Every single Jew living in South Africa today, owes a debt of gratitude to a particularly great man, a towering figure of the Jewish landscape in South African history. This man is Chief Rabbi Cyril K. Harris of blessed memory, and today, 9 Elul, was his ninth Yahrzeit (anniversary of his death).
As a young child, I remember having a chat with some friends on the school bus one day. We were speaking about the Chief Rabbi and what made him so great. Some argued that he may not have been the cleverest of all the rabbis but he was certainly the boss of all the rabbis. Others claimed that he knew the most Torah and that’s why he was called ‘The Chief Rabbi’. Still others recognised him for his ubiquity across the country; as one of the hallmarks of his tenure as Chief Rabbi was to travel to a different Synagogue on almost every single Shabbat of the year. I remember feeling no difference in my Judaism when I travelled to another part of the country. One Shabbat we happened to be in Sydenham and the next Shabbat, in Muizenberg. It was all the same to us.
Through his guidance of this community, urban shtetls and country communities were treated one and the same. That was an incredible feat to achieve in those days and even more so by today’s standards – as polarisation runs rampant and dissension threatens the very fabric of our communal unity. For all the flaws and inadequacies of his method and style, Chief Rabbi Cyril K. Harris kept this community together in a way that no one else could.
Looking back at the legacy he created, gives us insight into how to create true unity among the diversity of this Jewish Community – and in fact among Jews across the globe. One of his primary functions as Chief Rabbi in this community, was putting out fires. He stood somewhere central, among the many diverse worlds within the Jewish socio-political and religious spectrum. From all sides he was pressured and cajoled – from the left to the right, from Reform to Ultra-Orthodox – to hear them out and side with them on a range of issues. Yet somehow, in the midst of this maelstrom, he managed to gain the reverence and respect of them all. He never let issues get out of hand to the point of destructive speech and behaviour. His damage control was impeccable and his management of human conflict was admirable.
His fiery passion and very direct approach did not stop him from caring deeply for all those with whom he came into contact. He carried the burden of this entire community, wholeheartedly. From George to Glenhazel, Bloemfontein to Brakpan, he traversed the length and breadth of this country; uniting communities with a simple but distinct call to the humble ideas of Judaism.
His leadership approach was one of sensitivity and caring; common decency and respect; and commitment to the communal cause. His presence was held in high esteem and his work ethic spoke loudest of all. For seventeen painstaking and controversial years, he navigated the Jewish Community of South Africa through tumultuous times into peaceful times. For the man he was and the choices he made, we owe him that recognition of good, that hakarat hatov.
Y’hi zichro baruch – may his remembrance be blessed.