Kimberley, South Africa


Werner, Rabbi Oscar

This page contains:

  1. Tribute to Rabbi Oscar Werner by Leon Chonin

  2. Comments in response

  3. Tribute to Rabbi OM Werner by his son Bernard 

  4. Picture of the youth of Kimberley with Rabbi and Mrs Werner c1962 


by Leon Chonin

Rabbi Werner was born in Hanover, Germany but fled to England before the start of World War II. He studied at and graduated as a reverend from The Yeshiva Talmudical College in Liverpool. His Polish parents died in the Holocaust. Rabbi Werner’s first wife, Leah was born in Liverpool. After going through the rigors of war, they looked at emigrating to greener pastures. Their choice was either Canada or South Africa but because his wife had an uncle already living in South Africa they decided to emigrate to the latter. He started his rabbinical career in 1951 in the Free State, South Africa. He then moved to Kimberley around 1957 and soon after his arrival he completed his rabbinical smicha (ordination) to become a Rabbi in Israel. Rabbi Werner then transferred to Johannesburg in around 1970 to become the Rabbi of the Parkview Greenside congregation where he remained until 1987 when he emigrated to the United States to become the new Rabbi for the Orthodox Congregation Aitz Chaim in West Palm Beach in Florida so that he could be close to his daughters. Another motivating factor for his emigration was the US economic sanctions applied against South Africa leading to the difficulty in visiting the USA when flights were diverted through Europe making travel to his children extremely cumbersome and exhausting.

Rabbi Werner was also a shochet, a mohel (a religious person who is permitted to perform circumcisions), the principal of the Hebrew School and served as vice chairman of the Rabbinical Association of South Africa.  His first wife Leah was also a Hebrew School teacher and she assisted him with his duties at the cheider. They had three children Sharon, Bernard and Malka. Sharon became a doctor in the United States but regretfully passed away at an early age.

Rabbi Werner could be described as a modern orthodox Rabbi as he allowed his congregation freedom of practice not insisting that they should abide by the strict halachic rules of Judaism. He was only too happy to see his congregants at shul and doing the odd mitzvah.

Soon after his arrival in Kimberley, Rabbi Werner taught me my barmitzvah in 1958, and persuaded me to conduct the Friday night service before my barmitzvah. From my recollection only two of us ever did that namely Jock Awerbuck and myself. My grandfather, Lipi Weinstein and Rabbi Werner were extremely close because of my grandfather’s love of Judaism and his ability to conduct any religious service. My grandfather knew many of the halachic rules and would assist Rabbi Werner with the davening (leading the prayers) which certainly was a helping hand during the long Yom Kippur service. Rabbi Werner also married my cousin at one of his first officiating simchas at the Parkview Greenside shul.

I can recall Rabbi Werner assisting my family when the Jewish landlord of the building where my parents had their outfitting business, Astra Outfitters on the Market Square wanted to evict my parents from their premises so that he could lease it to the tenants next door who had a motor spares business. My parents had nowhere to go and it would have meant the end of my parents’ livelihood. They appealed to Rabbi Werner to intervene who approached the landlord who then agreed to postpone the lease termination for a period. He was a compassionate Rabbi who cared for his congregants and served as the chaplain of a mental hospital and as honorary chaplain of the Jewish members of the South African Defence Force.

Rabbi Werner took over the rabbinical leadership of the Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation from Rabbi Cecil Bloch who moved to Potchefstroom in the Transvaal while Reverend Matzner became the spiritual leader of the community when Rabbi Werner moved to Johannesburg.  

Leon Chonin, December 2017

Milton Jawno adds:

Rabbi Oscar Werner and Rebetzin Leah were close family friends of my parents Lionel and Lily. The Rabbi acted as my dad's chaplain when he was Mayor of Kimberley.  Believe it or not I was once the babysitter to the Werner kids when their parents went away for a few days. The kids Sharon, Bernard and Malka were very well behaved and gave me no problems. I have a medallion in my home in Jerusalem that the Rabbi gave my father Lionel in November 1966, as a memento of the rabbi's visit to Israel.

 Another personal memory is going to the Werners after shul with my parents on Shabbat and getting delicious ginger cake from the Rebetzin Leah's mother who lived with the Werners in the old Shul house. My boyhood friend Colin van Zyl, now in Ireland, (who also receives the ex-pat news) reminded me that he used to drive the Rabbi to Colin's poultry farm Kameelhof outside Kimberley to "schact" the chickens for our community.

Kind personal regards, Milton.

Geraldine Auerbach MBE adds

Colin also mentioned to me that on some of Rabbi Werner’s visits to the farm, he would look around and ask if Colin had something else for him, and as a perk for the job, often went home with joints of lamb or calf.

Kingsley Dean writes

Hi Geraldine,

Many thanks for the newsletter....always most interesting...!!

Would be interested to know what became of the Rabbi’s son Bernard Werner (saw your note about his dad)....I was at Kimberley Boys High School with Bernard and recall that he had intended to follow in his dad's footsteps to study as a rabbi and wonder if he ever pursued that career choice ?  Who knows where he is?


