AN UNSUNG HERO OF THE STRUGGLE FOR BLACK EMANCIPATION
Rabbi Moses Cyrus Weiler is a name revered and respected within the Progressive Jewish Community of South Africa, but it is not well known outside of it. Even within this community, the full legacy that he bequeathed to the people of South Africa is not wholly understood or appreciated.
In Alexandra Township, just north of Johannesburg, there is a school which proudly bears his name. Today it is an integral part of the Department of Education and arguably the largest school in Alex. Its 1200 learners are housed in brick buildings with lawns to play on. A Nedbank Solar powered billboard which generates electricity to help power the school’s fine new kitchen and the kitchen itself, are all part of the United Sisterhood’s continuing support for the well being of its learners and educators. Over a period of 6 decades, tens of thousands of black children from this seriously disadvantaged area have benefitted – and continue to benefit – from Rabbi Weiler’s vision, drive and leadership.
Born in Latvia in 1907, Moses Cyrus Weiler emigrated to Palestine in 1924 and studied in Tel Aviv before his ordination at Hebrew Union College in 1931. He came to South Africa in 1933 to minister to the then newly formed Johannesburg Jewish Reform Congregation. By the time of his departure in 1958, his driving personality and ability to motivate others had resulted in the Reform/Progressive community being firmly established nationally and fully involved in the process of Tikkun Olam – The Repairing of the World.
Tikkun is the force which drives communities to seek out the needs of their neighbours and assist them with upliftment and succour. Through the combined efforts over time of individuals and communities working to uplift those amongst them who are less fortunate than they are, is the world propelled towards a Messianic Era. Driven by this principle, the many Reform communities on the Witwatersrand, in Pretoria, Durban, East London, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town became fully involved in upliftment projects and have remained totally committed to them to this day.
In 1943 Rabbi Weiler and members of his Johannesburg Sisterhood found themselves in Alexandra Township. Appalled by the sight of so many children, barefoot, dressed in rags and foraging for food in the streets, they took immediate action. A ramshackle four roomed house in Alexandra was rented and became their first school (called “Jabulani”). Cleaned up and painted, with cow dung tamped into the floors to seal them, it started with 36 children coaxed off the streets by the appointed Principal, Hilda Pahle.
Members of the Sisterhood made the journey to Alexandra almost daily, with food, clothing, books and other items procured through numerous fund raising drives and a great deal of arm-twisting by Rabbi Weiler. This included the services of a dentist who came on a regular basis to attend to the needs of the children.
In 1949, the Sisterhood bought its own ground in Alex and built a school to cater for 110 pupils. This became the MC Weiler School. By 1953, it had grown to 266 learners and was once again spreading across various sites in Alex.
However, the real heroism of Rabbi Weiler and his committed band of workers lies not only in the single act of starting a school. It is in their successful struggle to keep the school going during 40 long years of Apartheid rule, when a hostile government did everything in its power to close down all schools operated by churches and missions in Alexandra. Confiscation of the buildings, refusal of permits to enter Alex and harassment of teachers and Sisterhood members were the order of the day.
The school not only survived – it continued to grow and, by 1958, when Rabbi Weiler left South Africa, the number of learners had reached 650!
Rabbi Weiler’s true legacy however lives on far beyond this proud school on the East Bank of Alex. All Progressive Jewish outreach programmes, in accordance with his guidelines, are holistic in nature, in that they combine the need to not only educate the child, but to ensure that he is properly fed, decently clothed and placed in an environment that is conducive to the learning process.
The legacy lives on in the form of the Mitzvah School, established in 1985 in the beautiful grounds of the then, Temple David in Morningside, Sandton. The Mitzvah School caters for learners at Matric level and has consistently achieved Matric pass rates exceeding 90%.
It lives on in the crèche at Temple Israel, his mother Temple in Hillbrow.
It lives on in the many schools, orphanages and HIV/AIDS centres which continue to benefit from the general support and feeding schemes listed elsewhere in this report. In this respect, it is important to note that while Rabbi Weiler identified education of black children as a focal point for action, other groups were never excluded. Tikkun Olam, embraces the aged, the sick, the abused of all races and creeds, as well as Jewish and non-Jewish families in need.