Ann Harris makes Aliyah

Ann in Mfuleni at an Afrika Tikkun Xmas party

By Mickey Glass

When I first met Ann Harris about 35 years ago, it was abundantly clear that she was not coming to South Africa merely to serve as a partner to Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, who had accepted an invitation from the Jewish community to serve as its Chief Rabbi.

It was apparent that she was very much her own person, that she was to make her own unique contribution, not only to our community, but to the ambient society as a whole. 

Ann possesses independence of thought and ability, and a willingness to confront issues of all kind. Over the years she has spent countless hours counselling and guiding people from all walks of life, from all faiths, and they continued to flock to her because of her experience and her empathy. 

Ann is extremely practical and realistic, and we all know that she tells it as it is. In his book For Heaven’s Sake, Chief Rabbi Harris told the story of how Ann took one look at his first salary cheque as a Rabbi, and immediately decided to re-enter the legal world, rising eventually to become a full partner in a prestigious London practice.  Suffice it to say, her relationship with her husband gave meaning to the Talmudic dictum, ‘Let a man be careful to honour his wife, for to her alone he owes the blessings of his house’.

Chief Rabbi Harris has been correctly described as the right person at the right time. Many of his achievements were the result of a partnership — Ann and Cyril Harris both had the capacity to see the whole picture; and we are fortunate that they were here to guide our anxious community to embrace and contribute tangibly to the birth of a new South Africa. South African Jewry owes much of its current confidence and vitality to their ministry. 

Whilst the Chief Rabbi and Bertie Lubner conceived Afrika Tikkun, it was Ann who fleshed out the vision. She served as the first Operations Director, in a purely voluntary capacity, and it was her personality, energy and passionate commitment to Jewish values that enabled her to lay the firm foundations on which an impressive and successful organisation has been built.

It is Ann who exemplifies the Jewish heart of Afrika Tikkun. She gives meaning to the generosity of spirit needed to cross divides, and demonstrates that God transcends the particularities of culture and the limits of human understanding. ‘He is my God but also the God of all mankind, even of those whose customs and way of life are totally unlike mine’. (Amos)

As long as there is hunger, poverty and disease in the world, there is work for us to do. And, if we listen carefully, we can hear the voice of God asking us, as he asked the first human, “Where are you?”

Ann is one who has answered that call. She knows that we do not —we cannot — redeem the world altogether in one go. She does it one day at a time, one person at a time, one act at a time. Our sages teach us that a single life is like a universe. Save a life and you save the world. Change a life and you begin to change the world. That is called Tikkun Olam and that is what Ann Harris personifies.

Following the passing of the Chief Rabbi, Ann initiated the establishment of the Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris Memorial Foundation. Over the past fifteen years, the Foundation has distributed considerable sums to worthy beneficiaries throughout the country.

Whilst she enjoyed the support of a dedicated and committed group of trustees, it was Ann who was the effective face of the Foundation, who interacted with every single beneficiary. As one recipient told me “it was not only the funding that was important, it was Ann’s personal embrace of the cause, accompanied by her understanding of the issues facing these organisations, which made the support of the Foundation so valuable.” 

The Foundation’s partnership with the Red Cross Children’s Hospital is one example which illustrates the far-reaching effects of the Foundation’s support. Children suffering from cancer come to the Red Cross from all over Africa and they, accompanied by a family member, have to spend weeks and weeks in Cape Town while undergoing treatment.

The Foundation made it possible for the hospital to bring doctors and nurses from rural Africa to Cape Town for workshops and seminars, teaching them how to cope with children requiring ongoing treatment.  Scores were trained, as a result of which children were able to return to their homes after a relatively short stay in the hospital, knowing that there were professionals available to continue their treatment in the comfort of their homes. This boosted the ability of the Paediatric Oncology Department to treat many more patients and to do so in a cost-effective manner. 

Another example of the Foundation’s work is exposing our congregational Rabbis to leading overseas experts via seminars and workshops, learning the best and latest international practice in relating to their communities.  

On closing, the Foundation presented many educational structures — both Jewish and non-Jewish — with funds to enable them to continue training programmes, upgrade organisational structures and improve communications.

Many in our community have the z’chut to enjoy her friendship and confidences. We are grateful for her unstinting friendship, loyalty and support at all times. She remains a generous and caring friend whose all-embracing vision, inspiration, wisdom and guidance will be
sorely missed.  

Many successful people live in this world. How many can honestly answer the question, ‘You have been a success, but have you also been a blessing?’ Ann Harris certainly has been, and continues to be. We pray that she will enjoy her well-deserved retirement in Israel for many years to come.

Mickey Glass is former Executive Director of UOS (Union of Orthodox Synagogues), close friend and confidant of Chief Rabbi and Mrs Harris since their arrival in SA, and Trustee of the Chief Rabbi C.K. Harris Memorial Foundation from establishment to closure.

• Published in the PDF edition of the June 2022 issue – Click here to read it.

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