Belfast teenage wife’s historic life was as notable as her famous husband and son

Left to right: Julie Andrews, Steven Jaffe, co-chair Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, Israeli ambassador to the UK, His Excellency Mark Regev
Left to right: Julie Andrews, Steven Jaffe, co-chair Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, Israeli ambassador to the UK, His Excellency Mark Regev

Wednesday’s report on this page, from the previous day’s launch in Belfast’s Linen Hall Library, was about a year-long programme of events marking the birth 100 years ago in Belfast of Chaim Herzog, a former president of Israel.

Organised by the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel (NIFI), a small exhibition in the library (running until 13th April) and the 12 month programme of events, tell a remarkable story about an extraordinary family from the Antrim Road’s historic Jewish community.

Sarah Herzog - An important personality in her own right

Sarah Herzog - An important personality in her own right

Chaim Herzog’s presidency of Israel was one of his many other notable accomplishments.

As well as being an Irish schoolboy boxing champion, successful academic and high ranking Second World War British Army intelligence officer, he was also an ambassador, distinguished orator, broadcaster, writer, businessman and lawyer.

His father, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, was spiritual leader of the Belfast Jewish community in 1916 before becoming Rabbi in Dublin, Chief Rabbi of the Irish Free State, and Chief Rabbi of the land of Israel in 1936, probably the Jewish world’s most senior dignitary.

Chaim’s son Isaac, named after his grandfather, is a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and leader of Israel’s opposition.

Chaim Herzog, British Army intelligence officer during the Second World War

Chaim Herzog, British Army intelligence officer during the Second World War

At the time of Chaim’s birth another youngster living nearby – Aubrey Solomon, who would become his future brother in law – entered the annals of history as Abba Eban, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and ambassador at the United Nations

Israel’s ambassador to the UK, His Excellency Mark Regev, was welcomed as a VIP guest at Tuesday’s centenary event in the library, and greeting him on his first visit to the city, Julie Andrews, Linen Hall director, said: “We are delighted to welcome the Israeli ambassador, His Excellency Mark Regev and members of Northern Ireland’s Jewish community to the library to kick off this very significant year. Their kind donation of books related to the event will be added to the library’s archives.”

“I’ve a huge headache,” admitted NIFI’s co-chair, Steven Jaffe, outlining Chaim’s life-story “because it’s not the whole story!”

Steven then presented short biographies of Rabbi Isaac and Abba Eban before “ leaving the three great men aside for the moment to talk about the woman – Sarah”.

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

He said that if she’s remembered at all in Belfast, it’s as Chaim Herzog’s mother “but Sarah Herzog was an important personality in her own right.”

Steven said Chaim described his mother as “the dominant individual at home” adding “Sarah brought a bit of financial order to the Rabbi’s household.”

Isaac was an outstanding Jewish scholar, but very unworldly. The community paid him a cash salary every Friday morning but he was often penniless by the onset of the Sabbath on Friday evening!

“His generosity attracted every hard-up case from within and outside the Jewish community,” said Steven.

Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, 1945

Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, 1945

Never refusing anyone, the rabbi was left unable to pay his own rent and following their marriage in 1917, it was at Sarah’s insistence (still in her teens!) that Isaac was paid by cheque and that all charitable cheques had to be signed by both of them.

In Belfast she first assumed the title of rebbetzin, the designation of a rabbi’s wife, with enormous pastoral and charitable responsibilities.

Born in Riga (Latvia) in 1899, to a distinguished rabbinical family, she was brought up in London.

“Sarah Herzog’s remarkable record of communal activism flourished in later life in Israel,” Steven added.

She became a prominent figure in the development of the leading geriatric and psychiatric hospital in the Middle East, which is named after her – the Sarah Herzog Memorial hospital in Jerusalem.

She headed the women’s division of a political party.

She was awarded two honorary doctorates and was an accomplished speaker – in English and Hebrew.

In 1977, Sarah became the founding president of World Emunah, a Jewish women’s organisation which today has 180,000 women as members from almost 30 different countries. As she had been widowed for almost 20 years by that time, she didn’t owe this appointment to the status of her husband.

Emunah is one of the largest social providers in Israel, and has helped absorb Holocaust survivors and over 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands.

Amongst the organisation’s numerous projects are two named after Sarah – Neve Sarah Herzog, in Bnei Brak, which brings educational and employment opportunities to religious Jewish women; and the Sarah Herzog Children’s Home in Afula, in northern Israel, which provides a residential home to over 90 children who are unable to live with their families.

On the morning that her son was sworn in as president of Israel in 1983, Chaim crossed Jerusalem to pray at the graves of his father and mother, and reflected: “My mother continued on as a ‘grande dame’ even as she lost her husband and her younger son. She was fully in charge of her senses and clever to the very end. She had been offered – several times – the opportunity to run for the Knesset (Israeli parliament) …she devoted her life to Israel…as I stood by their graves, I so wished they could have witnessed this day.”

Sarah Herzog made her historic mark on Israel “but the seeds were sown as a young rabbi’s wife in north Belfast,” said Steven Jaffe.

Further information about the Herzog centenary is at www.chaimherzoginbelfast.org and on their Facebook page.