Chief rabbi built bridges between faiths

South Africa’s chief rabbi emeritus Cyril Harris succumbed to cancer on Tuesday in Hermanus in the Western Cape, a Jewish Board of Deputies spokesperson said on Tuesday.

”His body will be taken to Jerusalem and buried either on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning,” Zev Krengel said on Tuesday night.

Krengel, the chairperson of the Gauteng Jewish Board of Deputies and vice-chairperson of the national board, said Harris had come to South Africa in the late 1980s from Glasgow, Scotland.

”He was selected by the South African Jewish community,” he said.

”He was the best man for the job, at the time.”

Krengel described Harris as ”an absolutely wonderful man”.

”He was a wonderful leader loved by all. He led the Jewish people during a very difficult transition in South Africa.”

Krengel said Harris was ”respected and admired across the board — by the religious and irreligious.”

”All South African Jews regarded him as their chief rabbi.”

Harris, who would have turned 69 on Monday, had recently retired after 17 years as chief rabbi.

”It is a sad ending,” Krengel said.

”He never really got to enjoy his retirement.”

Harris, who suffered from cancer of the oesophagus, was ”very close” to former president Nelson Mandela, Krengel said.

In a speech in November 1997 in Cape Town, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of his appointment as chief rabbi, Mandela described Harris ”one of the foremost amongst our new patriots”.

”He is a leader of a community which will always be an essential part of our nation,” Mandela said.

The chief rabbi’s role is high-profile and political, and the public face of South Africa’s 80 000 Jews.

In his speech Mandela added: ”In years to come when the history of our transition is written, his name will be amongst those South African leaders who lent a hand in the efforts to establish democracy; to heal divisions; and to start the process of building a better life.”

Mandela lauded the initiatives of Harris and his wife Ann.

”Together they have become symbols of Jewish involvement in the re-birth of our country.

”The chief rabbi’s dedication to building bridges between faiths, including his exceptional contribution in the field of religious broadcasting, has added impetus to forging a new South African identity which draws strength from its rich diversity,” Mandela said.

In July 1998, Harris was let in on the secret of Mandela’s marriage to Graca Machel.

The president made special arrangements for Harris and his wife to be present for a blessing the day before other religious leaders.

”Mandela accommodated my Jewish observance instead of expecting me to fall in with his plans,” Harris said at the time.

The incumbent chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein, was regarded as Harris’ apprentice.

Goldstein is the youngest and first South African — fourth generation — to become SA’s chief rabbi. His father is High Court Judge Ezra Goldstein. – Sapa

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