A New Torah Comes To Umhlanga Rocks

A New Torah Comes To Umhlanga Rocks

Barry Tannenbaum holds the Torah Scroll under the canopy with Rabbi Shlomo Wainer


July 6, 2006

A strapping Zulu tribesman, garbed in sheepskins and colorful, woven cloaks, resplendent in his five-foot tall headdress of cattle horns, feathers dyed blood red and black, furs and mirror-studded mosaics led the parade in honor of a new Torah to be housed in the new Chabad Outreach Center of Umhlanga, Kwazulu Natal, on the north coast of South Africa. Leaping as he strode along the route, the Zulu  - and his two-wheeled rickshaw cart - added a dash of local color to the procession of 200 well wishers and community members who danced and sang their way to the center on 11 Flamingo Road, dedicated in memory of Shana Weisman by her brothers, Brett and Mark Levy.

Umhlanga Rocks sounds exotic but it is a familiar and favorite beachside spot for Johannesburg residents on long weekend getaways and holidays. Chabad Umhlanga's weekly Shabbat minyan fluctuates between 10 and 50 congregants during the year, and surges to over 300 in the high season. Barry Tannenbaum of Johannesburg vacationed in the attractive Indian Ocean resort town since his schoolboy days. He and his wife, Debbie, purchased an apartment in Umhlanga and prefer spending Shabbat and Jewish holidays there, away from Johannesburg, where walking to synagogue 'can be dangerous,' Tannenbaum said. 'Umhlanga is a nice haven. You feel safe.'

Tannenbaum met Rabbi Shlomo Wainer, Chabad representative in Umhlanga and South Africa's North Coast and noted the synagogue had but one Torah, an inconvenience for any growing community. Tannenbaum and a friend sponsored the purchase of a new Torah scroll. As Rabbi Wainer cradled the new Torah under the canopy, Zachary, 3, and Rebecca, 6, Tannenbaum hitched a ride in the rickshaw. Tannenbaum glanced round and felt a 'high that hit my heart,' he said. 'It felt like my bar mitzvah again.'

When Rabbi Wainer planned the grand opening, he phoned Mark and Brett Levy to set the date. The Levys were instrumental in the purchase and renovation of the new building. June 18, as it turned out, coincided with the birthday of the Levys's sister, Shana Weisman, in whose memory the new outreach center is named. 'It got very quiet on the phone,' said Rabbi Wainer, but he's used chancing upon divinely guided happenstance. Miracles have cropped up ever since Rabbi Shlomo and Devorah Wainers arrived in Umhlanga almost 13 years ago, not the least of which was overcoming delicate zoning issues to open the center.

Under a warm and smiling sun, the norm in Umhlanga, crowd numbers climbed to over 250 by the time the procession reached the entrance and walkway of the new center. Several prominent rabbis and Chabad representatives from Johannesburg and Pretoria offered words of blessing.  Rabbinical students from the Yeshiva Gedolah in Johannesburg danced and sang with community members. Councillor Chetty, of the executive council of the Ethekwini municipality, delivered greetings on behalf of the mayor of Durban, the major city closest to Umhlanga Rocks.

Jack Mailich a year-round Umhlanga resident, said the event 'put Umhlanga Rocks Chabad on the map' and 'let people all over the country and overseas know they can come to this tourist and holiday resort, which boasts all the facilities Jewish people could want - plus, plus.' A Jewish family on a cruise to South Africa from New York turned up at the outreach center the other day, having asked a taxi driver if there were any Jewish community centers in the area. 'They couldn't believe the reception they got. They were made to feel very welcome and comfortable,' said Mailich.

Numbers of visitors to Umhlanga grow by the year, and the new center is positioned right in the middle of the prime hotel and timeshare strip to serve them. Peak season, guests arrive from Adelaide and Perth, Australia; London; United States; but most drive five hours or fly in under an hour from Johannesburg. Reasonably priced real estate, in contrast to Cape Town's skyrocketing prices, drive more and more investment in Umhlanga. Several buildings, 20, 30 stories in height, are under construction. The village of Umhlanga, once a fisherman's port of call, is expanding, bringing hotels, corporations, jobs, and with them the prospect of greater numbers of year round Jewish residents.  

Some visitors to Chabad arrive on foot. On the Friday before the big opening event, 11,000 runners sped through Umhlanga during the annual Comrades Marathon, a 90 km race from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Rabbi Wainer pitches a mobile Chabad center for exhausted runners, refueling them with carbs - bananas and other fruits, water and a quick wrapping of tefillin before sending them on their way.

For more information on Chabad of Umhlanga, go to www.chabadnc.com.

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