Builder, developer, and nurturer of the South African Jewish community for over 50 years
By Ilan Preskovsky
With the spiritual cleansing of Yom Kippur just behind us and with Sukkot mere days in our future, most of us in the South African Jewish community probably barely even registered the date of 29 September 2020 (11 to 12 Tishrei 5781), so busy were we with the usual hustle and bustle of the festive period that begins every Jewish new year. In an instant, though, the ground disappeared beneath us and we were left bereft, as news spread like wildfire across our community and across the larger Jewish world that Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, ztz”l, had passed away suddenly that evening.
Rabbi Tanzer had spent nearly six decades as the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva College and the Glenhazel Hebrew Congregation, but his impact on Johannesburg Jewry reached far beyond the confines of a single school or a single shul. No doubt, the ever unassuming and humble Rav Tanzer would be left feeling extremely uncomfortable with such a statement, but what we have here is an undeniable and inescapable truth: the arrival of Rabbi Tanzer in this country in the early 1960s marked nothing less than a massive sea change for the South African Jewish community and for its spiritual development.
Something From (Almost) Nothing
Rabbi Tanzer was born and raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and spent well over a decade at the prestigious Telz (or Telshe) Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio, where he received his semicha. In 1963, he was asked by the Rosh Yeshiva of Telz, Rav Chaim Mordechai Katz ztz”l, to move to South Africa to take up the associate Rosh Yeshiva position at Yeshiva College – a small boys high school that had been established some ten years prior by Rabbi Michel Kossowsky and Rabbi Joseph Bronner.
Rabbi Tanzer was all of twenty-seven years old and just out of kollel with a wife and three young children. Despite the tremendous opportunity to be an associate Rosh Yeshiva at such a young age, he was reluctant to leave all that he knew and move to the southernmost tip of Africa. As he told his Rebbetzin, Marcia, “Jewish boys from Brooklyn don’t do Africa.” It was actually Mrs Tanzer who ultimately persuaded him to take up this amazing opportunity and the young family of five packed up and headed for Johannesburg, South Africa, for what was supposed to be a two year stay.
When the Tanzers reached their new home, though, it quickly became apparent that it was not at all what they were expecting. As Mrs Tanzer – or Morah Tanzer, as all of us who attended Yeshiva College know her – tells it, “When we first came to South Africa, his heart sank. The so-called “yeshiva” was not actually a yeshiva. The Yeshiva was about 10 years old and consisted of a group of about 50 boys sent there for many different reasons; learning and practising Torah was at the bottom of the list and was the least reason for their presence. The neighbourhood too, Glenhazel, was not a Jewish area and was only being developed at the time of our arrival. There were only three other ‘shomrei’ couples in this area. He was so disappointed that he didn’t even tell me. He was sure that we made a dreadful mistake, but comforted himself that it was only for two years.”
Indeed, though there were pockets of Torah-observant Jews in Johannesburg (especially in Yeoville), the vast majority of South African Jews at the time were not particularly religiously observant. Proudly Jewish and unabashedly traditional, yes, but very seldom shomer Torah u’mitzvos. The Glenhazel of 1963 was a very far cry from Williamsburg and farther still from Telz.
Still, Rabbi Tanzer persevered and, despite the many challenges along the way, he turned Glenhazel into a new nucleus for Johannesburg Jewry and with every step that he took to develop and transform Yeshiva College, he brought the community one step closer to Judaism. His early reluctance soon turned to an unwavering commitment and that initial two-year contract turned into a lifetime serving the community that he helped build.
His daughter, Chaya Masinter, perfectly captures how Rabbi Tanzer saw what would turn out to be his life’s work. “My dad used his sweat and blood laboriously to build the Yeshiva College and community in Glenhazel. it was his life’s mission to build a thriving, true Torah educational institution with a neshama – and I believe he certainly achieved that.”
The boys high school was soon joined by a girls high school, a primary school, and a nursery school, and Rabbi Tanzer went from being an associate Rosh Yeshiva of a small boys high school to the Rosh Yeshiva of an entire campus. Within a few years, the schools were joined by a new shul, the Glenhazel Area Hebrew Congregation, and under Rabbi Tanzer’s stewardship the observance level of the rapidly increasing Glenhazel Jewish community started to increase.
