Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

17 Elul 5765 - September 21, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Rav Cyril Harris zt"l

by D. Saks

Last week, South African Jews mourned the loss of their beloved Emeritus Chief Rabbi Cyril K Harris, who passed away after a year-long illness in the southern coastal town of Hermanus. He was a few days short of his 69th birthday. The levaya took place in Jerusalem on Thursday, following a memorial service at Johannesburg International Airport the previous day.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Rabbi Harris served as in South Africa as Chief Rabbi of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues for seventeen years until his retirement at the end of last year.

Before coming to South Africa from London, he had a distinguished career in the United Kingdom, where he was Rabbi of three of its largest synagogues: Kenton, Edgeware and St John's Wood.

South African Jewry is largely of Lithuanian origin and Rabbi Harris' success in integrating quickly and easily into his new community can be attributed at least in part to his own Lithuanian roots, his grandparents on both sides having immigrated to the United Kingdom in the first half of the last century. He was a direct descendant, on his mother's side, of the Vilna Gaon.

Energetic, charismatic and highly articulate, Rabbi Harris wholeheartedly embraced his adopted country. During his term of office, he devoted himself not only to religious and Jewish communal affairs, but also to working for the greater good of South African society. He became a national figure during the immediate post-apartheid years, when he was at the forefront of encouraging Jews to welcome the new multiracial democracy and actively participate in contributing to it. He later was a co-founder of MaAfrika Tikkun, a Jewish outreach organization that promotes social upliftment in the impoverished sections of the black community. His wife, Ann, subsequently also became prominently involved in the organization.

Commenting on Rabbi Harris' role during the transition years, a spokesman for the Union of Orthodox Synagogues said that he had been often labelled "the conscience of the Jewish community." The spokesman further said that he had guided South African Jewry "from the dark days of apartheid into a democratic order" and had left behind "an unparalleled legacy of spirituality, morality, justice and truth."

Rabbi Harris had a warm personal relationship with legendary South African political leader Nelson Mandela, who referred to him as "my Rabbi." He also impressed with his rousing addresses on behalf of the Jewish community on important state occasions, such as the inauguration of the first multi- racial parliament in 1994 and at the funeral of Minister of Housing Joe Slovo (a Lithuanian who contributed significantly to South Africa's democratic revolution).

Although it meant sacrificing much of his popularity with the media and government, however, he did not shrink from forthrightly speaking out on behalf of the State of Israel after the collapse of the Oslo peace process and consequent vilification of Israel that ensued throughout South African society.

Within the Jewish community, Rabbi Harris served on the Jewish Board of Deputies, the SA Zionist Federation, the Board of Jewish Education, the board of the SA Jewish Report, amongst others. He was also active on the National Religious Leaders' Forum, a collective religious voice aimed at addressing, in particular, human rights issues.

Towards the end of his life, Rabbi Harris received a number of prestigious honors from both the Jewish and the non- Jewish establishment. These included the Jerusalem Prize and the OBE (Officer of the British Empire), the latter being conferred on him at the beginning of this year By Queen Elizabeth II.

Rabbi Harris leaves his wife Ann, sons Rabbi Michael and Jonathan Harris, five grandchildren, a brother Victor, and two sisters, Leila and Marilyn.


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