Just in time for the holiday of Passover, South Africa’s Chabad-Lubavitch of the West Coast celebrated the expansion of its school as well as the dedication of a new Torah scroll. The double celebration coincided with the 107th anniversary of the birth of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, a day marked by Chabad-Lubavitch across the globe as Education and Sharing Day.

Rabbi Asher and Zeesy Deren established the West Coast center, located in the Cape Town suburb of Bloubergrant, in 2004. It has since expanded by leaps and bounds, pleasantly surprising the town’s Jewish community.

“What they have done for this small community” is amazing, local Vivian Wolff says of the Derens. “We never thought that they would be able to come as far as they have come.”

Zeesy Deren, who serves as principal of the center’s Gan Chamesh preschool, explains that when the educational institution opened in January 2006, it only had six students.

“Today, we have 45 students” aged from 18 months to six years, she says, “and are anticipating even more in the years ahead.”

The expansion represents a 50 percent increase in the center’s occupancy level, and amounts to an additional classroom, indoor gym with state-of-the-art equipment, upgraded bathrooms, and new lobby.

“What they have created is wonderful,” says Deanne Levitt, a mother of a student. “Rabbi Asher and Zeesy put their whole heart into the school. They have created a wonderful environment.”

“It is befitting that the event was celebrated on Education and Sharing Day,” says Asher Deren, “when we note that education is not just about learning for a career, but also about how we can strive peacefully together in our world.”

Celebrants danced in the streets with their Torah scroll.
Celebrants danced in the streets with their Torah scroll.

Torah Finds Vibrant Home

At around midday, the celebration began with the dedication of a Torah scroll given to The Shul – the synagogue located at the center – by the Welkom Hebrew Congregation, whose own constituents recently followed the migration from South Africa’s satellite towns to city centers.

The ceremony began in a nearby park where, beneath an elaborate canopy, the scroll was outfitted with a new sash and cover, and then delicately lifted into the air for the hundreds of Capetonians and former “Welkomites” to see.

Barry Levitt, executive director of the United Jewish Campaign of Cape Town, and Ivan Klitzner, vice chairman of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues Cape Council, shared their memories of Welkom, a small city in the Free State province of South Africa. A gold mining town, it once boasted a sizable Jewish community, with upwards of 400 people attending High Holiday services.

As its families migrated to the larger, more established communities in Johannesburg and Cape Town, the synagogue began looking for a home for its Torah scroll. With the help of Norman Chavkin, a local community leader, it chose the Chabad center, a place where it will be used regularly.

Ian Neilson, a high ranking member of the Cape Town city council and close confidant of Mayor Helen Zille, brought greetings from the municipality, and extended his own admiration of the Chabad center’s work. Rabbi Mendel Popack, director of Chabad-Lubavitch in the Cape Province, applauded the growth of the community in the short time since the center’s opening.

Gary Milner, a South African expatriate visiting from London, affixed a mezuzah to the center’s front door on behalf of London’s Moshal family, long time patrons of the West Coast Jewish community.

The Derens’ daughter Chanale cut the ceremonial red ribbon, ushering in the school’s expanded location.

“It was a wonderful event,” says Wolff. “It was very special for our small community.”