A South African-born rabbi reflects on Nelson Mandela and the Jewish community

Members of South Africa’s Jewish community have joined the rest of the country in praying for Nelson Mandela following his admission to hospital for the third time this year.

As prayers were said for the anti-apartheid hero in churches across the country, South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein said: “The prayers and thoughts of the South African Jewish community are with former president Nelson Mandela and his family at this difficult time.

To me, as a South African, Mandela, or “Madiba” as he is affectionately known, is an icon and one of the great leaders and statesmen of our time. Here is a real leader, a man who is willing to sacrifice and place the country’s needs above his own. He is largely responsible for the great peaceful transformation that took place in South Africa after apartheid.

I remember the day Mandela was released from prison, on Sunday, Feb. 11, 1990. The event was broadcast on TV as Mandela walked to freedom with his wife, Winnie.

[Rob Eshman: Mandela/Moses]

The Friday before he was released, every student at school was sent home with a directory of phone numbers for all the families in the school and a telephone chain system was arranged. (This was before e-mail and phone-tree systems). The thought was that we were not sure if there would be chaos after he was released, or if it would be peaceful. If it became a dangerous situation, then school would be canceled and each family would call the next in the phone chain to make sure everyone knew not to come to school. (It's amazing how much the world has changed technologically, but that's for another day…) Miracle of miracles, there was a peaceful transition.

 In the years leading up to Mandela’s release there was great unrest in the country, and Jews were leaving by the thousands. During those years, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson told many leading rabbis from South Africa not to fear, as there would miracles and a peaceful transition.  We saw clearly the Rebbe's prophetic blessing fulfilled.

Jewish South Africans feel a great sense of connection and thanks to Mandela for everything he did to help transform and free our country of Apartheid. Whether you are a South African living abroad or in South Africa, Mandela is special to you.

The Jewish community has a very special connection to Mandela. In fact, when Mandela first came to Johannesburg as a young man, he got a job at a Jewish law firm, Itkin, Sidelsky, and Eidelman . Mandela was hired as an articled clerk. It was there that Mandela met his first white friend – a young Jewish boy by the name of Nat Bregman, who had a deep influence on Mandela and the way he viewed Jewish people. In addition, there were many prominent activists against Apartheid who were Jewish.

When Mandlea became President later on in life, he became close friends with the Chief Rabbi of South Africa Rabbi Cyril Harris. In fact, there is a fascinating story about the two men.

In 1998, about two months before Mandela got remarried, to Graca Machel  — the wedding was kept a secret — Mandela called Harris, with whom he has a close personal relationship, and asked the rabbi to hold the date of July 18 to attend a special meeting.

Rabbi Harris said: “I checked my calendar and realized it would be Shabbat.”The chief Rabbi called back Mandela and told him, “That while he had to respect him as president of our country, I owed higher respects to the good Lord,” Harris said. “He laughed and said he would try to make alternative arrangements for the previous day.”

One month later, at a meeting of religious leaders in Cape Town, the president took Harris aside and said, “Cyril, I am getting married on July 18 and would like you to give us a blessing.”

The president made special arrangements for Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris and his wife Ann to be present the day before. On Friday, the day before the wedding, which took place on Mandela’s 80th birthday, the rabbi bestowed a blessing on the couple, wishing them “deep contentment.”

“He has real `derech eretz' — respect for every religion and for young and old alike,” the chief rabbi said in an interview, adding that Mandela “accommodated my Jewish observance instead of expecting me to fall in with his plans.”

This story underscores Mandela's approach to all people. He realized the best way to win people's hearts is to show them you truly respect them and their beliefs. That relationship with the Jewish community continued, and Mandela is considered a good friend of the Jewish community.

As a South African living in America, I feel a great deal of gratitude to Mandela and pray for his health and the future of South Africa. He is a source of inspiration for me as a Rabbi and leader in our community, to always strive for more and show every person respect and love.

Rabbi Avi Rabin is the leader of Chabad of West Hills.