group sat with my mother. For me it was wonderful to see my mother surrounded by our women as well as my daughter in law Hayley. Dinner was back at our hotel, catered by a kosher caterer who owns 1 of the local kosher restaurants, a traditional Shabbat dinner of brisket , chicken etc that was excellent and graciously hosted.

Our group toured spectacular coastal Cape Town sights while I spent shabbat with my mother, Ari and Hayley. I received an Aliyah and we were invited to the Rabbi for a wonderful cholent lunch we all enjoyed. The Rabbi being Chabbad there was much ruach and lively singing. On Saturday night we were invited to my cousin from Brasil (originally Israeli) Lea & her husband Selwyn who live there and 19 year old son Jonathan, who, at Friday night dinner fielded many questions from our group on being a student in present day South Africa. Several of our friends were invited as well as the Hazzan of the Great Synagogue and his wife.

3RD DAY – SUNDAY
On Sunday we attempted to take the cable car up what is 1 of the wonders of the world the magnificent Table Mountain on which slopes Cape Town lies. The weather is often windy up there so the cable car cannot run which was the case that morning. We admired some of the most breathtaking and spectacular views in the world from up on the mountain and from the other side of the city where all the amazing photos are taken and paintings done of Table Mountain. We also enjoyed a visit to historical buildings downtown such as the Malay Quarter and the Castle which is the oldest building in the country dating back to the late 1600’s. I shared stories of my military service when I was stationed at the Castle. I was conscripted into the army in 1971 and served for a full year, 8 months in Pretoria and 4 at the Castle. The reason for my transfer was that I was hired by a synagogue to lead High Holiday services in Cape Town and because of the government’s great respect for religious freedom (a bit of a contradiction with their political system) they felt it was their responsibility to fly me 1000 miles at their expense to be available to the congregation that needed me. So instead of giving me off the 10 days or flying me twice they transferred me to Cape Town. We saw the beautiful historical city hall where Nelson Mandela went immediately on release from prison to deliver his 1st speech as a free man.

ROBBIN ISLAND
A highlight of the trip and Sunday was a visit to Robbin Island where Mandela was incarcerated for 18 of the 27 years he spent in prison. It can only be accessed by boat, a 30 fast speed boat ride. Our tour guide at the prison on the island was a former inmate who was there 5 years as a political prisoner. We saw Mandela’s tiny cell and heard about horrible conditions. I invited my mother to join us but she refused and it became apparent when we arrived why, as it looks a bit like a concentration camp though there is no analogy except in the idea of racial hatred and discrimination.

4TH DAY – MONDAY
The Cape area is famous for amongst other things the wonderful wineries producing some of the best wines in the world. These were established by the French Huguenots who came here in the late 1600s to escape religious persecution. We visited the beautiful Huguenot monument in the picturesque town of Franschhoek and the wonderful Babylon Garden followed by a wine and cheese tasting and lunch at the famous Fairview Winery which has become 1 of the premier producers of wine, cheese, beer, chocolate etc in South Africa.

The owner is Charles Back from a prominent Jewish family whose grandfather purchased the winery in the 1930’s. I had contacted him by email hoping he would greet and welcome our group but never heard from him. He is extremely busy with his many ventures and impossible to get hold of. But our luck our tour guide spotted him sitting in his restaurant. Since he knows my family I approached him and asked him to meet briefly with my group which he did. We were very fortunate that he was on the spot at the time and willing and available to meet with us.

OUR TOUR GUIDE
I should point out that our tour guide Tessa Easingwood is fabulous, we all love her, extremely knowledgeable and fun and easy going, a mixture of Afrikaans background and English. She has gone to great lengths to make everything perfect for us as well as to explain the complicated racial complexion of this rainbow of people that make up a truly amazing country.

Stellenbosch and Paarl are 2 of the towns that are centers of this wine region and integral to my own story. My professional career began in the town of Wellington in this region when I was 15 years old and was invited to assist with High Holyday services. The following year I moved up to a larger community in the area when invited to Belleville which is close by, for the same role.

A member of our group Bill Garber had yahrzeit for his father and wanted very much to say Kaddish with a minyan so we stopped in front of Stellenbosch’s lovely historical shul to chant Psalms & Kaddish. We drove through the downtown campus of Stellenbosch U which is the Harvard of Afrikaner culture. 3 prime ministers who served the Apartheid regime came from this university.

TABLE MOUNTAIN
On our way home we found out that Table Mountain had opened (it often closes due to high winds) so part of our group rushed up there before it closed at dusk for this is a spectacular adventure that Cape Town is known for all over the world, something we did not want to miss. We were so fortunate the weather was perfect and we had an unforgettable experience while still making it down in time for me to attend with my mother (Professor) David Weinberg’s lecture for the Kaplan Center of Judaic Studies. Since I was the “shadchen” who set up this guest lecture for David and my mother very much wanted to attend, the subject of anti semitism being very pertinent to her life, it would have been unthinkable for me not to show up, but I also wanted to chaperone my group up Table Mountain, a highlight of any trip to this part of the world. David had previously hosted Prof Shain at Wayne State as well as our synagogue so for David and Judy this trip was therefore the fulfillment of a dream begun with Milton’s visit to Toledo.

LEAVING CAPE TOWN
On the 5th day of our trip we departed for Durban, a 2 hour flight to SA’s 3rd biggest city to begin a real African continent experience of safaris, Zululand, Swaziland etc. Our 1st stop was at the St Lucia estuary where we took a wonderful boat trip to see the hippopotami. The next day we rose at the crack of dawn to go on our 1st safari at the famous Hluhluwe game reserve national park which is the 2nd oldest national park in the world after Yellowstone in the US. We saw close up buffalo, elephants, warthog, zebra, rhinos, impala, giraffesand other animals, birds etc. To see these in their natural habitat is such a different experience to visiting a zoo…

Before we departed a huge herd of buffalo came speeding down the mountain side and crossed the road literally feet in front of our jeeps closely followed by a dazzle of elegant zebra (a term I just learnt) a truly spectacular sight. We hoped to spot lions as that was what our Guide thought provoked that stampede but no lions…yet…

7TH DAY – SWAZILAND
We are now in this small independent country on our way from our 1st safari to the world famous Kruger National Park which is in South Africa. The government has a deal with Swaziland to encourage tourism and so they cut through Swaziland en route to Kruger which we will reach tomorrow after spending sometime in this country which is totally surrounded by South Africa. We visited a local crafts enterprise which includes candle making, cloth all made here to encourage local productivity. I purchased a metal carving of a colonial band member playing trumpet which is my instrument from which I learnt to blow shofar. Look for it to be displayed proudly in my office back at Bnai though it’s not the most African thing I could have found. We also saw the parliament as we are in the capital Mbabane as well as the tomb of the King Suzukwe who negotiated independence from the British in the 1960s. He served incredibly for over 60 years and was very popular.

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