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Mandela and My Walk to Freedom

Mandela and My Walk to Freedom

Amidst the crumbling of apartheid and playing rugby, I discovered the depth of Judaism.


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 rugbyThe 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 familyRabbi 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.

December 21, 2013

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Visitor Comments: 8

(6) S. Schoenberger, December 26, 2013 10:58 PM

My Personal Perspective on the article

I do not know enough about Mandela, South Africa and Israel to comment. However, I do know that the subject is worth exploring, hence my appreciation for articles like this one. While I could state my love for a fictional story, inolving a white, Boer, Boxer and rugby player, which gave me great insight, I rather describe how Rugby too influenced my life. During the week, I practiced and after services on Shabbos I ran to the field to play in the college intramural club. Later on after law school in the early 80's I competed unsuccessfully for the USA Maccabiah team, which by the way I still support. Before getting married I also met my first Jewish South African. Our conversations about race, apartheid and the like were incredible. I sort of understand the journey that the author made. I am more like him each new day. Baruch Ha Shem!

(5) Les Lawrence, December 23, 2013 7:12 PM

More, please!

Fascinating perspective. Knowing Rabbi Kahn and seeing the huge impact he has had on young adults over the last several years, I'd love to learn more about how his SA experiences have contributed to his effectiveness in outreach.

(4) Pitso, December 23, 2013 5:55 AM

do you know what it is?

The article is more about self and the author's Jewish identity than about the bigger picture of man and justice.

Mandela was no saint, and he would be the first to say so himself. WHile he had many flaws, the overarching legacy he leaves is more than just his views about Israel and Jews.

I am a black South AFrican and was no staunch supporter of Mandela. But this is a man like no other. when you take everything into consideration, his long imprisonment, his message of forgiveness and even taking the very people who hurt him to be his personal aides... not many people, even rabbis, are renowned for that. What is even more astonishing about him is fact that he was not religious at all.

But then I understand the author's point. born into priviledge at black people's expense which he enjoyed to the maximum until he ran to the US, he can only focus on self.

Many did not run. We still suffer, even in the new South Africa. Apartheid may be dead on the statutes, but it certainly is alive in the hearts of many.

So, instead of judging Mandela, or choosing not to judge his legacy, judge yours own heart! It is deceitful above everything... says the prophet of long ago.

May Mandela's soul rest in peace while the rabbi sees the light of day! And may black and white find their long awaited golden day of true reconciliation.

Anonymous, December 28, 2013 12:33 AM

After reading this article, I felt as if this man who now appreciate his Jewish heritage never really understood Mandela or the Apartheid struggle of the Black Africans and people of color. He was disconnected. Therefore, it is very difficult for me to accept his comments about Mandela and his passion to end Apartheid. If this man understood King David, he would understand that King David was Hashem chosen vessel who by the way was an imperfect human being. David did all he could to fight for the freedom of Israel.
Mandela may not have been religious as you claim to be but
he manifested the spirit of G-d's justice and mercy...his willingness to forgive and offer reconciliation to the whites who for decades committed human crimes against a people who skin color was unacceptable. How can you justify your life as
good when you were remained indifferent to racism? You stated the only contact you had with the Black Africans was when they were your servants in your household.
I am Jewish and White and Black. To be honest with you, I thought your article was offensive. You were not sensitive to the
Racial terrorism that existed in your own backyard. You were
just another white man accepting your role in Apartheid.
As Jews we are commanded to not just observe the Torah, but to be a light to the world. Light overcomes darkness.

(3) esther, December 23, 2013 5:49 AM

Beautiful article!

Thank you for sharing your inspiring story!

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