When Reeva Forman telephoned me on Benny's behalf I had no hesitation - though perhaps I should have, for this week's Torah portion - Tazria-Metzora - is not exactly the most exciting! Leprosy and bodily emissions are not really things to talk of in public, are they!
And yet I almost hear my first mentor here at Temple Israel, Rabbi Arthur Super of blessed memory, almost forcing me to make something of the text and not to hide from it by choosing an easier theme from the Haftarah. mind you, the Haftarah we did read, the well-known tale of the soldier Naaman who on being healed became a devotee of the one God could be a very good lead-in for us, for in many ways the devotion of Benny and indeed may to our movement and to Temple Israel in particular came from an open-hearted response to the overtures of an Elisha-type figure, Rabbi Weiler himself.
I cannot of course speak personally of the 1940s and early 1950s - before I was born and before I became aware. However, from the late 1950s onwards there is much that even I can reflect upon and in which Benny clearly played a major hand. In those days the United Progressive Jewish Congregation of Johannesburg or UPJC consisted of temples Israel, Shalom and Emanuel, and Benny ran the show.
As a teenager I was to watch him midweek directing matters out of his office - with May and the trusty and lamented Sylvia Segal as his backup. From what I could gather his main aim was garnering money to keep it all going - and there was much to keep going as, looking back, it probably was the heyday of our movement, with two more synagogues - Temples Sinai and David on the horizon, the Sisterhoods, the Religion Schools each with up to 200 pupils in attendance.
Indeed, youth has always been much to the fore in Benny's life. One of the originators of the Alan Isaacs Camp - our three week romp in July near Margate on the South Coast - he it was who saw early on that that was not enough, great as it was, as I and others here can testify. He dreamed up Mateh Sinai - a sort of Jewish scouts, which eventually became the Junior Alan Isaacs, later still Maginim, the forerunner of Netzer. And at AIC, he and his lieutenants like Izzy Wainer and much later Alan Morris continued the tradition, including at the camp indigents or youngsters who would not ordinarily have had such a holiday, thus making the motto of the camp from Proverbs - "the rich and poor meet together, the lord is the Maker of them all..." a living reality.
Benny, as a true South African, loves his sport and sport was somehow incorporated into his work: The Montagu Country Club, named for Lily Montagu, Director of our World Union who had initially sent Rabbi Weiler out here, became our movement's sporting venue.
It was however short-lived as an exclusive Progressive venue as others became majority shareholders. Indeed, Benny's warning to us youngsters who were creating the youth movements in the 1960s still rings in my ears today: Welcome others to be sure but do not allow the intended character or ideal of what you are planning to be throttled.
Benny's role from administrator to something more was also something I both witnessed and experienced in the 1960s. Following Rabbi Weiler's aliya several Rabbis came and went. There was suddenly a shortage and into the breach stepped Benny, conducting services, marriages and the like and it is of course in this role that he is being recognised by the current membership of Temple Israel.
But Benny was firstly a teacher, trained and experienced. And it was in this role that I first really got to know him - as leader of our post Bar/Bat Mitzvah classes here at Temple Israel. he would bring to the so-called Discussion Class visitors, lecturers or simply himself, instilling in us teenagers a sense of who we were. He would visit schools - indeed, I recall his coming to my school and addressing the Student Jewish Association on the Sinai Campaign and on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
And he probably had much to do with my becoming a public speaker through the annual oratorical contest held at the Discussion Class. It had to be on a Jewish topic and if we didn't have one in our heads he would provide one - with hilarious results: One pupil given the topic "Hakoach" launched into the virtues of one Rabbi Hakoach - before being told that "hakoach" was the name of a pre-war Jewish football team in Vienna!
Mind you, I too spoke about Rabbi Lubeck - before realising he was Leo Baeck, famed Rabbi and a name that was eventually to feature much in my life. Actually I have to thank Benny myself - for the year I won that contest I received a copy of a book written by Edgar Bernstein who was himself a key lay reader here and much more besides: Called "My Judaism My Jews" I read it and reread it again and it certainly played a part in my religious upbringing.
In our portion today a phrase appears twice near the end of the passage we read: MAYIM CHAYIM - literally "living waters". It refers there to the cleansing of the contaminated houses, but MAYIM CHAYIM has also been linked to the waters of learning, the teaching of Torah.
Benny, you and May have been the embodiments of living waters, be it in your teaching, in your leadership of this movement in the past and even in the present. May you enjoy this special birthday weekend, not only in the company of your immediate family but amongst us all. And as I bless you may you know that in addition to those gathered here today are countless others who, knowingly or not, thank you for having touched their lives.