By ROBYN SASSEN
What drives success? Is it the courage to dream; understanding that to be the best is to be hungry to change the world? This is Chabad’s ethos, articulated in the 24th Miracle Drive three weeks ago.
Replete with black and silver brocade and crystal table decorations, the Sandton Convention Centre was filled with some 1,800 guests.
Focused on Chabad’s intention to change the world for good, the event celebrated Chabad’s projects from libraries in informal settlements and the shoe shine start-up initiative, to Gan Israel Camp and the Seniors Program.
Everyone who is anyone in the community was there, supporting Chabad’s huge reach to change lives, in the Jewish community, but also in broader society. The evening featured a talk by Ambassador Darius Degutis, Lithuania’s ambassador to Israel, as well as the drawing of the 18 prizes; with the traditional cherry on top: the car, which this year was the luxurious Nissan Infiniti X50.
Comedian Nik Rabinowitz was MC of the evening, ad-libbing his unique blend of self-deprecating Jewish South African humor, which got audiences howling with laughter.
With words from a number of Chabad’s sponsors, the underlying theme was one of miracles.
Chairman of Miracle Drive, Robbie Brozin, announced that the Miracle Drive initiative has this year so far raised R17 million, 84 per cent of which was raised in Johannesburg.
“It’s a new record: R1,4million was raised in Cape Town; R880 000 in KwaZulu-Natal; R410 000 by Invest in Futures, which goes toward bursaries at Torah Academy; and R14,3 million in Johannesburg.” He added that their sights were set for the Big Chai – R18 million – for next year.
Rabbi Mendel Lipskar, founder of Chabad in SA, premised his talk on the Hebrew date of the event.
“Tonight, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, we usher in a month of miracles. In the early 1950s, a group of young university students had an audience with the then newly-appointed Lubavitch Rebbe. He said: ‘Every Jew is a miracle.’
“And what’s a miracle? It’s an extraordinary act that defies the natural system. It’s something that flies in the face of ordinary, and produces incredible change.”
He spoke of the miracle of peaceful democracy in South Africa. “Experiencing something like this has to inspire each one of us to do something great with our own lives. Each of us has to step out of the ordinary and become a miracle maker; Miracle Drive is one of those miracles.”
Keynote guests were Lithuania’s ambassador to Israel and South Africa, Darius Degutis and his wife Lineta Degutienė. Calling the assembled crowd “our Lithuanian brothers and sisters”, Degutis said: “When I was appointed five years ago as ambassador to Israel, I had doubts about the value of South Africa as part of my portfolio.
“I felt there are so many things going on in Israel: Middle Eastern fears; a huge Lithuanian Jewry in Israel. SA is 6 000 km away: what is the incentive? But then, I paid my first visit, four years ago. And I met you.
“We met hundreds of Litvaks. We travelled together back to Lithuania, showed them around, dug in the archives, looked for their roots there. It’s been amazing.”
Not losing sight of history between Lithuania and South African Jewry, he cited Israeli poet Abba Kovner’s words: “Remember the past, live the present, trust the future.”
“For 600 years, Lithuanian Jewry boomed, before the tragedy in which many of my compatriots took part. It makes me and my generation ashamed to the core of our bones. Our late president, Algirdas Brazauskas in 1995 went to the Knesset, to ask forgiveness for what happened to Lithuanian Jewry.” He described Lithuania’s priorities in Holocaust education.
“We have passed laws opening up opportunities for second and third generation Lithuanian Jews to reapply to restore their citizenship.
We passed a law for the compensation of Jewish communal and religious property. Under government instruction, we restored the Vilna Jewish Library, and the Great Vilna Synagogue.
“We do it not for you, but for Lithuania’s new generation. Never forgetting or forgiving what happened in the past, but trusting in the future, and telling you, trust us too. It’s not just about passports and it’s not about whitewashing history.
It’s about building bridges, closing circles.
“My government plans to open a fully fledged embassy in South Africa by the end of this year.” Chairman of Chabad’s Young Drivers, Gregg Cohen announced that this year’s program would be framed around the TedX model, with great achievers sharing good ideas.
Rabbi David Masinter of Chabad Johannesburg, the driving force behind Miracle Drive, celebrated the supporters in the Miracle Drive project, adding: “This year we’re committed to open up a further 11 to 18 libraries in informal settlements, primarily aimed at children, in memory of two great legends: Sheldon Cohen and Benny Slome.”
Michael Whitfield, MD of Nissan SA, summed up the evening, speaking of the privilege of being part of Miracle Drive, over 24 years. “We are honored to be a small part of something that does so much. Miracle Drive’s yield has grown from R300 000, to R17 million. Next year we offer a Nissan Leaf, the world’s best selling electric vehicle.”