Originally from New York, Rabbi Chaim Willis grew up in a typically left-wing liberal Jewish home. After earning his bachelor’s degree, in Chinese Studies, Rabbi Willis began his journey that would eventually lead him to Jerusalem. His journey took him through Afghanistan, Vietnam and Cambodia amongst other places. He would discover the culture of each country he visited, that is until he ran out of money. He would then fly home to work as a cab driver until he had earned enough cash for the next adventure.
But it was in Jerusalem at the Aish Hatorah Yeshiva that Rabbi Willis found the answers to his questions. He studied there for four years under the guidance of Rabbi Noach Weinberg, of blessed memory. It was in Israel that he met his wife, Shelley, from St. Louis, Missoruri. The Willis family made the trek to Rebbetzin Willis’s hometown, where they founded the very first Aish branch outside of Israel. They later returned to Israel, where they remained for about 15 years. In 1994, Rabbi Willis visited Johannesburg from Jerusalem to begin the famous “Fellowships” program in South Africa. After two years of successful programs, an Aish branch was founded in Johannesburg. In 1998, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Willis moved to South Africa to expand the program.
Rabbi Willis is now the Executive Director of Aish South Africa. The Willis family lives down the road from the Aish shul in Sandringham, where their ten children (some of whom live around the globe) frequently visit. Rebbetzin Shelley Willis runs the South African Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (a mission to Israel that reconnects young mothers to Israel) and teaches students of all ages. She is also famous in the Aish community for her delicious whole-wheat challah. If you haven’t tried it yet-you’re in for a treat!