Rabbi Nachman (Norman) Bernhard, legendary orator and human-rights activist who helped build Jewish life in South Africa, passed away on Oct. 1. He was 80 years old.

Born in 1933 in New York City to Tuvia Gutman and Leah Bernhard, young Nachman displayed prodigious musical aptitude. At his father’s suggestion, he pursued degrees in both classical music and rabbinics at Yeshiva University.

During his time there, he became a very close to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, rosh yeshivah of the university’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, known as REITS. As the rabbi’s personal driver, Bernhard had the opportunity to share many discussions with the legendary thinker on a variety of subjects. At one point, the senior rabbi turned to his student and asked for his opinion on a question that had been presented to him. When the young man tried to demur, Soloveitchik encouraged him to state his position, insisting that he was qualified to rule.

After his marriage in 1954 to Joan Neuman and his graduation a year later, the couple traveled to Wichita, Kan., where Bernhard became rabbi of the local Jewish congregation. In a relatively short time, the community began to grow and flourish. After five years there, they returned to New York, where the rabbi had planned to teach classical music and further his Torah studies.

Concurrently, the Oxford Synagogue—South Africa’s largest and most prominent Jewish congregation—was searching for a rabbi. They approached Soloveitchik and asked him to recommend a student he thought would be up to the task. He replied that he was considering “two Normans:” Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm and Rabbi Norman Bernhard.

After the former respectfully said that he was busy working on his doctorate degree, the synagogue leadership turned their attention to the second Norman.

The Bernhard family: Parents Tuvia Gutman and Leah Bernhard, and sons Nachman and Shmuel
The Bernhard family: Parents Tuvia Gutman and Leah Bernhard, and sons Nachman and Shmuel

Conversations With the Rebbe

Unsure of how to respond, the young rabbi was advised to consult the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Before meeting the Rebbe, he received the blessing of his rosh yeshivah, who counseled him to do what the Rebbe suggests.

During the course of their meeting, he presented the Rebbe many reasons why he should not take the position, but the Rebbe dismissed them all, saying: “There is a fire burning in Jewish life today, and anyone who can put it out, must do so. You have no right to sit on the side and become an academic.” In response to the young rabbi’s protest that South Africa did not have fitting Jewish education, and that he had the obligation to educate his own growing family, which he referred to as “my vineyard,” the Rebbe replied that every Jew was his vineyard.

In 1965, the Bernhards, together with their three young daughters, moved to Johannesburg, South Africa. One year later, the rabbi founded the Menorah Primary School (later to become Torah Academy), South Africa’s first Torah day school.

Over the years, he developed a deeply personal relationship with the Rebbe, whom Bernhard revered. During the course of their many lengthy meetings, he was privileged to hear some of the Rebbe’s personal anecdotes and thoughts.

In 1974, in response to the family’s considering leaving South Africa for a community with a stronger religious environment, the Rebbe replied, “knowing [Rabbi Bernhard], I have no doubt that he could feel in his element only in a place where he can fully utilize the knowledge which he has acquired and the qualities which G‑d has bestowed upon him, that is, to utilize them in the fullest measure for the benefit of the many.”

The Bernhard brothers: Shmuel, left, and Nachman
The Bernhard brothers: Shmuel, left, and Nachman

A spellbinding orator, hundreds flocked to Oxford synagogue to hear Bernhard’s sermons on a wide range of topics, and membership rose to more than 2,000 families.

With deep devotion to the principles of halachah (Jewish law), he established many communal norms that extended beyond Oxford Synagogue. For example, he is remembered for insisting that all Jewish wedding receptions in his large congregation be exclusively kosher, something that is now standard across the South African Jewish community.

As a high-profile leader known for his anti-apartheid activism, the rabbi’s influence was felt far beyond the Jewish community. There were numerous occasions when he narrowly dodged being arrested and deported for his work on behalf of South Africa’s oppressed black community.

Acutely aware of a lack of training in that community, Bernhard founded the Oxford Synagogue Social Action Committee (OSSAC), which worked to provide them with education and skills.

In 2000, the rabbi retired after 35 years of service. He passed away on Wednesday in Johannesburg.

In addition to his wife, the rabbi is survived by his children: Lisi Milner, Tovi Rubenstein, Deeni Singer, Nami Friedman, Kivi Bernhard and Laia Uzvolk; 31 grandchildren; and many great-grandchildren.

A spellbinding orator, hundreds flocked to hear Rabbi Bernhard’s sermons on a wide range of topics.
A spellbinding orator, hundreds flocked to hear Rabbi Bernhard’s sermons on a wide range of topics.
The rabbi prays at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem.
The rabbi prays at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem.
In 2000, the rabbi retired after 35 years of service. Here, he enjoys time with one of his many grandchildren.
In 2000, the rabbi retired after 35 years of service. Here, he enjoys time with one of his many grandchildren.