London’s Ross is Cape Town’s gain

Rabbi Jonny Ross

The man sitting across the table has the sturdy build of an English Premiership defender.

He has a wonderfully open face and seems almost impossibly good natured. His conversation shifts effortlessly between the sardonic and the self deprecatory, and he has that natural charisma that seems to characterise all Brits of above-average intelligence. He is immediately likeable.

I’ve just been introduced to Rabbi Jonny Ross, Cape Town’s new Youth Director, and we are talking about exactly what it is he and his family are doing here — thousands of miles from the place they used to call home.

It was with a feeling of genuine excitement that I had waited for the Ross family to arrive, although my knowledge of them was mainly through association. More specifically, a significant portion of my peer group had landed up in London to begin their careers in the Land of the Pound. Few of them had been overly enthusiastic about their Judaism, most of them markedly unenthusiastic. But most had, at some stage, pitched up for a Shabbat service at the JLE (or Jewish Learning Exchange — a Jewish community centre in Golder’s Green with a reputation for being a homeaway-from-home for young South Africans). They had then, over a period of time, and almost without exception, developed a deep passion for Judaism. The JLE boasts an extraordinary group of rabbis and teachers — among them the famed Rabbi Akiva Tatz. But everyone seems to single out one rabbi and his family. The Ross family.

A mentor and a mensch
Bryan Silke, editor of BusinessBrief magazine, is a typical example. A Herzlia matriculant, he went on to study in yeshiva for a number of years following a stint in London. “Most of us grew up without an inkling of what true Torah Judaism was really about,” he says. “Gradually though, our attitudes changed, as we experienced the warmth, depth and beauty of Judaism so wonderfully conveyed by Rabbi Ross and his family — in their home, in the Beit Midrash and most of all, through the way they live their lives.”

Many others speak of Rabbi Ross with great affection, usually mimicking his own irreverent style. “When he leaves the country it’s no longer Great Britain, it’s just ‘Britain’” is a popular saying. Another more recent one: his departure for Cape Town was the reason for the London riots. He is not another Chuck Norris. They half mean it.

In short, the legend around the man was considerable, and as we sit down for our interview, I’m expecting to confront a colossal personality. What I get is something a little bit different. “Ok, let’s make the most of this,” he starts off. “Tell them I was a professional hang glider or surfer — that always goes down well. Tell them the real reason I’m here is for the Kloofing.”

He is of course none of these. Rabbi Ross grew up in the London suburb of Kenton in a traditional Jewish home. His upbringing was also traditionally British, and to this day, he retains an encyclopedic knowledge of British football trivia, and has dozens of Monty Python skits committed to memory.

He left to study in Yeshiva at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem, aged 19 (“How I got there is a much longer story,” he says — as it invariably is). After planning to go only for a few months, he stayed for a full year, which then turned into two years, and finally, four, including a stint at the famous Mirrer yeshiva.

He married his wife, Danya, and, returning to London, took up a position at the JLE. It was here, over the course of nine years, that he forged a reputation as one of the nicest guys around, whilst playing a major role as a mentor in the spiritual growth of so many young people in the city.

He seemed to get on particularly well with South Africans. “You could always spot the South Africans in London,” he says. “They were the one’s breaking the icy silence on the tube, shivering in the cold, and looking up at the skies for the daily eclipse which they thought was the reason it gets dark after lunchtime. “I tried to help them acclimatise, but climate is the one thing nobody in England is able to come to terms with — not even the English.”

Weather aside, he looks back at his time in London with extreme fondness. “I’m grateful to the JLE for all of the wonderful opportunities my family and I were afforded — both for learning and teaching. Of course, we had the special privilege of working alongside Rabbi Tatz — he and his family are role models to us and also great friends. We miss London in terms of the relationships that we formed there, but as a place, the only people that have ever missed London were the Luftwaffe!”

Offering inspiration
At one stage, Rabbi Ross was teaching as often as nine times a day, so he really had to find a style of teaching that worked. He decided on a simple philosophy that, in its honesty and sincerity, is perhaps a blueprint for educators from all walks of life.