Even as he made Yeshiva College a hub of Torah, he further contributed to the spread of Torah in the wider community when he brought out Rabbi Aharon Pfeuffer ztz”l, and his old roommate at Telz, Rabbi Azriel Goldfein ztz”l to establish a proper Yeshiva at the school. The former would later go on to found and run Yeshiva Maharsha, until he passed away in a car accident in the mid-1990s, while the latter took the foundations he laid in Yeshiva College and established the Yeshivah Gedolah of Johannesburg – of which he was Rosh Yeshiva until his passing in 2007.
The evidence really speaks for itself. Take a walk through Glenhazel on any given Shabbos and you will see, first-hand, the thriving, religious community that Rabbi Tanzer was so very instrumental in developing and nurturing over the past half century.
The Makings of a Leader
Rabbi Tanzer’s importance in the development of the South African Jewish community was, very clearly, immense, but what is perhaps most impressive are the middot (character traits) he showed – and cultivated in others – along the way. Rabbi Tanzer wasn’t just a pioneer – “a builder” as Chief Rabbi Goldstein put it in his hesped for the Rosh Yeshiva – but was an active and accessible part of the community.
Mrs Tanzer believes that it was his way with people above all else that was key to his success as a leader. “He was a man of peace… he would not tolerate divisiveness. There was not a divisive bone in his body. Everyone felt safe in his presence. His calm temperament, compassion, integrity, and insight drew people towards him. He instinctively knew how to approach different people, always with love and deep respect. This essentially enabled him to create and run the institutions that he founded. His success in South Africa demonstrated that people strongly relate to empathetic, non-egotistical, learned leaders.”
These sentiments are echoed by his son, Rabbi Dov Tanzer. “He was crowned with every good middah, and had the extra perception to know exactly how to respond to each different situation; he had a finely nuanced read of people and their situations. My father was gifted with ‘seichel hayashar’ – more than simply brilliance; it was knowing how to apply [what he knew]. It’s called ‘chochmas hachayim’ (living wisdom) or ‘the 5th Shulchan Aruch’. I watched up close how he managed these. I stood in awe. He knew what each person needed, and was willing to give it to them. I think that is what truly set him apart. He didn’t lose patience even with difficult people.”
“His ability to connect with anyone who crossed his path – be they ‘frum’ or not so ‘frum’; Jewish or gentile – is, along with his boundless love for Torah, at the heart of every tribute, eulogy, and words of remembrance uttered about the Rosh Yeshiva that has poured in over the past few weeks. Rabbi Alon Friedman who, as the current Rabbi of the Glenhazel Area Hebrew Congregation, was personally mentored by the Rosh Yeshiva, summed it up beautifully in his hesped for Rabbi Tanzer, “The Rosh Yeshiva was accessible to everyone, Jews, non-Jews, students, alumni, staff; he gave the same time and kavod to anyone who walked through his doors.”
It certainly calls to mind a particularly poignant experience of my own with the Rosh Yeshiva in recent years. I was a pupil at Yeshiva College from grade 1 through matric, but since graduating I had only really come into contact with Rabbi Tanzer a few times over the years. I’m not a member of any of the shuls on the Yeshiva College campus and the few times I had returned to my old stomping grounds – usually for a Friday night service at Mizrachi when I visited family or friends in the area – I seldom even saw the Rosh Yeshiva, let alone talked to him.
Between that and the fact that, throughout my school years, I was so debilitatingly shy that I did my utmost to go unnoticed by all but my circle of friends, one would rightly expect most people in Rabbi Tanzer’s position to have, at best, only the vaguest recollection of who I was some two decades after leaving his school. Not so the Rosh Yeshiva.
I happened to find myself in “the big shul” at Yeshiva College one Friday night in early 2018 and when I went up to say “good Shabbos” to Rabbi Tanzer, he pulled me aside for a minute and, after asking how my family and I were doing, offered me some words of real chizuk – telling me how much he has enjoyed my writing over the years and offering his help for anything I may need in my career or otherwise.
