I have just started to be able to travel to destinations that had been challenging because I was saying kaddish every day. I am happy to be writing this email from South Africa. This has been my fourth visit to Johannesburg since I started at Aish seven and a half years ago.
Every time I come here I am amazed by the kindness and warmth of the people. Aish South Africa was started by one of the early pioneering leaders of Aish, Rabbi Chaim Willis. Rabbi Willis was made famous by the article his sister wrote about him and Aish that appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1977. He is a true visionary. He saw the potential and started the first Aish branch in Africa. Unfortunately, I missed Rabbi Willis this trip as we traded places and he was in Israel. Thankfully I got to spend quality time with the other Aish Rabbis here and was honored to meet with the Aish Board.
Rabbi Yisroel Ziskin does much of the millennial outreach and was the first Rabbi to accompany Rabbi Willis to South Africa. He showed me pictures of his trip to Thailand with young Jews on a spiritual journey. He has an astounding ability to touch the hearts of Jews of all ages. I spoke with Rabbi Michael Vegoda about his work in the schools. I was able to meet the Aish South Africa Board members. Rabbi Roziel Pilatowsky, who is the terrific community Rabbi, asked me to speak five times over Shabbos and Tisha B’av. I am very blessed to have gotten to know so many members of the Aish South African community here in person over the years. It felt like a family reunion.
I was also blessed to have my wife join me on this trip. She spent quality time with Rebbetzins Pilatowsky, Vegoda and Ziskin. Rachel was also able to give two talks. The highlight was when the community watched Aish’s Project Inspire video “Unexpected”. Rachel spoke about all the women at the beginning of the video who she considers close friends and learns with on a regular basis.
One of the most special moments for me was spending time with one of my heroes, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein in his home. Rabbi Goldstein’s Shabbos Project has been the inspiration for so many Jews to celebrate Shabbos. It literally put massive ‘challah bakes’ on the map! It was amazing to hear about his coming plans and his book which will be out soon. The highlight of the meeting (and quite possibly my year) was being able to sit and listen to a zoom meeting between Rabbi Goldstein and Aish Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits. Here were two giants, leaders of world Jewry, discussing the issues of the Jewish Nation and how to solve them. Truly breathtaking.
As I mentioned one of the true thrills for me is to get to know the members of our movement wherever I travel. In the Aish Synagogue, I sat behind a father and son. The father, Nissim Levy, led the prayers and had a beautiful voice. The son, Yuval, was always on time to minyan and davened beautifully as well. Sitting behind them I noticed that Yuval was wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins yarmulke and a South Africa jacket. He was clearly into hockey so I mentioned that my sons are also into hockey. It was then that I realized that I was talking to a true hero of the Jewish people.
Yuval plays for South Africa’s National Hockey Team. He recently attended an international tournament in Bosnia. He could not fly with the team as they left Friday night so he and his family left the next day with frozen kosher-for-Passover food since it was Pesach. Over the first three games, Yuval set a South African record by scoring eight goals with two assists. The final game against Luxembourg was set for Friday night. Due to Yuval’s commitment to Shabbos, he did not play in that game. Right before the medal ceremony, an amazing thing happened. As the opposing team lined up to shake hands every member said the same word to Yuval. “RESPECT.” They understood that even though he was the top player on his team, the Almighty’s Shabbos came first. I can’t think of a greater kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d’s name) than what occurred at this hockey tournament in Bosnia.
I feel blessed that Yuval’s family has been able to grow and pray as part of the Aish community. Every Aish synagogue that I have traveled to is marked by its warmth and passion. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Pilatowsky along with the rest of the Aish Staff have built a true oasis of spirituality in Johannesburg. I am traveling now to Cape Town to spend my first Shabbos there with my good friend Avi Levy in the Marais Road Shul. May the Almighty grant us the strength and passion to give “RESPECT” to the Shabbos as Yuval has shown us the way.