“I think you really can only give over to others what you are,” he explains. “People won’t take to heart anything that doesn’t come from yours. I have taught various aspects of Judaism for many years, and I’ve found that I cannot teach things that are not personally inspiring to me. While I may hear a nice idea or insight, if it does not affect me and I don’t get inspired or excited by it, I cannot give it over.”

I broach the rather contentious issue of Cape Town Jews being not so much anti-religious, as apathetic towards Judaism. “My goal as a teacher is simply to make Judaism relevant, true, beautiful, deep and fun,” he responds. “I think that if people are willing to open their minds a little, they will see how meaningful and inspiring Judaism can be. I remember very well how I used to sit in certain classes that rabbis had told me were going to be ‘so much fun,’ only to be frustrated and bored. “So whenever I teach I always think, ‘would this have interested me all those years ago?’ That is my own internal compass, and it has guided me pretty well so far. In general, I guess that I’m very fortunate in that my job requires me to constantly better myself, strive to greater heights and learn more. Pretty cool if you can get a job like that.”

He cannot hide his glee when we get round to the topic of his equally celebrated family. There are five Ross children — two boys and three girls, ranging from ages three to 13 — whom he describes as “a source of unnatural wisdom and hilarity.”

His wife, Danya, has a reputation for being a wonderful educator and powerful speaker, and has many years of experience in the fields of both formal and informal education. “Danya is a superb life teacher and I’m in awe of her. She has an amazing way with people and is someone who cares deeply about everyone. She is a busy and powerful person, and has incredible insight and knowledge.”

She is also a gracious hostess. “A Shabbos meal at the Ross’s house is no less than a taste of the world to come,” says Silke. “Between the legendary banter and all-round mayhem, and the enormous pots of cholent, there’s simply no better experience.”

Giving to the Cape Town community
Danya recently took up a position as a senior faculty member at the Phyllis Jowell Jewish Day School. She toured the school during a preparatory visit in June and was suitably impressed by what she encountered. “I think the PJ school environment is spiritually and emotionally conducive to growth and self development,” says Danya. “The attention to Torah values is constant and has been infused seamlessly into the daily curriculum. Academically, the students are learning skills that are commensurate with their age group, and perhaps a bit higher. They’re offered a large range of extra murals, and the school is always looking for ways to better itself for the benefit of its pupils and parents. Most importantly, the students are happy to come to school, and are happy in school!”

These early impressions have only strengthened since they moved. “Anyone can be impressed after a visit,” says Rabbi Ross. “It’s a much stronger endorsement that we’ve sent our kids to the school and my wife has started teaching here — and we still feel the same way.”

So what were some of the other pull factors in coming to Cape Town? “The truth is, when we told our friends and family that we were moving to Cape Town, they said we were crazy. They said we were mad. They said, ‘why didn’t you go out there last year when the World Cup was on??’ “But when we told them about the wonderful, warm community, the jawdropping scenery, the fabled ‘sun’ that we’d heard about in England but had never seen except in postcards, and the amazing teaching opportunities, I think that they understood.”

It has been a month since our interview, and my own early impressions have been confirmed — Cape Town is fortunate enough to have another rabbinic family of true Torah greatness to add to the current outstanding crop.

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Rabbi Ross in particular, and have been struck by the fact that, despite his very unique style, there is nothing showy about the man. There’s no pretension and no pizzazz. Clearly at peace with himself and with the world, sure of his footing, he has the rare ability to impart that serenity to those he comes into contact with.

A ‘personal rabbi’ of the highest order, he seems to have perfected schmoozing as an art form, but without artifice. Clearly, he can also deliver on the public speaking front, and possesses the depth and knowledge that comes from working alongside the likes of Rabbi Tatz for nearly a decade, and from being someone who chose to pursue Torah after asking the difficult questions about G-d and existence. “As someone once taught me,” he says in closing, “in life you do one of two things constantly. You are either giving or taking. We are here to give as much to the Cape Town community as we can.”

And that is thrilling news.

Rabbi Jonny Ross will be running educational outreach programmes throughout Cape Town. Danya Ross has taken up a position as a senior faculty member at the Phyllis Jowell Day School. Their children can be found all over the city, eating sweets, causing mayhem and dispensing equal doses of wisdom and hilarity.

Simon Apfel is Creative Director at Bay Moon Communications.