Tribute to Rabbi O M Werner
By his son Bernard Werner, posted October 2019

On 27th Adar B (corresponding this year, to 04.03.2019) will be the 11th  Yahrzeit  of  the  passing of my father, Rabbi Yehoshua  Mordechai ben Avraham Dov (Oscar Marcus) Werner.

He was the second longest serving spiritual leader of the Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation from 1957 till 1970 (probably the hey-day of the community).

He worked tirelessly for the welfare of the whole community, dealing with every aspect of religious life. The fundamentals were taught to the children in the Cheder most afternoons and Sunday mornings. In addition to Aleph Bet, all aspects of a Torah Jewish life were introduced, for example daily prayers, personal behavior, business dealing, Shabbos and Festivals.

The Batmitzvah group of 1959: Pearly Goldenbaum, Shelley Hotz, Delia Brown, Jose Shapiro, Madeline Hammer, Sharon Werner, Brenda Frank in the foyer of the Kimberley Shul.

In addition to preparing every boy for their Bar Mitzvah, Rabbi and Mrs Werner celebrated the Bat Mitzvah for girls. The first group that he worked with, which unusually included girls aged 12 to 14years, had their ceremony in 1959. (NB Gwynne Robins (nee Schrire) has written that the very first Batmitzvah in Kimberley was her own, solo in 1955 with Rabbi Bloch.)

On Shabbatot (Saturdays) in addition to delivering the sermons, he was the chazzan and also leined (read the portion of the Torah). On Shabbos afternoons between Mincha and Maariv he taught a Talmud study group.

Rabbi Werner performed all the brittot (ritual circumcisions). They were meticulously recorded in the large Schul Bris Book.

Sundays were often a roller-coaster day dealing with the full life-span during just one day; of funerals and consecrations in the mornings after cheder, followed by a Bar Mitzvah party in the afternoon and a wedding at night.

In addition to visiting the sick and incarcerated, Rabbi Werner was always ready and available to counsel troubled souls of all ages and mediate conflicts including marital ones.

For the congregation to enjoy the highest quality meat, Rabbi Werner would be at the abattoirs by daybreak a few times a week when the herds would come in. He would choose the best of the day for Shechita (ritual slaughter). If any question arose on examination after shechita, he would discard that animal and shect another one. The outcome was a two-fold advantage: The people of Kimberley ate Glatt kosher and the Moslems often enjoyed kosher-killed meat!

When the new army training camp was established, there was a demand for more kosher meat. Rabbi Werner was the Jewish Army Chaplain too.

The preparing of a would-be convert was invariably done with the educating of the Jewish partner as well. The joy was great at home when the conversion proceedings were completed and authorized by the Beth Din. Sadness prevailed at home when a divorce could not be avoided. 

During those years there were many formal civic duties as Mayor's Chaplain. Mayors, Sussman and Haberfeld come to mind.

In all spheres my Father was very ably assisted by my Mother Leah.

May their Memory be for a Blessing. 

Bernard Werner.

Youth picture taken 1961/2 with Rabbi Oscar and Mrs Leah Werner

Beverly Solski (Buirski) sent me this amazing picture of 50 Children in Kimberley in the early 60s. there are 35 boys and 15 girls together with Rabbi and Mrs Werner. This must be a record for the number children in the community at any one time, and apparently there were others not in the picture. The drape in the middle has Hebrew writing on it. It seems to be a JNF event. Bev and Shelley Catzel (Jawno) started to add the names. And now helped by our list members Marvin Cohen (who knew the KHS Boarders from Uppington in the back row), Leon Chonin who knew the Habonim members in uniform and also David Kretzmar (who identified himself as NOT in the picture) we have, by instant research, a consensus of everyone except the partly obscured boy in the fourth row from the back.  See if you can recognise them all?

Back row 14 people left to right

David Goldberg, Jeffrey Geller, Basil Hummel (KHS boarder from Upington) Jack Klein, Roger David, Dennis Hammer, Colin Kanushefsky, Bernard Werner, Michael Lusman, Louis Awerbuck, David Lenhoff (KHS Boarder from Upington) Ronnie Shapiro, Steven Kurland (KHS boarder from Upington) Leslie Brenner

2nd Row from back 11

Raymond Ellis, Shelley Jawno, Cheryl Brown, Barbara Tuch, Lynette Buirski, Jeffrey Sussman, Philip Kretzmar, Beverly Buirski, Jennifer Brown, Shelley Hotz, Brian Levinsohn

3rd row from back: 10

Rabbi Werner, Marjory Tuch, Rosemary Shapiro, Barbara Klein, Malka Werner, Natalie Mehl, Sandra Sussman, Beverley Brenner, Sharon Mehl, Mrs Leah Werner 

4th row from back 9

Lesley Talmud, Robin Apter, Hilton Toube, Jeffrey Selman, Jeff Katz (drapery) Sydney Sacks, Seville Chonin, #, Colin Frank

Front row: 8

Franklyn Dubowitz, Brian Dubowitz, Selwyn Kanushefsky, David Klein, Brian Jawno, Jules Lusman, Neil Odes, Jonty Sandler