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Ann Harris makes aliya but remains connected to SA

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It’s always a celebration when someone makes aliya, but the South African Jewish community, the country, and sub-Saharan Africa will miss the irreplaceable presence of Ann Harris, who went to live in Israel at the beginning of May.

It’s been 35 years since she and her husband, the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, landed in South Africa, changing the face of South African Jewry forever. Members of the community across the spectrum laud Harris’ efforts to improve the community and wider society throughout those 35 years. She leaves a vast and unforgettable legacy on this southern tip of Africa, but will continue to share her expertise from Israel. No doubt, she will also contribute to the Jewish state.

“When one member of a couple excels, the other often lives in their shadow. That has never been the case with Ann,” says Cape Town Jewish community leader Philip Krawitz. “Ann is an exceptional person in her own right, excelling in many fields.”

“I met Ann and the late Rabbi Harris in the first week they arrived in South Africa,” says close friend Marlene Bethlehem. “It was at the beginning of my career in the South African Jewish Board of Deputies [SAJBD], and they supported me enormously.” Harris would eventually take up her own role at the Cape SAJBD, receiving the most votes on the public ballot in 2020.

“When Chief Rabbi Harris was invited to come to South Africa, he had to talk to Ann. She was a barrister and solicitor with a thriving practice in London. Their decision to come here with their two sons was the best thing that ever happened, especially for the time we were welcoming the new South Africa. Ann was a very important part of it all,” says Bethlehem.

Though she gave up her practice, she didn’t give up her career or her contribution to jurisprudence. “She continued to be active in the civil-rights field,” says Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, who works closely with her at the African Jewish Congress (AJC). “As a lawyer, she involved herself extensively in women’s rights, including serving on the South African Law Commission’s Committee on Jewish Divorce which was led by her late husband, and which led to the passage of the Divorce [Amendment] Act of 1996. [The Act allows South African courts to prevent a Jewish husband from obtaining a secular divorce without also providing a woman with a religious divorce.] For many years, she was extensively involved in the Wits Campus Law Clinic, including serving as chairperson of its governing committee and as acting director from 1993 to 1996.”

“Ann is a highly respected lawyer and lecturer, locally and internationally,” says Krawitz. “As a humanitarian, she has established an enviable reputation for her vision, passion, and commitment. Ann is never afraid to speak truth to power. At the SAJBD, she has been a moral bastion, always standing up against injustice. She has also been an important voice as a board member of the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre. Her boundless energy is an inspiration to all. She’s not just a talker, but a doer.”

Bethlehem says Harris has many passions and hobbies including swimming and following the Premier League. They both have family in Manchester and discuss the Manchester United and Manchester City soccer scores weekly.

Harris left South Africa on Sunday, 8 May, Mother’s Day. This is particularly symbolic as she’s a mother figure not only to her own children and grandchildren, but to thousands of disadvantaged children across South Africa. She was the driving force behind the founding and vision of Afrika Tikkun (formerly Ma’Afrika Tikkun). The organisation is dedicated to investing in education, health, and social services for children, youth, and their families.

“Ann Harris, her husband, and my father, Bertie Lubner, were the founders of Afrika Tikkun. Ann remained on the board for many years after her husband’s passing, giving guidance on child care and ensuring the practise of Jewish values in the way we operated,” says Afrika Tikkun Chief Executive Marc Lubner.

“She retired from the board about eight years ago, but remained involved as a friend to the organisation, often bringing Jewish organisations to visit our sites and ensuring ongoing positive public relations for the organisation. I anticipate that she will continue to do this regardless of where in the world she lives.

“We wish her safe travels. She will always have a home in the heart of Afrika Tikkun. She will forever be etched in the memories of all of us who were ‘tutored’ by her in the art of service to others.”

Her impact reached beyond our borders into the entire southern African region. In paying tribute to her recently, Silberhaft said, “Lawyer, academic, social-justice activist, Jewish communal leader, human-rights advocate – these are just some of the areas in which Ann Harris has made her mark over the years, both in her native United Kingdom and in South Africa, the country that she made her own.

“Her influence hasn’t been confined to these two countries. Over the years, she has increasingly involved herself in Jewish communities from Namibia in the west to Mauritius in the east, from Botswana, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique on South Africa’s borders, to Zambia and Kenya in the north.

“Her involvement in African Jewish affairs has largely revolved around her long association with the AJC. Established in 1994 shortly after South Africa’s transition, the AJC is a forum through which Jewish communities of sub-Saharan Africa can maintain Jewish life in their regions. Ann has represented the AJC at a range of high-level international conferences and events, first as a member of the AJC executive, then as a vice-president, and then as president since 2014.

“Ann has stepped down from her role as president of the AJC,” Silberhaft says. “Sam Levy of Mozambique has been elected as the new president, and Ann will remain vice-president. She will remain involved and is committed to continuing her role. She is a force to be reckoned with, and makes her presence felt wherever she goes.”

Silberhaft has known her since she arrived in South Africa and would often travel alongside her and her husband to country towns and small southern African communities in his role as the SAJBD’s country communities’ rabbi. “She has a deep understanding of the challenges in southern African communities,” he says. She’s also passionate about country communities and was a resident of Hermanus in the Cape for many years.

Says Krawitz, “Ann is a world-class orator and her talks about the relationship between her late husband and the late President Nelson Mandela are legendary. Ann is realising the dream to live in her beloved state of Israel, but she will be greatly missed by all of us in South Africa who had the privilege of working with her.”

While she wasn’t born here, “Ann’s approach to social upliftment combines idealism with a practical vision, infused and energised by the Jewish historical experience in South Africa,” says Silberhaft. Wherever she is in the world, she will continue to be part of the South African Jewish community’s story.

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