Grace under fire

This week marked 20 years to the passing of Rabbi Bernard Casper, who never stopped supporting Jerusalem.

In late March 1945, on the southern bank of Italy's Senio River and barely 500 meters from the German lines, soldiers of the Jewish Brigade took part in a Pessah Seder. Not surprisingly, they found special meaning in the words they read and the songs they sang. They had two major missions ahead: participation in an Allied assault that would free the remnants of their Jewish brethren in Europe, and the future battle for a Jewish state. Formed at the tail end of World War II - and only after nonstop pressure by Chaim Weizmann in London and the Jewish Agency in Palestine - the brigade consisted of nearly 5,000 stalwart Palestinian Jews fighting under the Zionist flag and proudly wearing a Star of David insignia on their shoulder patches. Incredibly, Jewish volunteers from the tortured Land of Israel were getting superb military training that would be put to good use in Europe and, later on, at home. Their mettle had already been tested under fire, with several of their comrades killed in skirmishes with the Germans. And only a few days after the Seder, they would join other soldiers in a massive push. Conducting the Seder (along with two more that same night) was Capt. Bernard Moses Casper. The Seder would become one of the high points of an extraordinary life, which climaxed with his appointment as the first chief rabbi of South Africa in 1968 and ended with his death 20 years ago this month. Born in Britain, Casper lost both his parents when he was only three; the grandparents who took him in died a few years later. The cousin who began caring for Bernard when he was eight sent him to both secular and Jewish schools, where he immersed himself in education. At 17 he won a scholarship to Cambridge and, while there, also began rabbinical studies. During the massive bombardment of London in 1940, Casper was living in Manchester, where he was appointed the Manchester Synagogue's congregational leader, or reverend (he had not yet been ordained as a rabbi). But World War II was wreaking havoc on Europe and soon afterward, although he had recently fathered a son, Casper enlisted in the British armed forces. His first assignment consisted of chaplaincy duties in England, but he was soon ordered to Egypt where he was stationed with a support unit from Palestine serving behind the lines. That changed when, upon formation of the Jewish Brigade, he was thrilled to become its chaplain. The Germans surrendered in May - but neither the brigade nor its chaplain had yet fulfilled their destinies. Soon after the German defeat, while the brigade was stationed near the border triangle of Italy, Yugoslavia and Austria, military police brought a Hungarian refugee into the camp. Starving, barely able to stand, struggling to get the words out, he told Casper that 150 Jews were huddled in railroad cars at a bombed-out city just over the Austrian border. And they had no one to help them. Casper had formed excellent relationships with the British military police and area officers. Armed with a pass, he filled a truck with provisions. Then he and a brigade driver sped into Austria and distributed their food and supplies. The next day Casper led a convoy to Klagenfurt, filled the vehicles with refugees, tricked the border police into letting him and 150 hidden passengers into Italy and returned to camp. Like Casper, others in the brigade were also carrying out rescue operations. However, a great many of those activities were against military regulations. AFTER CARING for more than 8,000 survivors during the next few weeks, the brigade was transferred to Belgium and disbanded the next year. Casper returned to Manchester, where he continued his former duties as congregational leader. In 1948 he traveled to Israel, where he completed his rabbinical studies. Although he wanted desperately to remain, his wife Kitty's family obligations kept the Caspers in England. There, he became head of Jewish education and then rabbi of London's historic Western Synagogue. In 1956 Casper was finally able to bring his family to Israel. Bombarded with tempting offers of high-level positions in the Foreign Ministry and asked to become head of the famous Kadoorie Agricultural School, he chose instead to take a position as the first dean of students at the Hebrew University. Then, seven years later, he was invited to become chief rabbi in Johannesburg and had to decide where he could best serve the Jewish nation. On the advice of Israel's chief rabbi, he took the job in Johannesburg. A passionate and charismatic advocate for Israel in South Africa, he also worked tirelessly to enrich Jewish education for pupils in public schools and to preserve the Jewish identity of South Africa's Jewish community. Casper, however, was also trying to improve the quality of life in Israel. While in Israel, he had been deeply concerned about the country's impoverished neighborhoods, especially Jerusalem's Bukharan Quarter. During his years in South Africa, he set up a special fund for their improvement. Project Renewal, a far-reaching urban revitalization program, was established by prime minister Menachem Begin in 1977. It depended heavily on income from the Diaspora and suggested pairing well-to-do Jewish communities with destitute populations in Israel. Johannesburg was twinned with the Bukharan Quarter, and the Jews of that city raised enormous funds for its rehabilitation. But time went by and projects planned with vigor and enthusiasm became bogged down in Jerusalem's bureaucratic hassles. Nothing was happening, so in 1981 Casper - always a man of action - set off for the Holy Land to get a firsthand look at the problem. After examining the situation and consulting with community organizer Moshe Kahan, he suggested a solution: They would present the dormant agencies with concrete evidence of what could be done. Using a private discretionary fund, he initiated development of several pilot projects, among them a free loan fund, a dental clinic and a hearing center whose wild successes embarrassed the municipality into getting its act together. (Today the city provides a facility, with municipal social services offering their full cooperation.) All the projects eventually combined to become the Health and Community Service Center, with clinics in the Bukharan Quarter and a new, state-of-the-art facility in downtown Jerusalem sponsored by P.E.F. Israel Endowment Funds, Inc. of New York. P.E.F also subsidizes the free, top-quality dental care provided to children from needy families throughout their school years. Thousands of Jerusalem children have already been treated by the center. A new program, initiated last year and hopefully to be repeated, also gave 200 elderly Jerusalemites free dental care funded by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. There has been a ripple effect as well for the HCS, which is now celebrating a quarter-century of service and has become a model for community service throughout the country. The day of Casper's yahrzeit, the 10th of Tevet, has a special place in traditional life. Not only does it mark one of the fast days commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem, but it is also the general Holocaust Kaddish day. It is no coincidence that Casper, who was so passionate about rebuilding Jerusalem, should be remembered each year on this particular occasion.