Remembering Rabbi Desmond Maizels
By Ilan Preskovsky
Rabbi Desmond Maizels, ztz”l, passed away suddenly on 15 January 2021 and it’s hard to overstate just how much of a void he has left behind in the South African Jewish community, but most especially in the Cape Town community that he served for decades. To say nothing, of course, about the gigantic loss felt by his family and friends and, really, anyone who knew this universally beloved giant of South African Jewry.
Rabbi Maizels was born in Port Elizabeth in 1949 and, after graduating from Grey High School in 1967, he started a medical degree at the University of Cape Town. But after a couple of years, he decided to take what should have been a short leave of absence and went to study in the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Israel. He didn’t return to medical school, but instead continued studying at Merkaz Harav Yeshiva and at the Harry Fischel Institute for Talmudic Research – or Machon Harry Fischel, as it is otherwise known, eventually receiving smicha from the Israeli Rabbanut – and meeting his wife and life partner, Esther.
While also a noted educator in her own right, Rebbetzin Maizels has always been seen by both the Maizels themselves and by others as a partner in Rabbi Maizels’ work. A New York native, the Rebbetzin met Rabbi Maizels while she was in Israel visiting her brother, who had previously made Aliyah. During her stay, her brother and his next-door neighbours (ex-South African Rabbi Mendy Katz and his wife Sherril) saw a young yeshiva bachur by the name of Desmond Maizels at a wedding – and the shidduch was made.
Rabbi Maizels made it clear on their first date that he was fully planning to return to South Africa to serve the Jewish community there. Rebbetzin Maizels now jokes that it was “more like a job interview than a date!” When asked how she felt about moving to this unknown country at the bottom of the planet, she responded that for her it was “the person, not the place” that mattered.
The couple got married in Israel before moving to Bloemfontein, a small, warm community that Rebbetzin Maizels saw as the perfect place to get acclimated to their new lives. Straightaway, she worked side-by-side with her husband as the spiritual heads of the community. Once their eldest, Hillel, came of school age they knew that their time in Bloemfontein was drawing to a close, as there was no Jewish primary school – and, for that matter, little in the way of other Jewish kids to play with.
Not that Cape Town offered a perfect solution either, as the city didn’t have the sort of religious day school that they wanted their children to attend. The Cape Town Jewish community, though, was and is rather larger than the one they left in Bloemfontein and the Maizels were able to help set up the Hebrew Academy, the first religious day school in the city.
After a short, one-year stint at Constantia Hebrew Congregation, Rabbi Maizels took up the position of Rabbi of the Camps Bay Shul – a position he held for nearly three decades – and the Maizels found the perfect place to bring up their four children, Hillel, Ora, Yael, and Gila, and to serve the wider Jewish community. Rabbi Maizels was rabbi of the shul until his retirement from the position in 2013 – though he remained rabbi emeritus until he died.
Not content to “merely” be a community rabbi, however, Rabbi Maizels became a major cornerstone of virtually every major aspect of Jewish life in Cape Town. When he became the rabbi of Camps Bay, his first major rabbinical duty was to officiate at the heart-breaking funeral of a young couple and their two babies who had tragically died in a major car accident. In the years that followed, he would be intimately involved with every event in the life cycle of Cape Town’s Jews. He became the city’s main mohel and oversaw countless brisim along the way. He also served as a sofer (a scribe), which included writing ketubot for the many couples whose weddings he officiated, checking mezuzot, and fixing Torahs.
Kosher in its Entirety
What Rabbi Maizels is perhaps best known for, though (aside for being a consummate mensch, of course), was his unparalleled role in kashrut. Rabbi Maizels worked as a shochet and headed up the Cape Town Kashrut Department for decades (along with being a Dayan on the Cape Town Beth Din), but that doesn’t even begin to capture just how much effort he put into making keeping kosher a viable, attractive, and affordable option for Cape Town Jewry and Jews across the country.
Indeed, never mind South Africa, Rabbi Maizels was considered a world expert on kashrut and worked with kosher departments across the globe. As Rabbi Saul Emanuel, Executive Director-Jewish Community Council of Montreal and MK-Canada’s Kosher Certifier wrote in his tribute to Rabbi Maizels:
“One often hears the expression that certain people only keep kosher at home. Rabbi Maizels personified this in a different way, by keeping kosher in his entirety, kosher in his heart and kosher in the way in which he conducted his daily life. He was a walking Kiddush Hashem. The lay workers at facilities bearing his kosher supervision respected him immensely and honoured his every word. Crossing the entire globe, Rabbi Maizels visited hundreds of facilities on an annual basis, ensuring that their kashrus level was up to par. He set high standards for kashrus and if a company was not able to manufacture something to his values, he would not certify them as kosher.”
Closer to home, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein echoes these sentiments exactly in his own tribute and notes, especially, how along with everything else, Rabbi Maizels was a true innovator in the area of Kashrut:
“In his role as head of the Cape UOS Kashrut department, he achieved international renown and fame for his deep understanding of kashrut, as well as his tenacity and innovation in making as much kosher food as possible accessible to the community. He would travel to all corners of the globe, inspecting factories and finding solutions. That was his greatness – he was a man who found solutions, because he wanted people to have access to kosher food in the best and easiest way possible.”
And that was one of the great keys to Rabbi Maizels’ stature in the world of kashrut. While he insisted on maintaining strict adherence to halacha, he did so with an eye on the stark realities of actually keeping kosher for the average Jew. He largely avoided unnecessary stringencies in certifying kosher products – though, Rabbi Emanuel notes, his intimate knowledge of halacha in this area meant that he was entirely trusted even by overseas kosher departments who insisted on certain chumrot that he didn’t apply to his own certification process – and did his utmost to ensure that a huge variety of quality products would have proper kosher certification and would be affordable, widely available, and convenient.
According to Cape Town’s Rabbi Bryan Opert, “Rabbi Maizels emphasised in every halachic discussion that we had of the need to make life easier and less stressful for people who came to the Beit Din or asked a halachic question of him. He said that we live in a demanding world, the beauty of Torah could lighten that burden.”
As Rabbi Sam Thurgood, the rabbi of Beit Medrash Morasha (Arthur’s Road shul) further expands: “Often a key point in these stories [of Rabbi Maizels’ life as a rabbi] was finding a clever solution to an intractable problem – whether it was a joint purchase of shechita equipment with the Moslem community to make it affordable, or his proud discovery of a farm that grew bug-free cauliflower. He had this endless quest to make more things kosher and to keep kashrut affordable. I would say a quixotic quest, but he was often so very successful.”
A People’s Person Par Excellence
It was precisely this underlying compassion for his fellow human beings that made him such a beloved figure to Jews across the religious spectrum and to the many non-Jews he encountered throughout his life. He is certainly widely recognised for his monumental impact on the Cape Town Jewish community and for being one of the world’s greatest and most innovative kashrut experts, but the countless tributes that poured in since his passing were of a far more personal nature that extolled, above all else, his many virtues as a human being.
This wasn’t just the usual effusive praise that comes with eulogising the recently departed, but seems entirely in harmony with everything said about Rabbi Maizels when he was alive. I, sadly, never had the privilege or pleasure of meeting Rabbi Maizels, but as a major religious leader in our South African Jewish community, I certainly heard about him plenty. In stark contrast to the way more public figures are usually talked about behind their backs, though, it says volumes about Rabbi Maizels that I can’t recall a single word uttered about him that was anything less than glowing. I would hear about the impeccable standards of his kashrut certification by even the strictest of Jews, sure, but more than anything, phrases like “what a mensch”, “ah, such a wonderful man”, or “he’s just the best” were almost pavlovian responses to the merest mention of his name.
So, for example, when the current rabbi of Camps Bay Shul, Rabbi Yochanan Ziegler, gave an emotional eulogy for his predecessor and mentor during the shul’s online Kabbalat Shabbat service mere hours after Rabbi Maizels had passed away (but obviously streamed well before sunset), he homed in immediately not on the rabbi’s many achievements, but on, first, his love of his fellow man and, second, his unyielding drive to serve the community.
