Paying tribute to the man who has steadfastly held a diverse and unique community united for decades
By Chandrea Serebro
It might sound incongruous for a judge – not just any judge, mind you, but the head of the court – to state repeatedly over a career spanning 40 years that he is not in the business of judging. But hearing Rabbi Moshe Kurtstag – recently retired from the position of Av Beth Din after taking up the position as Dayan in 1976, a giant of a man who at first glance would make even the strongest of constitutions feel that they have indeed reached their judgment day – say it is altogether more surprising.
Yet, the moment Rabbi Kurtstag begins to speak, his gruff voice and heavily accented words, and his direct gaze and commanding stance soon transform into a fatherly figure who has developed and guided the South African Jewish community into the homogenous, well-respected community that it is today. Displaying a depth of understanding of the issues that pepper the personal lives and Jewish communal life in South Africa, and the challenges facing a baal teshuvah community, Rabbi Kurtstag is an institution in South African Jewish life. More prolifically as the Av Beth Din, but also through the impact he has made in the world of Jewish education in this country. This, he says, is his great passion and his fundamental principal for life, and choosing to educate, rather than stand in judgment, is where the power and success of Rabbi Kurtstag lies.
Rabbi Kurtstag was born in Israel over 80 years ago to a religious Zionist family who came from Poland before World War Two, his parents the last surviving remnant of their respective families. He grew up staunchly Zionistic with a passion for Torah and education that would remain throughout his life. He went on to study in Yeshiva, and was ordained by Rabbi Yecheskel Sarna, Rosh Yeshiva of Hevron Yeshiva, and Rabbi Unterman, Chief Rabbi of Israel. He served as a chaplain in the IDF and then as Rosh Yeshiva of Bnei Akiva High School in Netanya – positions priming him for what would soon prove to be the biggest of his career, which would find him on a dot of the map way down South.
Rabbi Kurtstag’s connection to South Africa began with a frightening introduction into the South African community (but one that would become for him one of the reasons the South African community continues to thrive). Soon after announcing his engagement in Israel to Batya Aloy, the daughter of esteemed Dayan of the South African Beth Din, Rabbi Yirmiyahu Aloy, ztz”l, Rabbi Kurstag journeyed to South Africa for his wedding. “The first Shabbat I arrived in South Africa I went to the Berea Shul with my father-in-law. When I saw all the cars lining the shul, I wondered with a start – ‘Am I marrying the daughter of a reform rabbi?’” This was merely his introduction to South African Jewry.
Six years later, the Kurtstags returned to South Africa, and a short while living and working in South Africa lead him to an understanding of the community which would be critical to how he would serve this same community as Dayan and later Av of the Beth Din for many years. “I realised that the South African community has developed a unique ‘South African Orthodoxy’. Whatever level of observance you follow, you can do it and feel comfortable doing it, without fear of judgment or repercussion.” Driving on Shabbos is undoubtedly forbidden. Yet, many SA Jews drive to shul on Shabbos and feel comfortable doing so, as it keeps them strongly connected to the Orthodox community, just like he first experienced upon his initiation into the SA culture.
In many ways, he says, this is one of the strengths of our community – a community which, unlike most in the Diaspora, has not had a need to develop a strong reform community because a person can attend the same shul his father and grandfather attended, at his own level, with a sense of comfort in his religious identity. “Because of this uniquely South African personality, which holds dear a staunch connection to Orthodoxy and a refusal to give it up altogether, many of the second generation became baalei teshuva.”
Rabbi Kurtstag arrived in South Africa to train local rabbis in the Rabbinical and Ministers Training College as a full time teacher, teaching at the same time in the Hebrew Teachers College where he soon became principal. But starting the Jewish Students University Programme (JSUP) is for Rabbi Kurtstag one of the prized achievements of his career. He realised that, while there was a good system of Jewish education from nursery school to matric, Jewish kids for the most part went off to university without further Jewish education once they matriculated. So, Rabbi Kurtstag proposed a Jewish University, where Jewish students would register at UNISA and learn Jewish Studies, including Gemara, Tanach, and halacha on a chavrusa basis, drawing from the traditional rabbinic approach to Talmudic study, while pursuing their UNISA studies at the same time. “Everybody looked at me as if I was meshuga. A Jewish University with so few students? I didn’t think it was a problem.” Indeed, none of the alumni of that period did either, as the mention of JSUP evokes fond memories in the lives of its past students.
