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Tales from the Trails: Africa’s Traveling Rabbi

Shira Yehudit Djlilmand

Officiating at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals. Sheilos on kashrus, arranging supplies for the chagim; it’s all in a day’s work for your regular community rabbi. Rabbi M. Silberhaft, nicknamed the “Traveling Rabbi” by the media, is probably the only rabbi in the world who has to travel such distances to tend to his flock, from his home in Johannesburg, to Jewish communities in such far-flung locations as Swaziland and Uganda. Mishpacha caught up with Rabbi Silberhaft, to hear about his adventures.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft was once summoned to the royal palace of the King of Lesotho. The king was interested in setting up a joint Israeli/Lesotho agricultural project, but they didn’t then have official ties with Israel, The king, however, did know how to get in touch with Rabbi Silberhaft, and so he was called in.

“When I walked into the palace I was blown away,” recalls Rabbi Silberhaft. “There, on the wall in the entrance hall, was an enormous painting of the Kosel!” When Rabbi Silberhaft made inquiries, it turned out that the present king’s mother, then Queen of Lesotho, had once visited Jerusalem, and had been so taken with the Kosel that she had commissioned a painting of it and hung in the palace. “I was in shock,” Rabbi Silberhaft recalls. “At first I thought they’d put it up just for me.”

For the Jerusalem-born Rabbi Silberhaft, who today is Spiritual Leader of the African Jewish Congress, with congregants spread across thirteen countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the painting brought back poignant childhood memories. Which makes one wonder, how did a good Yerushalmi boy end up as a rabbi running around Africa? It has been an interesting journey in itself: The first five years of his life were spent in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood. His father had arrived in Israel from Poland in 1936 and fought in the Haganah in the War of Independence. Afterwards, he relocated to South Africa, where he met Rabbi Silberhaft’s mother, Lithuanian born, and moved back to Israel. But in 1972, when Moshe was five, family reasons drew them back to South Africa, and so the young Moshe studied in Yeshiva College in Johannesburg, under rosh yeshivah Rabbi Avraham Tanzer. After yeshivah, Rabbi Silberhaft was drafted into the South African army to do the compulsory two years military service, where he served as a chaplain. “It wasn’t a pleasure, but it was a shlichus — there were a lot of Jews there to serve.”

After his military service he went back to learning and eventually received smichah from the Jerusalem Rabbinate. Then, after a short period back in South Africa in business, Rabbi Silberhaft was appointed “Country Communities Rabbi” for the SAJBD (South African Jewish Board of Deputies). “In South Africa,” he explains, “there are the large cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town, and then there are all the small communities outside called the Country Communities. These are too small to have their own rabbi, so they are served by a traveling rabbi — me.”

This means that Rabbi Silberhaft is responsible, in South Africa alone, for over 2500 Jews in nine provinces stretching across close to half a million square miles — an area twice the size of France. Rabbi Silberhaft’s duties include not only the regular duties of a community rabbi — including weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals, but also the maintenance of 230 cemeteries across the country containing over 30,000 Jewish graves.  

That might seem enough, but his responsibilities as Country Communities Rabbi are just one small part of his workload. In 1994 he was appointed Spiritual Leader and Executive Director of the African Jewish Congress, making him responsible for the Jews of thirteen African countries.


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