Sarah Herzog – a Jewish woman in North Belfast

Sarah Herzog 1899-1979 –  185 Cliftonpark Avenue (marked by a blue plaque as the birthplace of Chaim Herzog, president of Israel).






If she’s remembered at all in Belfast, it’s as the mother of Chaim Herzog, president of Israel, born on Cliftonpark Avenue in 1918. But Sarah Herzog was an important personality in her own right.
Her son, Chaim, described her as “clearly the dominant individual at home. She was very pretty and gracious and, although petite, almost regal in her demeanour. Wherever her home was, it was a centre of grace and culture and, later, in Israel, a magnet for the Jewish community from around the world.”
Sarah Herzog was 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 would head the women’s division of a political party. She was awarded two honorary doctorates and was an accomplished speaker – in English and in Hebrew.
Sarah’s communal responsibilities were to begin in Belfast when in 1917 – still in her teens – she married the Belfast rabbi, Isaac Herzog. It was in Belfast where she first assumed the title of rebbetzin, the designation of a rabbi’s wife, and took on pastoral and charitable responsibilities. Born in Riga (Latvia) in 1899, to a distinguished rabbinical family, she was brought up in London. Her husband was destined to become the first chief rabbi of the Irish Free State and then, from 1936, chief rabbi of the Holy Land.
In 1977, Sarah Herzog 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, Sarah 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. Emunah’s many projects include 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.
In the years that she lived in Belfast (1917-1919), Sarah Herzog’s principal task was to bring order to the home of the rabbi. Isaac was an outstanding Jewish scholar, but very unworldly. The community paid him a weekly salary in cash on a Friday morning. He was often left peniless by the onset of the Sabbath on Friday evening. His generosity attracted every hard up case, from within and outside the Jewish community. Never refusing anyone, the rabbi was left unable to pay his own rent. Following marriage, it was at Sarah’s insistance he was paid by cheque and all charitable cheques had to be signed by both of them!
On the morning he 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 – starting schools, helping immigrants and setting up the largest mental and geriatric hospital in the Middle East. As I stood by their graves, I so wished they could have witnessed this day.”  Sarah Herzog’s remarkable record of communal activism flourished in later life in Israel, but the seeds were sown as a young rabbi’s wife in north Belfast.

Steven Jaffe


(c) Steven Jaffe. 2012. The author has reserved his moral rights.