As it so happened, a few days later I was asked to write a story about Rabbi Tanzer for this very magazine and I had the great privilege of sitting down with him for an hour-long, one-on-one chat to talk about his life and life’s work. He was every bit as engaged, gracious, and humble as you could possibly hope and he ended the interview off with more words of encouragement – and a signed copy of Mrs Tanzer’s book, “The Call of Africa is Heard in Brooklyn – A Memoir about Rabbi Avraham Tanzer”.
The few times I saw the Rosh Yeshiva after that, he always went out of his way to thank me profusely for the article I wrote about him. For someone like Rabbi Tanzer, such interactions were no doubt common place but – in much the same way that he would always stop to chat with my grandfather (who was never a member of his shul) when they would inevitably bump into one another while shopping at Pick n Pay Hypermarket on Wednesday afternoons – it certainly didn’t feel that way to me.
A Giant at Home and In Public
Talking to members of Rabbi Tanzer’s family, it quickly becomes clear that the incredible attributes that made him such a beloved communal leader were reflections of how he was in his home life. Certainly, his major commitments to Yeshiva College did nothing to take away from his devotion to his children. As Mrs Tanzer attests, “I do not think that our children felt neglected by my husband’s strong commitments. I think he modelled the art of living a purposeful life with compassion and patience.”
It’s a sentiment that is enthusiastically reiterated by Chaya, “As a dad to myself and my siblings, despite the fact that he was so devoutly committed to the Yeshiva school and shul, he still had time, love, and attention for his wife and kids. We didn’t feel neglected at all and were encouraged to follow our dreams and own paths of career choices. We were a highly opinionated bunch in our growing up years, with so many different views being aired, but always with respect for one another, hence the fact that we are all observant, shomer Shabbat and kashrut Jews today! I put that down to his warmth, wisdom, balance, and respect of each individual!”
Rabbi and Mrs Tanzer were devoted to parents to six children: twins Chaya and Nechama, Rabbis Baruch and Dov, and their two youngest daughters, Goldie and Ziona. For Rabbi Dov, however, he had the extra dimension of – like his mother – working side-by-side with his father for many years as the Menahel of Yeshiva College.
“He was the single greatest influence on me both as a Rabbi and as a person. He taught me everything I know. I had the zechus of working with him, assisting him for many years. In those years, he taught me so many great and important lessons about life – most of which it will take decades before the messages sink in and before I am able to actually do them. But then he also taught to be patient with yourself: ‘growing takes a lifetime…’”
Rabbi Dov also recalls fondly his father’s special relationship with the many Gedolim who would often come to stay with the Tanzers. “He respected all people – found in them something admirable. But when it came to Gedolei Torah, it was something different – not just huge respect, it was love. Growing up, quite a number of Torah Giants came to South Africa and mostly stayed at us for at least a Shabbos – sometimes weeks and occasionally even months. He cherished these visitors and taught us to happily give up our beds, Shabbos after Shabbos. Our home was a home for Gedolim.”
No doubt, Rabbi Tanzer’s deep love for Torah and his commitment to its values ran through his life – whether he was giving his weekly Friday night drosha at shul, managing the practicalities that come with running a school, or raising his children. For the Rosh Yeshiva, it was never about shoving his beliefs down other people’s throats, but about inspiring them with his own love and dedication to a Torah life.
Rabbi Dov tells a particularly beautiful story to illustrate the way his father would inspire others in Torah observance: “An Israeli couple were living here for a few years and had become part of the Glenhazel community and become ‘frum’. Her mother once visited from Israel, where she lived on a left-wing Kibbutz, and was quite disturbed that her daughter had become religious. By the end of her stay, however, she told my father, that if Rabbi Tanzer was her Rabbi, she would also become religious!”
To say that Rabbi Tanzer’s passing has left a gigantic vacuum in our community is to state the blindingly obvious in such a way that should probably be illegal. But what’s no less true is that even as we mourn the tremendous loss of one of our greatest and brightest guiding lights, we can celebrate all that he accomplished and the incredible legacy he leaves behind.