Remembering the rabbi who rattled the Nats

  • Ungar6
Rabbi Andre Ungar was the first rabbi in South Africa to provoke the public wrath of senior National Party politicians, and the only rabbi to be deported, according to Irwin Manoim, who recently completed a history of the progressive Jewish movement in South Africa.
by TALI FEINBERG | May 14, 2020

“Born in Hungary in 1929, Ungar spent his childhood in hiding from the Nazis in Budapest. That horrifying experience shaped his attitudes in South Africa,” says Manoim whose book, Mavericks Inside the Tent features Ungar, and will be launched shortly.

Ungar was the rabbi of Temple Israel Hebrew Congregation in Port Elizabeth from 1955 to 1956. He died at the age of 90 at his home outside of New York on 5 May 2020, after a long illness. He is survived by his wife, Judy, and four children.

“He never spoke about that time in hiding as feeling persecuted,” says Judy, speaking to the SA Jewish Report after his death. “He was able to read and play chess, and he was surrounded by his family, so he never saw it as a hardship. He knew others experienced much worse things.”

After the war, Ungar went to England, worked on a Zionist youth farm, received his doctorate in philosophy at the University of London, and was ordained as a rabbi by the renowned Leo Baeck.

After briefly serving as a pulpit rabbi in England, he moved to South Africa in 1955, where he became the rabbi of the reform synagogue in Port Elizabeth, Temple Israel.

“Imagine, it’s the mid-1950s in conservative Port Elizabeth, and along comes Andre, a 25-year-old, imposing, tall, handsome man with black hair and the most glamorous rebbetzin wife [his first wife, Corinne] and young baby. It was quite the sensation in PE,” remembers Leslie Bergman, who has known Ungar since then.

“I was one of the last boys in Port Elizabeth to have my Barmitzvah with Rabbi Ungar,” says Bergman. “My parsha was Parshat Noah, where G-d tell Noah to ‘go forth and multiply’, which I remember being emphasised by the rabbi. Many years later, I told him, ‘I listened to you!’ as I went on to have five children!”

Another vivid memory Bergman has of that time is driving to Johannesburg, and his family giving Ungar and a friend a lift. “That friend was most likely activist poet Dennis Brutus,” he says.

Indeed, the rabbi made friends across the colour bar, “almost unheard of among whites in the 1950s. His friends included Govan Mbeki, later to be the Robben Island cellmate of Nelson Mandela, and father of President Thabo Mbeki, and Brutus, who would also be jailed, then flee into exile,” says Manoim.

“The rabbi’s sermons had a political edge. The first to cause controversy beyond the walls of the shul discussed the case of a local schoolboy, Stephen Ramasodi, who had won a scholarship to a prestigious American college, but was refused a passport. The rabbi made parallels between Ramasodi, who had been denied his dreams yet was innocent of any crime, and Moses, who was refused entry into the Promised Land.”

The rabbi was also one of seven speakers at a meeting in protest against the new Group Areas Act in November 1956, and his speech made headlines. He described how Hungarian Jews had been driven into the ghettoes by the Nazis, and said he was seeing the beginnings of something similar here.

Both instances drew barrages of letters to newspapers from Jewish community members and leaders distancing themselves from the rabbi.

“Relations became strained, and Rabbi Ungar announced that he would resign and leave. But six weeks before his departure, a sheriff arrived on the doorstep of the Temple Israel congregation, delivering a letter to the secretary, giving Rabbi Ungar one month to leave the country or be jailed as a prohibited immigrant,” says Manoim.

Bergman’s father was that shul secretary, and he remembers his father receiving the letter. He recalls jumping into his father’s car as they raced to the rabbi’s house to tell him.

“The rabbi suggested that the purpose of the deportation order wasn’t so much to teach him a lesson, as to serve as a warning to the Jewish community,” says Manoim.

“Ungar received very little support from the local Jewish community other than from liberal Jews in Johannesburg and Cape Town. But on the Sunday morning of the rabbi’s departure, almost the entire membership [of Temple Israel] arrived at the airport for a farewell ceremony, where the Hebrew School children loudly sang Hevenu Shalom Aleichem in the departure lounge. Newspaper photographs show some of the children crying.

“Rabbi Ungar recalled receiving only one message of support from a Jewish religious leader. It came in the form of a cryptic telegram from Orthodox Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, who had hitherto been no friend of any reform rabbi. The cable said, “Respectful salutations – Chief Rabbi Rabinowitz,” Manoim says.

“Rabbi Ungar went to New Jersey, where he served two conservative congregations, one for 44 years. He became prominent among the rabbis supporting Martin Luther King’s civil-rights movement in the sixties, and was one of 20 rabbis who went to Birmingham, Alabama, to register voters and joined protest marches – both of these dangerous activities in the racist American south.”

He divorced his first wife, and his second wife, Judy, recalls her mother insisting she meet their congregation’s new rabbi. Five and a half weeks later, they were married, and remained happily so for 56 years. She says her husband was “glad he had that opportunity to be in South Africa. He harboured no hostile feelings about the experience. It was a significant moment in his life.”

Bergman stayed in touch with the rabbi until his death. “He was a rabbinic Jewish prophet before his time. No other rabbi spoke out in the 1950s,” he says. “He stood alone against a terrible injustice against every Jewish moral. While many Jews in the struggle didn’t act as Jews, Rabbi Ungar spoke out as a Jew.”

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