HE was the hardest of taskmasters, the severest of critics! Half a lifetime of religious leadership, communal, interfaith, welfare and educational work had instilled in Rabbi Cyril Harris the positive belief that if you worked for any community, in whatever capacity, making you responsible for the care and development of others, you had to strive to produce the best service possible - and to make sure that you took the opportunity to train, train, and train again so that up-to-date theories and skills would automatically become part of your effort.
"... his [Rabbi Harris] practical teachings of the principles of Jewish ethics, what he called “The Jewish Obligation to the Non-Jew”, are probably even more relevant in a Covid challenged world than they were twenty years ago."
The difficulty, particularly at the end of the twentieth century in South Africa, was that most service organisations were weighed down by huge increases of work and equally large budget restraints which restricted their ability to update and maintain their staff training. Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris began his campaign with training projects in the Jewish Community which he led. But as the new South Africa became an open book, his vision of well-trained staff grew to encompass the work of the many NGOs in the wider South African community who were taking on the work of righting the social wrongs of the past.
The Jewish community had not ignored the disadvantages of their fellow citizens during earlier years, but there was a scarcity of Jewish-led and created initiatives to assist in every sphere of endeavour. Several years elapsed before the Jewish community more readily began to assist in the support of organisations devoted to the welfare of the majority of the population.
Rabbi Harris was well known for attending the board meetings of many organisations and putting across his ideas and suggestions in the most forceful way. Those of us who remember the early meetings of his beloved Afrika Tikkun, recall his determination never to take “no” for an answer.
He began his campaign in the Johannesburg Jewish community’s welfare and educational organisations. One of the first was the training of the social workers of the Chevra Kadisha in marriage guidance skills. Gradually he encouraged community organisations to share their ideas with organisations outside the community. An early opportunity was the twinning of the Selwyn Segal Hostel with a similar, but less well-developed, centre for the disabled in neighbouring Alexandra. He also developed plans for training Rabbanim in practical pastoral skills, courses which still continue today.
When Rabbi Harris Z”L passed away after a year’s illness in 2005, several suggestions were made as to how to honour his memory, but his family and friends did not consider any of them as appropriate. Eventually, a small group of friends formulated the idea of a Foundation (The Chief Rabbi CK Harris Memorial Foundation) which would assist in developing the staff training programmes about which he was so enthusiastic. It was not a well-known concept but would encompass his many opinions and interests. The group of trustees appointed had worked with him in many different types of communal service. It was easy to decide which areas of service should be adopted as the Foundation’s main objectives – they were so obvious to all!
The assistance to the SA Rabbinic Association in the furthering of practical and pastoral skills reaped great rewards. Seminars were arranged in homiletics, voice production, organisation of materials and time management. Practical psychology, youth management, marriage guidance, bereavement counselling and substance abuse were included. But perhaps the most valuable result was the time allowed for the country’s Rabbanim to exchange and debate problems in a safe space. One of the results was the understanding that Rabbanim and their lay leaders needed to be able to communicate with one another. Some of the stories related at one session on this topic were moving to the point of tears.
"The current climate encourages the remaining South African Jewish community not to enclose itself in a ghetto – an attitude which Rabbi Harris would have been quick to condemn."
The second sector involved the assistance of the training of medical personnel in the field of Paediatric Oncology. It was one of Rabbi Harris’ great interests, born of seeing very sick children when he himself was hospitalised. The Foundation was able to partner with the oncology department of the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town which was pioneering a “shared care” programme. Medical staff from hospitals in the Western and Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal were trained at Red Cross over a number of years to treat children near their homes so that they were not separated from their families for long periods. One young doctor shaved his head so that his little patients would see that he looked like them.
The Foundation was established in 2007 to continue the work of Rabbi Harris Z"L.
The training for staff of Jewish community organisations provided a huge range from Ph.D. support to every level and type of care work. The chair of one of the Cape Town welfare organisations said that not only were skills perfected but the team spirit of the staff was raised to an all-time high. One day, a member of staff choked on his lunch and was saved from serious consequences by the prompt action of a colleague in the kitchen who had learned the necessary technique at his training course. The Foundation was also able to contribute to training for adult Jewish education and to specialist training for Shoah education. In the development field, the Foundation created a body of organisations for staff training in various disciplines. Community development for rural communities including training of school principals and governors and support for literacy teaching; teacher training for special schools; nursery nurses for a home for abandoned babies; social workers, ECD managers and adult education trainers for a variety of recipients. But time marches on and so did the ages of the founder trustees who had shouldered the burden of all the administration. Although there was a loyal group of regular supporters and friends, fund-raising became difficult. So, at the end of 2019, the trustees took the decision to wind down. The remaining funds were allotted to a wide variety of regular beneficiaries and the mechanics of shutting up shop were undertaken. It turned out to be a timely and wise decision, especially considering the Covid pandemic and its impact on all aspects of charitable giving. It became increasingly obvious that the entire philosophy of philanthropy, particularly in our own community, was undergoing a fundamental change. Staff training is well down the priority list in the wake of the need for food, shelter, medical assistance and employment opportunity.
Will anybody notice that the Foundation is gone? Will it matter? Will those under fifty remember the work of the late Chief Rabbi and his efforts to propel the Jewish Community into the new democracy? Perhaps not. But his practical teachings of the principles of Jewish ethics, what he called “The Jewish Obligation to the Non-Jew”, are probably even more relevant in a Covid challenged world than they were twenty years ago. In the 2019 Jewish Community Survey of South Africa (JCSSA) survey, nearly 75% of participants had quite a strong sense of belonging to South Africa but there was a marked sense of detachment among the younger members of the community. The current climate encourages the remaining South African Jewish community not to enclose itself in a ghetto – an attitude which Rabbi Harris would have been quick to condemn. Our community still needs to extend what the late revered Nelson Mandela called “the white hand of friendship.” While we reflect on what each of us can afford, both in kind and in attitude, for all kinds of charitable endeavours, we should consider offering a little to our communal organisations ear-marked for staff training and a little more for the development of staff in the many bodies outside our community, so that they can continue their vital work in assisting those for whom they care.
Ann Harris is British-born. She practised as a London lawyer for many years before coming to South Africa with her late husband, Rabbi Cyril Harris, in 1987. She then joined the team of the Campus Law Clinic at Wits University for ten years. She is a founder director of Africa Tikkun and Chair of the Chief Rabbi CK Harris memorial Foundation. She is President of the African Jewish Congress and a Vice-Chair of the Small Jewish Communities Association of SA.