Rabbi Ziegler had been learning shechita with Rabbi Maizels over the past seventh months and Rabbi Ziegler tells how, after spending a long, hot Monday together doing shechita for the community, their conversation turned to their respective plans for the week. Rabbi Maizels, who had spent the previous day running all over the country doing various tasks for the Kashrut Department of the UOS, mentioned a long laundry list of things he needed to do for the community before being able to relax on the coming Shabbos – starting with immediately heading to Oudtshoorn on another assignment that very day.
Rabbi Ziegler turned to him and said, “Rabbi, is there not a line in Pirkei Avot that says, ‘The work is not for you to complete?’” Rabbi Maizels looked down, shook his head, and simply said, “I don’t know about that.” “Every single thing that was written in Pirkei Avot, he kept; everything in the Torah, he kept; he [dedicated] his life to keeping every word of the sages, every word of G-d,” Rabbi Ziegler continued, “but this, this he had trouble with.”
This is echoed by Rabbi Matthew Liebenberg, rabbi of the Claremont Wynberg Hebrew Congregation. “Rabbi Maizels was like the Duracell Bunny. He had endless energy and was always on the go, whether it was a trip to Oudtshoorn to provide the community there with kosher meat, a bris in some far-flung community, or an inspection of a factory in the remote Eastern Cape. Rabbi Maizels was ready and willing to go wherever necessary to enhance the performance of Hashem’s mitzvoth, especially kashrut.”
This unyielding commitment to his community did not, however, come at the expense of the personal touch that he had when interacting with other people. So much time dedicated to serving others can, ironically, create an air of distance, if not superiority, between a person and those he’s supposed to serve, but this was quite clearly never even the remotest possibility for Rabbi Maizels. Quite the contrary, in fact.
It’s clear that his love and commitment to his community often manifested in massive contributions to the community across his numerous roles as community rabbi, shochet, dayan, mohel and head of the Kosher department, but the more stories you hear of Rabbi Maizels, the more it becomes clear that it was often on the tiniest details, on the most humble of acts, that he formed such strong connections with those around him.
As Rabbi Hillel Bernstein, rabbi of the Milnerton Hebrew Congregation and a born-and-bred Capetonian, explains Rabbi Maizels’ tremendous influence on his and his family’s own Yiddishket: “Rabbi Maizels was the rock and anchor of Cape Town Jewry. He took responsibility for so much here, and still always had time for people and a kind word and a joke to say to everyone. He inspired others by who he and his family were. My family’s connection to Yiddishkeit is because of the role models that the whole Maizels family were.”
The Family Behind the Great Man
And, to be sure, when talking about Rabbi Maizels, it’s impossible not to talk about his Rebbetzin, Esther, and their four children as well. It’s clearly not always easy to have your father and husband effectively belonging to an entire community – all the more so when you consider Rabbi Maizels’ well-documented, unwavering dedication to the community – but the Maizels seemed to make it work. More than work, really.
Rebbetzin Maizels makes it clear that at the heart of this was that the couple always saw themselves as partners in this crucially important work, sharing the same vision, while at the same time ensuring that there was always an “anchor” at home so that, when he was away, she would be sure to spend as much time at home as her teaching and community work would allow, while he would do the same when she went back to New York to visit her father.
Listening to the children speak at their father’s funeral in Ariel, Israel, it became immediately apparent in their beautiful and surprisingly funny hespedim (apparently, Rabbi Maizels’ well-known sense of humour is genetic) that not only was there no shortage of love between parents and children, the children were clearly brought up to emulate all the many virtues that made their parents not just respected but beloved figures in their community.
All four of the Maizels children now live in Israel. All are “frum”, but, more than anything, the impression that you get from listening to them talk about their father is that, above all, it was the incredible grace, kindness, and love that he showed for them, for those who visited their house, and for really anyone with whom Rabbi Maizels came in contact, that made them who they are today. In her hesped, Yael strongly emphasised the one value that stood above all others in the Maizels house: Derech Eretz Kadmah L’Torah – common decency proceeds Torah.
It’s a Talmudic concept that is, sadly, all too easily forgotten, but there can be no greater tribute to Rabbi Desmond Maizels than to say that not only did he remember this pillar of Jewish morality, not only did he teach it to his children, he very clearly lived it in his entirety.
May even those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to meet him continue to learn from his example.