Rabbi Kurtstag soon took a post to teach at the Hebrew Teachers Seminary under the umbrella of the SABJE, combining this and the JSUP campuses on the premises of Arcadia, which became a centre of Jewish tertiary education and was at its peak a bustling hub of Jewish learning catering to 120 students continuing for close to 20 years, also having the z’chus (merit) of producing 20 shidduchim and some prominent alumni.
At the same time, Rabbi Kurtstag joined the South African Beth Din under Chief Rabbi Casper, ztz”l, as a part-time Dayan from 1976. Throughout the following years, he was asked to take over as Av Beth Din, but he refused in order to follow his passion for Jewish education, which had not diminished over time. “By nature, I was and still am an educationalist. I never had any inkling that I would enter the Rabbinate. But then G-d’s plan, which determines all our lives, led me to accept the position in 1989. Immediately, I recognised the importance of building the kashrus infrastructure which we began to do” – which today is world-renowned and continually expanding.
Looking around at the Adath Yeshurun, Kollel Yad Shaul, Chabad, Ohr Somayach, Aish HaTorah, Bnei Akiva – all the ‘firsts’ of his youth as well as the different communities that have evolved from this, and how the community has grown to where it is today, Rabbi Kurstag remains proud. “It is imperative for rabbis and Dayanim to understand the community within which they find themselves,” says Rabbi Kurtstag. That very first lesson he learnt at the Berea Shul brought home the deeper significance of this to him, a nuanced understanding which he continued to draw from throughout his career and now tries to instil in the generation of younger rabbis and Dayanim who will take over the helm.
“To understand this culture of the ‘South African Orthodoxy’ is something I try to stress to the young Dayanim who are taking over. One has to realise that the Beth Din has to problem-solve modern challenges in the business place to continue catering to the Jewish community at large, and keep finding new ways of bringing kosher food and kosher establishments to the community that are of the highest standard.” Rabbi Kurtstag has always seen the prime significance of having one kosher authority. Having any more weakens the power of the Jewish market and only makes getting products and manufacturers to be kosher certified even more difficult. It is this homogeneity that Rabbi Kurtstag believes to be pivotal to the community in every sense. “If I were to sum up my greatest achievement as Av Beis Din, I would say it has been keeping the community together. When Bnei Yisrael came out of Egypt, there were 12 tribes, each with their own flag, their own ideas. But they kept together under the unifying factor that was found at the centre of the camp: the Mishkan. As long as the Torah – its laws and ideals – is the central factor to our lives, we can live together in peace, despite our differences.”
“As a judge, you have to be prepared for anything, but when it comes down to making a decision, I always advocate to try and settle. Peace.” The lawyers, he remarks, don’t like coming to the Beth Din because they always want to know who is right and who is wrong. “And here I come and I say to them: ‘You are right and you are right, and you are wrong and you are wrong.’” The Torah perspective is always to make peace. In fact, Rabbi Kurtstag has a wealth of stories of how he has had to err on the side of peace, how people have to live together for longer than the issue of contention will last and peace is the only solution.
On the other hand, sometimes a judgment is needed and Rabbi Kurtstag has also had to make difficult decisions. “There is a pasuk in the Torah that says one mustn’t curse a judge. You have to be prepared to have unpleasant consequences in the job as well, standing strong by your principles and the laws. But you have to do it in a way that you educate the person, rather than using the force of the law. This causes estrangement and distance, and I like to encourage people to come to an agreement with the decision that has been made, in peace.”
The challenge for this baalei teshuva community of South Africa, he says, is one that is inherent in the individual ‘baal teshuva’ himself. By nature, he explains, a baal teshuva makes a big decision to change his life in an extreme way. In so doing, he develops hard-line standards, to the point where he would fracture from the whole of the community in order to maintain his autonomy, or what he believes is right, if it came down to it. “You have to read the community and see what it is able to digest in order to reach new heights – rather than pushing too much on them and coming to a conflict so that they lose the connection entirely, and this is the challenge of the new generation of Dayanim.” Rabbi Kurtstag is very confident in those taking the helm. “They understand the context in which they are working, and each one constitutes a different philosophy, which is important in order to represent the interest of each faction of the community.”
Rabbi Kurtstag retired two years ago, but consults by remote and returns to South Africa frequently, living a quiet life in Telstone with his wife, Batya, and his many children and grandchildren, learning with his chavruta. “I say to the new generation of Dayanim: In halacha, I will probably come and ask you. Because what I forgot over the years you have fresh in your minds. But when it comes to experience, you come and ask me,” because that takes time and a deep understanding formed over a lifetime, one that has evolved from scary introductions to an understanding that only a true member of the tribe can have.