I was in an apartment not far from Greenmarket Square in Cape Town when Nelson Mandela gave the first speech to his country and the world, upon his release from prison in February 1990.
White South Africans were nervous, Black South Africans were ecstatic. Everyone wondered what the future would bring.
Instead of joining the sea of people, I watched the speech on TV, relieved that Mr. Mandela did not call for an uprising. I, along with the world, breathed a sigh of relief.
It was a tumultuous time in the country and in my life.
Many whites, especially Jews, had already left the country for Australia, the US and Canada, and of course, Israel. They included many of my generation who were beginning their careers and who decided the risk of staying was too great. In many cases it meant leaving close family behind.
I would leave two years later, on a quest that had begun a few years earlier.
Rugby was my religion.
I was raised in Port Elizabeth, on the Southern coast of Africa, during apartheid years. The only Blacks I knew were servants who worked in our house. I grew up in a system and culture that was prejudiced against Blacks. I went to an all White school. Although I grew up in a very traditional Reform home where we went to synagogue every Friday night and had Shabbat dinner, rugby was my religion. I loved rugby as most young boys did. We dreamed of playing for the Springboks, the national rugby team, the source of great pride to all white South Africans.
The author (left) playing rugby
Most of my friends were rugby players, and since not many Jews played rugby, most of my friends were not Jewish.
I was a good player, playing all the way through school and into my years at the University of Cape Town. During this time the country was buckling under international sanctions. There was censorship in the newspapers, political protest in the theaters around campus. I remember tear gas on campus.
At the peak of my rugby career, I was fortunate to be picked to play for the South African Jewish rugby team at the Maccabi Games in Israel in 1985. Despite the sanctions, the South African contingent was invited to compete.
In the summer of 1985 I visited Israel for the first time, and saw Jews from all over the world. There were only four rugby teams (the US, Israel, Australia and us). After playing each team once, we faced our arch-rivals, Australia, in the final. With the entire South African and Australian contingent in attendance, we beat Australia to win the Gold medal.
I came back to South Africa, proud to be Jewish, to find the country crumbling. There was also a lot of anti-Israel propaganda on campus, due to Israel’s support, militarily and economically, of the South African government. I joined the board of SAUJS (South African Union of Jewish Students), the equivalent of the Hillel organization in the US. Six months after my first trip to Israel, I was back again, this time on a SAUJS educational trip. I was introduced to Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb and got my first taste of the intellectual side of Judaism. That began a spiritual search that coincided with a revival among many young Jewish South Africans and the dramatic growth of Ohr Somayach in Johannesburg, a branch of the yeshiva based in Jerusalem. I subsequently visited Israel two more times, participating in another Maccabiah, and winning another gold medal.
By this time, I had lost interest in the career path I had chosen (actuarial science) and was now in love with Israel and Judaism.
And then Nelson Mandela was released.
Rabbi Warren Goldstein, the current Chief Rabbi of South Africa, said in a eulogy of Nelson Mandela that when he came out of prison, the whole country was freed.
Over the years, I have seen my prejudices disappear. Racist jokes are not funny; they offend me. I remember my first black friend, a fellow rugby player I met in Madison, Wisconsin, when I spent time travelling around the US. In many ways, I and many other White South Africans were also freed.
Yet I was freed in a far more fundamental way. I moved to Johannesburg after quitting my job at a big insurance company in Cape Town. I became a part of the Ohr Somayach family there, going to classes by Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz and to Shabbat meals to many families. I became free to explore my Jewish heritage and I grabbed it with open arms.
In 1992, at the age of 28, I moved to Israel. I studied at Ohr Somayach for six years, got married, and became a rabbi with the goal of doing outreach to college students just like me. I found employment in Chicago and soon after my arrival was called the Rugby Rabbi. I founded an organization, JET – Jewish Education Team, that reaches out to Jewish college students and young professionals in Illinois.
I look back to my days in South Africa, to my sheltered upbringing, to my Jewish background, my rugby career and the crumbling of apartheid amidst the resurgence of interest in Judaism.
Rabbi Zev Kahn and his family
I am not as positive about Mandela's legacy as many around the world are, in particular Jews in South Africa. But I left South Africa in 1992, two years before Mandela was elected as President. I have visited South Africa only three times in the 20 years since I left. So I don't feel it is my place to pass judgment on him. Yet Nelson Mandela, no doubt, had a different relationship with Israel than he did with the Jews in South Africa, and his support of the some of the worst enemies of Israel with much Jewish blood on their hands leaves many Jews ambivalent, at best, if not dismissive of much of his legacy of making the world a more peaceful and just one.
South Africa is a different country than the one I grew up in. It has been transformed into “the Rainbow nation,” due in large part to Nelson Mandela’s courage to forgive and reconcile.
And I am a different person than the one I was in South Africa. I have a new home, a new spiritual home, in the Jewish tradition of our ancestors, going back 3,000 years, which I am now passing on to my own children, and hundreds of searching Jewish students.
I have taken my walk to freedom.