Rabbi Cyril Harris

Author: By John Cooper

As Chief Rabbi of South Africa from 1987 until 2004, Cyril Harris transformed the attitude of the bulk of the Jewish community away from their sometimes passive acceptance of apartheid into a growing awareness of its evil. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, the two men struck up a strong and warm friendship. Mandela fondly referred to Harris as “my rabbi”.

Harris was born in Glasgow, where his father owned a small business and also acted as chairman of the local Orthodox synagogue. A bright pupil at school, he decided to enrol at Jews’ College, part of London University, to train for the Anglo-Jewish ministry. Here, in choice of a career, he followed his grandfather, who was a rabbi. Impressed with the academic ability of Harris, Rabbi Dr Isidore Epstein, the Principal of Jews’ College, made him take the Semitics degree course in two years, instead of the usual three. Once he secured a position as an assistant minister, Harris started studying part-time for his rabbinic ordination.

At the age of 22 he became minister of a new suburban synagogue in Kenton in London. Under his charge, Kenton grew from a congregation of less than 100 to one numbering 1,200. A handsome man, Harris had a charismatic personality and his powerful oratorical skills were enhanced by the delivery of his sermons in a beautiful Scottish lilt and his constant pacing backwards and forwards around the pulpit. His reading of the poem of Nelly Sachs’s “O the Chimneys” one Sabbath in the week in which she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature was memorable to the congregants. Innovative, he introduced an annual confirmation or batmitzvah service for girls. He denounced snobbery, called for more social harmony in the Jewish community and advocated the setting up of a central fund, a “communal chest”, based on the American model.

From 1966 until 1971, Harris served as Senior Jewish Chaplain to HM Forces. A year later he became director of the Hillel Foundation, an umbrella organisation based in London that catered for the needs of Jewish students. He stayed as director for three years and helped to set up branches in some of the provincial university towns.

He returned to congregational work first as minister of the Edgware Synagogue from 1975 until 1978 and then as rabbi of the St John’s Wood Synagogue, one of the premier Anglo-Jewish congregations. His induction sermon at St John’s Wood reiterated his credo that “Tranquillity must not be obtained at the expense of valued principles”; and he was soon criticising the Reform and Liberal Jewish movements from the pulpit. This earned him a rebuke from Stanley Kalms, the Chairman of Jews’ College, who spoke out against “ranting sermons”.

When he felt that his deeply held beliefs were being challenged, Harris could quickly grow incandescent. On one occasion, he clashed on the radio with the well-known broadcaster and Reform rabbi Hugo Gryn. He claimed that Gryn lacked Jewish knowledge and that most of his non- Orthodox colleagues did not know “an aleph from a swastika”. This acrimonious exchange in public drew disapproving comment.

In 1987 he was appointed Chief Rabbi of South Africa. Three years later the position of Britain’s Chief Rabbi fell vacant. Despite the rumoured support of the previous holder of the post, Lord Jacobovits, and Harris’s great pastoral experience, the opening was filled by Dr Jonathan Sacks, who possessed formidable academic credentials.

Making his inaugural address in Johannesburg’s Great Synagogue, Harris demanded that Jews should join the anti-apartheid struggle, causing criticism by some for his outspokenness. This fresh approach, however, drew the younger members of the community, who had come to demonstrate against him, to his side. With the help of his wife Ann, a practising lawyer, who was soon involved in legal aid projects for the black population, Harris cultivated white liberals such as Helen Suzman; and he also made contact with Jewish members of the African National Congress, who were Marxists and mainly secular Jews. Through this work, he met Nelson Mandela.

Mandela paid a visit to a Cape Town synagogue after his election victory in 1994. A few days later, Harris was delivering a prayer at Mandela’s induction as President of South Africa in the Soweto stadium; and he also called on President Mandela on the eve of his wedding to Graca Machel.

In his first year of office, Harris travelled 30,000 miles over the whole of South Africa and beyond, including Namibia and Zimbabwe, delivering 400 sermons denouncing racial inequalities as incompatible with Jewish ethics.

A year later he founded an organisation called Tikun, the Hebrew for repair, for healing the breach between the white and black communities. Dentists were recruited to set up dental clinics. Ann Harris established legal aid centres in black townships. A soup kitchen was opened, but also literacy classes were organised as well as other classes in needlework and carpentry. Jewish housewives were asked to buy an extra tin of food, when they shopped in supermarkets, and to leave them at collection points in synagogues for the black poor.

In 2003 Cyril Harris was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for services to the Jewish people. The international jurist Richard Goldstone called him “the conscience of the Jewish community”. Nelson Mandela referred to him as an “exceptional person” in a remarkable tribute:

In our memory he shall live on as a great South African patriot. In that difficult challenge of our transition and early democracy to pull and keep our country together he played a central role that will be remembered in our history.

Harris married Ann Boyars in 1958, and they had two sons; Michael is the rabbi of the Hampstead Synagogue, Jon is a theatrical producer.

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