Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin
Rabbi Yitschak RudominCourtesy

Foreign born rabbis have always played leading roles for Jews in South Africa. Recently on Israel National News we wrote about the American born South African Rosh Yeshivas Rabbi Avraham Tanzer and Rabbi Azriel Goldfein. We wrote about British born South African Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz and we now continue with British born South African Chief Rabbi Bernard Moses Casper (1916–1988).

Jews who lived in South Africa during the term of Chief Rabbi Bernard Moses Casper from 1963 to 1988 will recall a very calm and tranquil man. For the Jews of South Africa those 25 years were times complex as everyone tried to find a safe political and personal harbor from the tumultuous times of those days at the height of the Apartheid era which were challenging for everyone, not least the Chief Rabbi in his role as the Jewish community's chief Jewish religious spokseman and representative.

Rabbi Casper deliberately chose the path of peace and caution and sometimes he was even criticized by some on the political left. Unlike his predecessor Chief Rabbi Louis I. Rabinowitz (1906–1984) who had a much more dramatic air about him.

There were times when Rabbi Casper spoke out, but not at the cost of endangering the Jews of South Africa. What few realize is that he was a man of war as much as he was a man of peace, all in the role of rabbi.

For a long time I have always wanted to read his famous short history "With The Jewish Brigade" that Rabbi Casper published in 1947. It is a summary of his experiences as the “Senior Chaplain to the [British Jewish] Brigade” that he served from start to finish.

The Jewish Brigade was the first all-Jewish military fighting unit that the British government agreed to establish during World War Two with hundreds of soldiers from the Jews of then Palestine, with mostly Jewish officers from the British army. This was the first ever official all-Jewish fighting force in 2000 years since the destruction of the Judea by Rome. In World War One the so-called “Zion Mule Corps” also known as the Jewish Legion was set up by the British to help with transportation, hence the “mule corps”, but the Jewish Brigade was an actual fighting unit armed with a variety of weapons and trained to fight the German Nazi army in the Middle East, Italy, and other parts of Europe.

Think about it. What is a Jewish army without a Jewish chaplain or rabbi at its spiritual helm? After all, going back to the days of the Exodus, Moses was both the spiritual and military leader of the Children of Israel. That is how it was down all the way later throughout Jewish history. The Jewish Kings were supposed to be both spiritual and military leaders such as King David.

Rabbi Bernard Casper was just such a man, thousands of years after Moses’ and King David’s times. He saw his mandate as both a military and spiritual leader of the Jewish Brigade that would later become a main nucleus of the reborn modern Israel’s Israel Defense Force!

The book has eight chapters with an introduction, preface and many fascinating photos, all compressed into no 127 pages, including the glossary for Hebrew terms. It makes for fascinating reading and its contents touch on so many key themes and events of the Second World War, the Holocaust, the rise of the modern State of Israel, world events, and of course when one thinks that when the book was written the author had no idea he would one day become Chief Rabbi of South Africa, it’s fascinating to see the “incubator” of war-time experiences that must have contributed to later decisions when the times were rough in South Africa.

Interestingly, during the years that Rabbi Casper served as South Africa's Chief Rabbi from 1963 to 1988, most Jewish boys in South Africa began to serve in the SADF (South African Defence Force) for increased terms. During that time, it was under Rabbi Casper that the SADF army chaplaincy was tended to first by Rabbi Katz of Pretoria on a part-time basis, but after 1973 on a mostly full time basis by Rabbi Lawrence (Eliezer) Sandler under the tutelage of Rabbi Casper who gave the effort his full support. After reading this book, one understands how it was that Rabbi Casper had the ingenuity and determination to make a modern South African Jewish chaplaincy succeed in the modern South African military.

The following is written by the commander of the Brigade, Brigadier E.F. Benjamin, a Canadian Jewish officer selected to lead this elite unit. The Brigadier writes: “I was very fortunate in having Rev. Casper as my senior chaplain and I always had complete confidence in his judgment and advice. He lived with Brigade Headquarters and paid constant visits to every unit in the Brigade, and he thus had an unrivalled knowledge of what the officers and men were doing and thinking.” Later in South Africa, certainly among the youth who may have heard Rabbi Casper speak, such as at Jewish school gatherings and assemblies, few realized that they were not just listening to a well-versed rabbi but that he had earned the respect of his “flock” on the battlefields of World War Two as well.

The book is “Dedicated: To The Everlasting Memory and Glory Of The Sons Of Israel: Who Fell in Action While Serving with the Jewish Brigade” and lists the names of 44 Jewish soldiers who were killed, with a photo of those who are buried at: “The Jewish Brigade Cemetery At Mezzano: About two miles north of Ravenna in Italy.”

This is a good junction to note that the Jewish historian Solomon Grayzel has written that during WWII more than a million Jews combined fought in the armies of the USA, USSR, UK, Canada and South. (Solomon.Grayzel, A History of the Jews: From the Babylonian Exile to the Present, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1968, p. 786.) Out of a population of about 90,000 at that time, Grayzel states that about 10,000 South African Jews served in the army during the Second World War. Many were killed and were wounded. When Rabbi Casper came to South Africa there were men and women there who had served in the army as he did.

Writing in December 1946 corresponding to Hannukah 5707, Rabbi Casper notes: “On my return to this country [Great Britain] in February 1946, after a year and half of service with the Jewish Brigade Group, I received innumerable requests from Jewish and non-Jewish societies to address them on the subject of the first Jewish fighting force since the ruthless Roman conquest of Judea...This book is…intended to re-create…the life and purpose…all of which characterized the Brigade and from which it derived the power and the right to carry the Badge of Honour to its stricken people in the heart of Europe.”

This story is about a positive story that took place during the Holocaust when Jews living in Britian, South Africa and Eretz Yisrael were given the opportunity to fight back against the Nazis, and did so proudly with great sacrfice. Rabbi Casper as a fighting army chaplain embodied the spirit of all Jewish fighting men. He was South Africa’s Chief Rabbi during the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War and anyone who was at gatherings where he spoke should understand why he was wise about the subject of Jews literally at war!

Entire Series:

* Torah Education and Outreach in South Africa

* What I learned from the 1929 Jewish Year Book

* Jewish Hopes, Dreams, Struggles in South Africa, Part 1

* Jewish Hopes, Dreams, Struggles in South Africa, Part 2

* Jewish Hopes, Dreams, Struggles in South Africa, part 3

* Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Avraham Tanzer of South Africa

* Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Azriel Goldfein of South Africa

* Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz of South Africa

* Chief Rabbi Bernard Casper of South Africa

* Judaism and Rabbis in South Africa

Rabbi Yitschak Rudomin was born to Holocaust survivor parents in Israel, grew up in South Africa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is an alumnus of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin and of Teachers CollegeColumbia University. He heads the Jewish Professionals Institute dedicated to Jewish Adult Education and Outreach Kiruv Rechokim. He was the Director of the Belzer Chasidim's Sinai Heritage Center of Manhattan 19881995, a Trustee of AJOP 19941997 and founder of American Friends of South African Jewish Education 19952015. He is the author of The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy.