Shifting the Soul of a City

By: Moshe Brown


The Dirshu World Siyum in Johannesburg, South Africa was not simply another stop on the Dirshu Siyum HaShas journey. The gathering, attended by nearly 1,500 people, was a historic milestone in this far-flung community’s remarkable story of Jewish resurgence. It was a coming of age, a proof that South Africa is no longer simply the baal teshuva capital of the world, but rather has now found its place among the world’s great centers of Torah. 


The lavish banquet was a fitting backdrop to celebrate this watershed moment. The setting of the event created the mood, with an outdoor marquee stunningly arranged and decorated in honor of the occasion. The candlelit atmosphere was charged with joy and also some amazement that a Torah event in that locale could attract such a massive crowd. “Until now, South Africa was not known to be a Torah center. The idea that so many people would come [to such an event] was so special, it brought the entire community together,” noted renowned maggid Rabbi Paysach Krohn, who was the keynote speaker at the Siyum. “I love the people there; they are tremendous mevakshim who want to grow and are so sincere.”


When Dirshu Cape Town director Rabbi Dani Brett called on all those who had completed Shas to come forward to the specially built stage, a hush fell over the crowd as some sixty men of many backgrounds alighted the platform. Many were close to tears at the magnitude of the accomplishment and the scale of the kiddush Hashem. Indeed, just a short time ago it would have been unimaginable to have such a large group making a siyum in this country. To have so many who were zocheh to be misayem the entire Shas was nothing short of astonishing.


In his address to the gathering, South Africa Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein urged the olam to imagine the reaction of HaRav Yitzchak Kosovsky, a brother-in-law of the gadol hador R’ Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt”l and leader in South Africa in the early 20th century, if he were to arrive at the venue on the night of the Siyum. Rabbi Kosovsky saw the community at its nadir, when observance was waning and Torah seemed to be at risk of being lost from South Africa altogether ch”v. He never lost his faith in the power of Torah, and confidently asserted that a time would come when Torah would flourish at the bottom of Africa. The Dirshu Siyum was a testimony to his prescience. 


Dirshu South Africa head Rabbi Ari Taback described the event as “a glimpse of the truth, a taste of how things are supposed to be.” He spoke of the upside-down world in which we live, where great drama and fanfare are given to empty achievements on the sports fields and stadia of the outside world, and how for some reason Hashem has given our generation a taste of an “olam barur,” a world in which matters of true value are feted and celebrated in appropriately grand fashion, ironically in the very temples of those secular accomplishments. 


The climax of the event was a siyum by HaRav Arran Moshe Cohen, a South African baal teshuva who completed the Talmud as part of the Dirshu Kinyan HaShas program, having been tested closed-book multiple times on all 2711 pages. His staggering accomplishment in some ways epitomized the revolution that has swept the country over the last few decades and which has culminated in the development of South Africa as a true makom Torah.


Rav Dovid Hofstedter, Nasi of Dirshu, spoke to the gathering about the Torah being an inheritance, not one which comes to a person simply by right of birth, but rather through effort and desire. The next day Rav Hofstedter gave an in-depth iyun shiur pesicha on Masechta Brachos in the Johannesburg Kollel, which was attended by the Kollel yungeleit as well as members of the community at large.

Rabbi Krohn flew in especially for the Siyum and addressed the olam. He spoke about the power of Daf HaYomi, the crucial role that women play in the acquisition of Torah, and the middos needed to achieve milestones in Torah. The evening concluded with a leibedige musical presentation by Simcha Leiner, channeling the heady feelings of joy late into the night.


Traveling around the city on the weekend of the Siyum, Rabbi Krohn reflected on the Torah growth in the area, which is indicative of the tremendous spiritual revolution that has been taking place.  He visited a shiur for men learning Masechta Brachos, just one of several shiurim given in Kollel Kvias Ittim under the leadership of Rabbi Taback, and was impressed by the group, who will IY”H make a siyum in the near future. Similarly, in Ohr Sameach, under the guidance of Rabbi Yechezkel Auerbach, he saw a tremendous amount of learning. “Now that there have been 50-60 misaymim, which was unheard of until now, many people will be inspired,” said Rabbi Krohn.


In a related event, girls from schools across the spectrum of Orthodoxy joined together in an unprecedented display of achdus to hear Rabbi Krohn speak – moving teachers and principals to tears.


For days after the Siyum, members of the Johannesburg community were on a high, and spoke of the event in superlatives unheard of for this normally reserved community. “Spectacular and inspirational”; “a truly amazing and fitting event”; “meaningful, beautiful, choshuv and a massive kiddush Hashem,” were just some of the comments, but perhaps the most succinct was the reflection of one of Johannesburg’s rabbanim, who commented that the Siyum “shifted the soul of this city.”