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Farewell to Ann Harris, ‘the mother of South African Jewry

Community leader Marlene Bethlehem usually spoke to her dear friend, Ann Harris, before Shabbat every week. So, when she didn’t hear from her this past Friday or after Shabbos, she was worried.

“I wrote to her asking if she was alright, and then heard she had died. It’s a huge shock. She was fine and even went on a trip to Eilat recently.”

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft says that Ann, the wife of the late Chief Rabbi of South Africa, Cyril Harris, began to feel unwell on Friday, and was admitted to hospital in Israel where she had made aliya in May 2022. “At first, doctors said they had stabilised her, but then she passed away suddenly, at the age of 85.” He’s grateful she didn’t suffer, and knows that she wanted a private funeral with minimal fuss, which was conducted on Sunday, 12 March, in Jerusalem. She was laid to rest beside her beloved husband.

“It was her ultimate dream to be in Israel,” says Silberhaft. He feels her passing is the end of an era, which began when the Harris couple came to South Africa in the late 1980s. “I always say he was the right man for the right time, and she was the right partner for the right man at the right time.” Ann played a crucial part in leading the community through the transition to a democratic South Africa.

“She sacrificed a lot to be with us,” says Silberhaft, noting that she left her thriving law practice in England to join Rabbi Harris on what became their calling. “She and the chief rabbi rolled up their sleeves and actively got involved. They knew there was a lot of uncertainty, but they chose to become part of the solution.”

He says Ann symbolised “hands on” leadership. When she was with children at Afrika Tikkun, she was changing nappies and rocking them to sleep. When she was at shul, she was chopping food and laying out platters for the brocha. Whether she was meeting world leaders or Jews from all backgrounds, she would speak to them as an equal. “The greatest thing she taught me was how to engage with people.”

“Ann wasn’t a rebbetzin, she was the wife and partner of a rabbi,” says Howard Sackstein. “When she came here, she trained a generation of law students at the Wits Campus Law Clinic, giving them skills to become the best lawyers in the country.”

She also served on the South African Law Commission’s Committee on Jewish Divorce, which was led by her late husband. It led to the Divorce [Amendment] Act of 1996, which allows South African courts to prevent a Jewish husband from obtaining a secular divorce without giving a gett. “South Africa was the first country to get this law, thanks to Ann’s role, and so far, Canada is the only other country to have it,” says Bethlehem.

Sackstein says a moment which defined Ann was when she boldly went to Lusaka to meet the African National Congress in exile in 1989 as a representative of the Jewish community. It was a controversial move, but she had the foresight to realise its importance.

That meeting in Lusaka was the first of one of many throughout southern Africa and beyond in her role at the African Jewish Congress (AJC). Namibia, Mauritius, Botswana, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, and Kenya were just some of the countries where she had an impact on Jewish lives.

One example was when “Ann found the time to restore a Sefer Torah to the Maputo synagogue, and for her and Rabbi Cyril Harris to bring it to Maputo personally, with all the ceremony, and joy that a hachnasat [welcoming] Sefer Torah entails,” says Sam Levy, the president of the AJC, who lives in Maputo. “To Ann, there was no periphery.”

She represented the AJC at high-level international events, and was passionate about country communities. “When the country communities department of the SAJBD [South African Jewish Board of Deputies] was disbanded, Ann was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Small Jewish Communities Association of South Africa [SJCA], which stepped into the breach,” says SJCA chairperson Barney Horwitz. “Ann was the mother of the South African Jewish community, and losing a mother is always painful.”

She was indeed a matriarch to many, but first and foremost, a beloved mother to her sons. At her funeral, her son, Rabbi Michael Harris, said her passing was “a bitter and sudden loss” to him and his brother, Jon. “We will try to live as you showed us how to do,” he said.

Sackstein notes the close relationship that Nelson Mandela had with both Cyril and Ann, and that Madiba and Ann had a special bond.

She was the “fiery instigator that motivated my father, the late Bertie Lubner, and the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, to form MaAfrika Tikkun [now Afrika Tikkun], a community response to the hardships caused by apartheid,” says Marc Lubner, Afrika Tikkun chief executive.

“Ann loved people,” says Lubner. “However, she wouldn’t tolerate corruption and in particular was enraged when she saw acts of human unkindness. She and her values will always be part of the guiding principles underlying all we do in Afrika Tikkun.”

Silberhaft remembers how Ann stoically endured the tragedy of losing her husband so young to cancer, and that she almost single-handedly cared for him during those months. She moved to Hermanus, where they had planned to retire, becoming a driving force in that Jewish community.

Ann eventually returned to Cape Town, where she threw herself into community life, addressing audiences and attending events, including Limmud, which she loved. In 2020, she was elected to join the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies, receiving the most votes on the public ballot.

Silberhaft says that Ann was “fearless” and always spoke her mind, whether she was addressing the pope, an African head of state, or a rabbi. She was known for her sense of humour, oratory, skills, and love of the Premier League.

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein said Ann was “an icon, serving the community with great distinction and bravery alongside her husband”.

“I wondered why she didn’t go to London to be closer to her sons, but I think she chose to go to Israel because she wanted to one day be reunited with her husband,” says Bethlehem. “Now, she’s with him at last, on a hill overlooking Jerusalem. They will both always be part of our South African Jewish community.”