Celebrating the ‘re-tyre-ment’ of a South African legend, Rabbi Z.S. Suchard
By Chandrea Serebro
Rabbi Tzadok Shmuel Suchard remembers his very first Shabbos at Sandton Shul. Shul was finishing for the night, and the Chairman began switching off the lights. His son, accustomed to the world of the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland where he had been born, asked him: What are we doing here dad? “We are going to teach them my son,” Rabbi Suchard answered. And, after 46 years at the helm, it’s a goal he feels he accomplished successfully, as he reflects on the eve of his retirement. Or, rather, he says he is “re-tyre-ing” – in the words of his Rav and mentor, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, ztz”l, Rosh Yeshiva of the Telz Yeshiva in Cleveland, who said there is no such thing as retiring but rather, re-treading for the miles ahead.
Rabbi Suchard is a South African boykie through and through, despite (or in spite of) the fact that Rabbi Suchard married an American girl from Baltimore, Rochel Spivack, and lived in Cleveland for 11 years in the famous Telz Yeshiva, first as a student and then as a lecturer of Talmud. He has a sense of humour to rival the best – he would have had to, spending a lifetime delivering sermons from the pulpit and advising people on every matter. And, some 46 years on, he still engages his audience with jokes and a laugh whenever he delivers a talk, inspiring many and using his distinct South African flavour to capture his crowd.
In his youth, Parktown Boys High School was his playground, and he was an avid sportsman. He played for the Yeoville Boys Soccer Team, was captain of the Parktown Boys athletics team and Victor Ludorum, received National Colours for running, and ran for the Southern Transvaal athletics team. He had much potential, something that was not lost on his teachers or his parents, not limited to the sports field, but in his Judaism as well. “I remember staying over in Pretoria for Shabbos, and walking over to the athletics stadium to catch the race. At least, I never drove there; I was doing my bit and still catching the race.”
But, Rabbi Suchard acknowledges the spiritual impact his mother, Minnie Suchard, who had come from Europe with her parents and who were shomrei Shabbos, and his father, Edward Tobias Suchard, had on him. He recalls his mother coming home one day when he was fifteen years old with the news that he was to attend the newly-opened Yeshiva College. Rabbi Suchard was one of the first ten students enrolled under the guidance of founders Rabbi Michal Kossowsky, and Rabbi Joseph Bronner, and the first Talmud teacher Rabbi David Sanders, who were sent by Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz, ztz”l, from Telz in Cleveland to open the school. This move set the ball of what would become Rabbi Suchard’s life and future in motion.
Only two years later, at seventeen, Rabbi Suchard was himself to leave South Africa for Telz with three other green South African boykies, learning under Rabbi Katz himself. “Nowadays, it is the ‘done’ thing, but back then, this was virtually unchartered territory.” Upon arrival, they tested Rabbi Suchard, asking him why Yitro’s name was Yitro. “Because that was his name,” he answered, but he was determined to find out the real answer and make a success. And, he has come a long way since then. He spent eleven years there, marrying and building a family (the Suchards had three children in America), getting smicha (rabbinical ordination) under Rabbi Katz, and teaching Talmud at the Yeshiva.
“In all that time, I never returned home once. I saw my father for the first time after eight years at the bris of my first child.” But, his South African-ness runs deep within him, present even during his sojourn in America. Rabbi Suchard laughs as he remembers walking into the room one day as a newlywed to find his wife scrubbing the floor. “What are you doing?” he asked frightfully, never having seen a white woman cleaning, as his wife wondered who else would clean if not for her.
It is probably this distinctive local quality that resonates with him that was the reason that when the call came from Rabbi Avraham Tanzer to return to South Africa and join him at Yeshiva College as a senior lecturer and founding Dean of the Girls High School in 1968, he jumped at the opportunity. “I went together with Lew Franklin from house to house to enrol girls, and soon we set off with 23 girls.” It was an exciting time of change and growth in Johannesburg Jewry at the time, and Rabbi Suchard was privileged to be a part of it – particularly as he had always felt “compelled to do something big”.
A group of Yidden living far out in the north of Johannesburg in those days, who thought of themselves as ‘the lost tribe’, set out to build a shul with educational facilities nearby where they lived, with the help of the United Hebrew Congregation and Chief Rabbi Bernard Casper, ztz”l, on the grounds of the Jewish Guild. It was the Chief Rabbi (Rabbi Suchard’s mentor in South Africa who, he says, “always took a keen interest in Sandton and whose direction had been keen and correct”) who appealed to Rabbi Suchard to join this ‘lost tribe’ as spiritual advisor and rabbi.
