Once expelled rabbi returns to South Africa
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Once expelled rabbi returns to South Africa

The last time Rabbi André Ungar was in South Africa – some 54 years ago – he was, he says, “persona non grata.”

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Rabbi Ungar and two bat mitzvah girls in 1955 at Temple Israel in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Ungar, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, left South Africa in 1956 under government orders “because of saying unkind things about apartheid.”

In mid-December, he went back not only to visit the country he left under duress but to speak from the same pulpit he had held for two years.

Ungar will speak about his trip during Shabbat services on March 26 at Temple Emanuel.

“Now that a half-century has gone, my family encouraged me to go,” said Ungar, who was accompanied on the trip by several members of his family, including three of his 15 grandchildren.

“Since I recently celebrated my 80th birthday, they thought it would be wonderful for me to go back,” he said, noting that “the country has changed and I have changed.”

During his two-week trip, Ungar met a few of his former b’nai mitzvah at Temple Israel in Port Elizabeth, where he first went as a 25-year-old rabbi from London.

“Racist laws have been totally abolished,” he said. “This time I saw a country where all colors mingled. Over the last 20 years [South Africa] has become a free country.”

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Rabbi Ungar, left, revisits Port Elizabeth a half-century later. With him are, from left, his wife Judy, grandchildren Caleb, Eva Ann, and Maya, daughter-in-law Harley, and son Eli.

Ungar said that when he lived in South Africa, the Jews there were “a scared community.” While there was no “official Jewish position, we felt that apartheid was terrible, wicked racism.”

The Jews also knew, however, that they would be victimized if they spoke up. He said that while he was never physically threatened himself, “I was told I was in some danger.”

Nevertheless, said Ungar, “among those whites who opposed apartheid, a disproportionate number were Jewish.” He pointed to Helen Suzman, “a member of Parliament who represented decency for many years.”

Today, he said, “the Jewish community has been shrunk somewhat” because of emigration to Israel, the United States, England, and Australia, particularly among the younger generation.

When he lived there, he said, the country had a population of 25 million. Today, “it is twice that.” The Jewish community, however, which used to include about 120,000 members, now numbers some 80,000.

Ungar said that while Jews there have maintained themselves well economically, “the chance of making a future elsewhere is rosier. The country has certain problems” such as street crime, he said. “This creates a kind of nervousness, especially in major cities. My feeling was that the Jews there are rather pleased that their children are making a future in more stable countries.”

He added that while Jews in South Africa enjoy complete freedom of worship, the country maintains an anti-Israel stance.

Ungar said that while he was there, he was asked to name a baby at Temple Israel, “the grandchild of someone I bar-mitzvahed.” The synagogue, he said, has been well-maintained and has a membership of about 100 families.

For information about Ungar’s talk, call (201) 391-0801.

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