Anti-apartheid rabbi is retiring after 35 years as an activist

JOHANNESBURG — The retirement of an American-born Lubavitch rabbi known for his anti-apartheid activism marks the end of an era for Johannesburg's Jewish community.

Norman Bernhard, 66, who has led the Oxford Synagogue Center for 35 years since he arrived here in 1965, is coinciding his retirement with Rosh Hashanah.

After a five-year stint as a congregational rabbi in Wichita, Kan., and a spell as the founding director of the N.Y.-based Metropolitan Council of Orthodox Synagogues, the New York-born Bernhard moved to South Africa. He did so in lieu of making his long dreamed-of aliyah — at the request of the late Lubavitch rebbe, Menachem Schneerson.

Bernhard shocked the laid-back and fearful South African Jewish community by establishing one of the first Jewish elementary schools in sub-Saharan Africa on the premises of his synagogue, expanding his shul into a U.S.-style community center. Furthermore, his outspoken sermons on the evils of apartheid, including attacks on the South African Jewish Board of Deputies for its silence on the issue initially caused a stir.

"Young Jews had to know that Judaism had a 'social gospel' of its own — rooted in genuine Torah," he said.

Bernhard helped arrange the first meeting in the early 1980s of Jews for Social Justice in his synagogue, and he founded a center that works to aid underprivileged blacks, which still thrives today under the chairmanship of Ann Harris, wife of South African Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.

Bernhard believes that the two institutions are "things that saved the honor of South African Jewry. Because no matter how liberal people may have felt in the good old Jewish tradition, no matter how many Jews may have been involved in the activities of the liberation struggle — those were individuals. But, as a community," Jews were "shamefully quiet."

According to Bernhard, the security police visited him, and he was repeatedly ordered out of the country.

"There was one period of three-and-half years of having a Damoclean sword of deportation hanging over our heads," he says.

He credits his synagogue's committee for standing by him during those turbulent times.

In addition to his rabbinical work, he served the Jewish community in several capacities, including his work on the executive committee of the South African Zionist Federation and as one of the founders of Nechama, a bereavement counseling organization.

But he has "no feelings of negativity" on his retirement as a congregational rabbi.

"I was guilt-tripped into becoming and staying a rabbi in the first place because I was one of the few young Jews in my area who had a Jewish education," he said.

Even though South Africa's Jewish community has declined to about 90,000, according to 1998 estimates, because of the high incidence of crime and other problems besetting the newly democratic country, Bernhard and his wife, Joan, are committed to remain.