“Those early days were full of potential and opportunity. When I arrived in Sandton in 1973, I found a community of 170 families and a cheder comprising 25 pupils. Shul services were held in the Nursery School on the grounds of the Jewish Guild Country Club” (which, Rabbi Suchard says, was not the Minnie Bersohn of today, but the early predecessor of what it would one day become). The first two Rosh Hashanah services were held in the hall of the Guild, and when they outgrew that, in a tent on the current premises. “Those were special services. There was a distinct sense of camaraderie and a pioneering spirit.” The powers-that-be wanted to turn the rabbi’s house (which he has been in for 46 years) into the shul by partitioning the dining room off as the shul. Luckily, Rabbi Suchard says with a degree of relief he feels even to this day, he convinced Gerald Leissner, a”h, who was the chairman at the time, to build a Shul Hall at a cost of R80 000, which is today the commanding Sandton Shul hall.
The Adjoining property was then acquired, at a cost of R60 000, and this gave Rabbi Suchard the space to start fulfilling the “big things” he dreamed of. Almost twenty years ago, supported by Brian Joffee, David Kassel, and Myron Berzack, the Sandton Shul as we know it was built, and the growth (both Torah and physical) was on an upward trend. Thanks in large to Rabbi Suchard, who managed to “keep the community on the straight and narrow”, despite the varying degrees of religious observances and the large personalities that made it their home. There was never a compromise on Torah standards, and the community accepted and came to appreciate that about their leader.
Whether it was because of this dedication to Torah ideals that he displayed or not, Rabbi Suchard realised that people were growing spiritually in Sandton, and it was a proud moment for him. But, he saw that with this growth, many were migrating to Glenhazel to access the Jewish institutions there. The time was ripe for change, and as Rabbi Suchard had always harboured big dreams of bringing to Sandton an ease with which the fundamental pillars of Jewish life could be accessed in a way it had never had before, he set about changing the face of Sandton Jewry.
Access for all to Jewish education was paramount for Rabbi Suchard. So, with Gerald’s support, Rabbi Suchard approached the SA Board of Jewish Education to open King David Sandton. Initially, Rabbi Suchard advocated for a second Yeshiva College in Sandton, and while it wasn’t to be then, the project was taken over decades later by Rabbi Justin Treger (an ex-pupil of Rabbi Suchard from the afternoon cheder and the pre-school Hebrew lessons that Rabbi Suchard brought to kids in three local government schools before the Jewish Day School opened in Sandton). Now, Rabbi Suchard is enjoying much nachas from the success that is Sandton Sinai as well as the continued growth of his ‘baby’ King David Sandton which today has over 400 pupils.
Another of these pillars that Rabbi Suchard dreamed of bringing home to Sandton was a mikveh, to make keeping the laws of family purity easier and more accessible to the Sandtonites. “I brought out Rabbi Meir Posen, acclaimed world mikveh authority, who has subsequently worked on every single one of the mikvaot in South Africa, to consult on the project of building the Shelley Lutrin Mikveh in the early 90s. It not only conformed to his highest standard, but it came out beautifully, and, after being refurbished, it remains an integral part of Sandton Jewry.”
Rabbi Suchard knew without a doubt that the youth are pivotal to ensuring the continuity of the Jewish tradition. “I may have been the rabbi, but, in fact, it was my kids who built Sandton Jewry up. They were there for everything, impacting their friends so positively and passing on their knowledge and their zest” – products of their upbringing – playing a pivotal role in the growth going on around them. And, with ten children and over 40 grandchildren and great grandchildren, Rabbi Suchard can feel proud. But, still he knew that what was needed to take Sandton into the future was a place for the youth to be able to become more involved, and to be comfortable expressing themselves and their Judaism in a place of their own. “We have to make way for the new generation.” So, together with past-Chairman Greg Kinross, they raised the first R500 000 for the project, and this dream took on life – and a youth centre was built.
He knows about life and about people, about hardship and pain, happiness and simcha. He spent a lifetime guiding and supporting his community on all matters, spiritually and personally; advising them when they needed direction and feeling for their pain when they went through hardship, all the while they supported him too when he went through his own tzores. Rabbi Suchard impacted many more people than just his own community, guiding fellow Jews through marriage, divorce, life, and death in his position as Dayan at the Beth Din, a career spanning more than 32 years. He has also offered his experience and expertise authoring 13 books on halacha, sermons, mikveh, ketuba, marriage, and inheritance.
Yet, despite his many accomplishments, Rabbi Suchard attests much of his achievement in life to his wife, Rebbetzin Rochel, who for decades gave a ladies shiur in the Sandton Shul and hosted the community around her Shabbos table, all the while teaching in many of the Jewish schools for many years and running prayer groups for women. “Behind every man is a great woman – and my wife is testament to that.” And at 79 on the 4 July, Rabbi Suchard too has still got it – gyming twice a week, still with much of the energy that earned him the nickname the ‘skipping rabbi’, and still joking with his quick wit. “Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, zichrono livracha, my good friend, always said that a rabbi gets paid to do what he does, and the committee does not – so they are good for nothing.” His signature humour belies the sense of the end of an era for Sandton Shul. “I only hope that going forward, as Rabbi Emeritus, I can be good for nothing too.”