Rabbi who spoke out for SA justice and Jewish values

  • Rabbi Nachman Bernhard HOME
South Africa’s beloved and popular rabbi, speaker, educationist, raconteur, anti-apartheid activist and counsellor, Rabbi Norman (Nachman) Meir Bernhard (zt”l), passed away on Wednesday evening, October 1 at the age of 81.
by SUZANNE BELLING | Oct 02, 2014

At the time of his passing he was Rabbi Emeritus of the Oxford Synagogue-Centre, where he served as rabbi for 35 years.

The founder of the first religious Jewish day school in Southern Africa – now Torah Academy, on whose education committee he served till the time of his passing, Rabbi Bernhard was known for the bold strides he took during, in his own words, “the dark, dark days of the pernicious apartheid regime”.

He founded the Oxford Synagogue Social Action Centre – later known as the Oxford Synagogue Skills for Adults Centre (OSSAC) which empowered during apartheid - and still empowers - the disadvantaged with courses on living and earning skills, as well as legal and medical advice.

Before the new dispensation in South Africa he said: “I warned our community that revolutionaries have long memories, so we must do things that are publicly Jewish to encourage change and to do something real for upliftment.”

In the early 1980s he was one of the founders of Jews for Social Justice.

Rabbi Bernhard was known to have said that JSJ and OSSAC had been “two things that saved the honour of South African Jewry”.

His original choice of career had been classical and Jewish folk music. He said he was “guilt-tripped into becoming a rabbi”.

Born in New York in 1933, he attended Yeshiva University, City College, Columbia, and NYU. A prominent rabbi told him he was one of the few at that time who had received a good Jewish education and should devote himself to the Jewish community and Yiddishkeit.  He also convinced the young man that the rabbinate probably gave an outlet for the greatest number of talents, abilities and interests.

After obtaining smicha in 1958, Rabbi Bernhard considered the US Army Chaplaincy, but with his wife, Joan, expecting their first child, he settled on a warm, active congregation in Wichita, Kansas. 

“In 1963 we seemed on our way to fulfil a long-standing dream of making aliyah, but Hashem had other plans,” he told me in a recent interview. Later, Rabbi Bernhard became director of the new Metropolitan Council of Orthodox Synagogues in New York. He then moved into education, teaching in a yeshiva high school.

South Africa, as a destination, was suggested to him by several rabbis. He could not make up his mind until he managed to obtain an appointment with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, OBM.

That meeting in 1964 was the first of many lengthy private meetings with the Rebbe, who said Rabbi Bernhard had to use his abilities as a rabbi and communal leader.

Shortly after arriving in this country he gave his first anti-apartheid sermon, which was enthusiastically received. Then,  having heard that Helen Suzman would not be re-elected in March ’66 lest it finger the Jewish community as anti-government, he told his congregants that one of the last vestiges of democracy in SA was that they were allowed to vote once every five years. “Therefore, vote they must - but out of conscience, not out of fear,” he said.

His efforts resulted in two visits: one from Suzman, and one from a member of the Security Police, who said: “You’re a very political man, Rabbi”.  He replied that he had to be because people were looking for religious guidance on how to relate to contemporary issues. He was ordered to leave the country several times, but, somehow, it never materialised.            

Rabbi Bernhard was actively involved in a wide range of Jewish affairs and institutions, such as the Rabbinical Association, Beth Din, Lubavitch Foundation, Torah Academy, Yeshiva College, Board of Jewish Education, King David Schools, Encounter, Keiruv, Nechama, Board of Deputies, Zionist Federation executive, IUA-UCF, marriage preparation, adult education, talks to students, advising colleagues, counselling and mediation and media interviews.

He always paid tribute to his wife, Joan, stating that little could have been accomplished without her co-operation, partnership, home and family management, hospitality and counselling skills.

He is survived by Joan, children, Lisa Milner, Tova Rubenstein, Deeni Singer, Nami Friedman, Kivi Bernhard and Laia Uzvolk, and many grandchildren.



  1. 2 Gary Selikow 02 Oct
  2. 1 Ian Garrun 07 Oct
    Rabbi Bernhard married Lana and I, 42 years ago
    at Oxford Shul. He was a very well respected and a knowledgable Rabbi.
    Thank you.
    Ian Garrun


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