D.C. Jews recall Nelson Mandela

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Philanthropist Mendel Kaplan shows Nelson Mandela around the South African Jewish Museum, which was opened by Mandela in 2000.  Photo by Shawn Benjamin/Ark Images
Philanthropist Mendel Kaplan shows Nelson Mandela around the South African Jewish Museum, which was opened by Mandela in 2000.
Photo by Shawn Benjamin/Ark Images

Former South African President Nelson Mandela was remembered by Jews here and in his native country as a biblical Joseph who transcended the animosity of his enemies.

Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman of Congregation Ohev Sholom-the National Synagogue drew the parallel with the anti-apartheid leader, who died Dec. 5 at age 95, from the week’s Torah reading about the Hebrew patriarch and his brothers.


“One of the most striking parts of the story is the way that Joseph seems to forgive his brothers so quickly for having sold him into slavery,” Balinsky said. “When he encounters his brothers in Egypt, Joseph does not fault them for what they did, he does not dwell on past crimes. Rather, he recognizes the need to reconcile with them for the sake of the present, so that he and his brothers can unite as one entity.”

Mandela did the same in the 1990s, after 27 years of imprisonment by the white South African regime he opposed, said Rabbi William Rudolph, of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County.

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“He came out of prison with every reason to be angry and seek revenge, and he never forgot what he had been through, but he was able to channel that potentially negative energy in positive directions, always keeping his eye on the target,” Rudolph said.

As a result, Mandela oversaw a peaceful transition of power from the white minority to the black majority, culminating in Mandela’s election as president in 1994.


At a memorial service in a Johannesburg suburb, Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein noted how Mandela rose above his own experience to become father of the nation.

“In Nelson Mandela, we found our own Joseph,” Goldstein said. “He was able to put aside all the bitterness from those long years of imprisonment and rebuild this country.”

It wasn’t that Mandela wasn’t angry, said South Africa native Mary Zients, founder and board chair of the Urban Alliance Foundation in Washington.

“He developed an unbelievable discipline that allowed him to work for a greater purpose,” she said. “He combined a moral vision and compassion with a great knowledge of human nature to get people to do what they never thought they could do.”

Zients saw Mandela up close when he was negotiating South Africa’s transition to majority rule in the early 1990s. Her parents were “old friends” of Mandela’s chief of staff, and Mandela often “borrowed” their home, where he could work away from the spotlight, she said.

In 1992, Mandela was a guest at her wedding to Washington native Jeffrey Zients in Cape Town. The man, who in two years would become South Africa’s first black president, stood “with a yarmulke on” at the Orthodox ceremony, she said.

Mandela’s nonideological approach to an “incredibly idealistic” goal — majority rule in South Africa — “is unique in our time,” she said.

Zients chairs the U.S. committee raising money to support the establishment of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg, scheduled to open in 2015. The Mandela Children’s Fund USA is halfway to a $100 million fundraising goal, she said.

[email protected]   
Twitter: @davidholzel
JTA News and Features contributed to this article.

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