An Englishman in sunny South Africa

Dayan Boruch Rapoport retires from the Beth Din after 33 years of devoted service

By Chandrea Serebro

When Dayan Boruch Rapoport looks back 33 years to the start of his career here in South Africa, he realises – not without a chuckle, characteristic of his dry English sense of humour – that he was not quite as experienced then as he is today, both in religious and legal matters, which a lifetime of learning and growing has kept him on top of, but also when it came to people. As Dayan on the South African Beth Din, Dayan Rapoport has seen all sorts of “weird and wonderful sha’alahs (questions)” that people ask. It has been a time which has not only been “amazing”, but also one in which much of what he experienced “amazed”.

“There comes a time when you think you have seen it all. You think you know everything. And then, all of a sudden, something comes up that you would never have believed could occur until that very day that you see it with your own eyes.” And then you have to learn some more, and find new ways of understanding, people and their problems, and it is this experience that Dayan Rapoport gained every day on the job.

Born, bred, and schooled in London, Dayan Rapoport matriculated at 15 and went on to study at Gateshead Yeshiva and Chevron Yeshiva in Israel. In 1985, Dayan Rapoport came to South Africa to fulfil the dual roles of Senior Dayan on the Beth Din and to co-found Ohr Somayach in South Africa. Despite being an Englishman in what most locals refer to as sunny South Africa, Dayan Rapoport found his dry Englishness a “big plus” – the language and the people the same and similar – the weather and the humour, not so much. The Beth Din (which, he says has always been considered to be prestigious and well-respected around the world) had been modelled to some extent on the United Synagogue of London Beth Din, where Dayan Rapoport’s father, Dayan Avrohom Rapoport, was a Dayan, and growing up he had a lot of contact with communities similar to the South African Jews.

Due to this, he found that he understood the nature of the community, and South Africa is one he considers to be “wonderful” – not least because “in South Africa the Jews are much nicer than they are anywhere else in the world”, but primarily because they are of Lithuanian stock. “It is precisely because of the Lithuanian blood that flows in the veins of the South African community that it has evolved to represent the most successful teshuva (return to Judaism) movement in the world.” South African Jews, he says, embody a natural desire to learn and a thirst for knowledge that he can only attribute to their Lithuanian heritage, and it is something that he has admired over the years on the job.

Looking back, he recognises the impact the community has had on him as well, and how he has further grown in his own personal capacity over the years and in his learning too because of his leadership over them. “For years I have been giving shiurim to people who are not observant, but who still attend to this day because they desire to grow and know more.” In his personal capacity, and as the Rabbi of Keter Torah and Dayan of the Beth Din, Dayan Rapoport has always espoused the need for deeper knowledge and continual growth. “I can honestly say that I don’t think there has ever been a time in my entire life when I haven’t been growing and learning” – something Dayan Rapoport believes to be the quintessence of what it takes to be a Dayan on the Beth Din.

“A competent Dayan must always continue to learn and stay abreast of what he needs to understand people. In order to be a Dayan, I have always thought it best to have experience being a congregational Rabbi first because then you have seen how the other side lives, you will have experience of the very people that you will be dealing with, their problems and their pains.” And even then, he says there will still be many more “shocks and surprises”.

The biggest of all for Dayan Rapoport has been the shock that people can be Jewish and yet totally removed from everything that it is to be Jewish. Dayan Rapoport has seen this issue arise in a metaphorical sense – seeing Jews who have zero connection to their Judaism in any way, shape, or form – but also in the physical sense. “I have seen discoveries that a person is Jewish being made after five generations, having been brought up in the most non-Jewish way possible. I have been shocked by the quandaries people find themselves in through no fault of their own, but through the choices of their parents or grandparents and how the things they have done affects the Jewish status of their future generations.”

Dayan Rapoport fulfilled his mandate of establishing Ohr Somayach and soon found that his requirements at the Beth Din were too consuming to do both, so he continued as Dayan on a full-time basis and, in so doing, changed the face of the Beth Din. Drawing from his father’s experience, he made practical and administrative changes that improved the overall running of the Beth Din, continuing the already high standards (which was commended for employing a person of such high calibre when he assumed the position), remaining true to his sense of self and his personal convictions. His personal ethos is that one must always do the right thing and what one is supposed to be doing rather than going along with what everyone else is doing.

The one thing that sticks out from his experience in this regard is the tendency for baalei teshuva (secular Jews who have returned to Torah observance) to latch on to all sorts of customs that are not traditional or part of their custom, as and when it suits them, or sometimes not even knowing how, when, or why. “Just the other day I was asked if a wedding was valid because they never sang ‘if I forget thee o Jerusalem’ under the chuppah” – something that is not part of Ashkenazic tradition. “But you live and learn through life, and despite the shock and sometimes horror one sometimes might feel when looking into people’s lives, at their weaknesses and their problems, as a Dayan, you have to learn how to help them, and guide them, and how to answer these questions.” And to answer them in a diplomatic way. “In my early days, I can now say that I was perhaps a bit more ‘abrupt’. I remember once advising someone to blowtorch their lettuce – out of sheer exasperation!”

But Dayan Rapoport mellowed over time and, with experience, the exasperations transformed into an enduring mutual respect for a South African Jewish community that looks up to him and over which he presides. And, throughout it all, he has still somehow managed to retain his sense of humour, albeit an English one. He knows he couldn’t have done anything that he has achieved in his life without the support and backing of his wife Chana – an eighth-generation Yerushalmite whose ancestors were students of the Vilna Gaon that immigrated to Israel 200 years ago – and their children, most of whom now live in Israel. Having retired from the Beth Din at the end of last year, Dayan Rapoport has many new projects and roles on the horizon, and for now is enjoying the lighter load, free from the “immense responsibility of being a Dayan that is sometimes difficult to control”.

He is ultimately planning to join his family in Israel, but until then, he will continue on at Keter Torah, and is currently planning a new learning programme for professionals, businessmen, and Rabbis –remaining steadfast in his commitment to learning and further growth and enabling others to do so as well.

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