South Africa's Sinai Indaba kicks off in Cape Town with a bang
Sinai Indaba V kicked off in Cape Town this year, with some 1 300 participants braving the wintry weather to hear world-class speakers at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. by MOIRA SCHNEIDER | Jun 17, 2015 The South African Jewish Report
Among them was the world’s foremost Nazi hunter Dr Efraim Zuroff, who spoke of his efforts at tracking down Holocaust perpetrators and bringing them to justice up to 70 years after their crimes were committed. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, he said his fantasy had been to be the first Orthodox Jew to play in the NBA (National Basketball Association).
It was, however, when he was working as a researcher for the United States Justice Department’s office of special investigations in Israel, that his involvement in the search for the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele “changed my life” and set him on his present path.
The year was 1986, but Zuroff realised that, 41 years after the Shoah, there were many Nazi war criminals still living. He resigned from the Justice Department and became the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s Israel office, established to locate and help bring these individuals to justice around the world.
It turned out that Mengele had died in 1979. “If the office had been set up 10 years earlier, we could have caught him,” Zuroff told the audience.
“The reason he wasn’t (caught) was a lack of political will that continues to plague us until today. Most countries don’t want to prosecute Nazi war criminals and that is the reality.
“They’d rather protect their societies from serial killers - what are the chances of a Nazi war criminal striking again - zero.”
What he has learned from his work, he says, is that most war criminals were “normal” people. “They lived normal lives before and after the war, but did terrible things during it.”
Of former Jasenovac concentration camp commandant Dinko Sakic who was tracked down in Argentina, tried in Croatia and sentenced to the maximum term, Zuroff recalls: “He didn’t regret anything and asked to be buried in his uniform.”
In a question and answer session, Israel’s Chief Rabbi David Lau, was asked how being the son of Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau and carrying the surname that had produced rabbis for many generations, had affected him. Rabbi Lau answered that his parents had never pressurised him into becoming a rabbi, emphasising rather that one should do one’s best according to one’s personality. He had in fact decided when he became engaged not to become a rabbi!
The chief rabbi, who is a reserve major in the Israeli Defence Forces Intelligence Corps, was asked his opinion on whether more “datim” should serve in the army. “Everyone who’s learning Torah, I want them to continue to learn because we need it for our nation,” he replied. “We need to learn what we are fighting for.
“Those who are not learning must run to the army.” The reality, he said, was that more and more haredim were doing so, but it was not good for the government to enforce this by means of legislation.
In 1968, Rabbi David Grossman’s life took a dramatic turn when this heir to a famous Chassidic dynasty moved to Migdal HaEmek, a development town for immigrants from North Africa that had become a hotbed of criminal activity in Israel.
The sixth-generation Yerushalmi embarked on a mission to uplift the city’s disadvantaged youth, searching them out at nightclubs every night, “including Friday night”, in the process earning the nickname “The Disco Rabbi”.
Visiting the local jail, his “heart became broken” when he saw hundreds of Jewish youngsters incarcerated there. He started to teach them Pirkei Avot twice a week on a voluntary basis and developed a rehabilitation programme which was attended by over 1 000 prisoners.
The government has said that it is the most successful such programme, evidenced by the fact that 70 to 80 per cent of participants do not return to jail.
“Every Jew has G-d inside, you only have to speak to them,” the rabbi, who has received the Israel Prize for his work, maintains. “If you give them love and education at the age of nine, 10, they can be the best boys and girls.”
What makes Jews different? According to renowned scholar and educator Rebbetzen Tziporah Heller, it is the spiritual connection that we can bring to the material world.
“You’re a Jew in how you conduct your life materially - in the way you eat, dress or do business,” she stated. Mitzvot were G-d’s way of stretching one, thereby strengthening one’s bond with Him, which she described as “the greatest pleasure this world has”.
Sinai Indaba continues in Johannesburg this weekend.