Great Women: Sarah Herzog

Sarah Herzog née Hillman was born in Riga, Latvia in 1899, to a distinguished rabbinical family.[1]  Her father was Rabbi Shmuel Isaac Hillman, a renowned Orthodox Jewish Talmudic scholar. The family moved to Glasgow in 1908 then London in 1914.[2]  In 1917, a young Rabbi, Isaac Herzog, visited Sarah’s father for a “conference regarding kosher dietary laws during World War I rationing.”[3] According to family history, when eighteen-year-old Sarah first laid eyes on Isaac she dropped the tea tray she was carrying! Isaac was equally as smitten with his future wife and they were married in August of that year.[4] Rabbi Isaac Herzog had received his first appointment as Rabbi in Belfast the previous year, so Sarah moved with him as his wife. [5]

The couple lived at 185 Cliftonpark Avenue in North Belfast, within walking distance of Annesley Street Synagogue. On 17 September 1918, Sarah gave birth to her first son, Chaim Herzog, who would later become the 6th President of Israel.  As the wife of the Rabbi, Sarah assumed the title of Rebbetzin, which came with its own pastoral and charitable responsibilities.[6] Rebbetzin can give blessings, act as spiritual counsellors and offer knowledge around women’s observances.[7]

Sarah Herzog circa 1900-10. Source: m/en/Sarah_Herzog

At this time, the Jewish community in Belfast numbered around 800 people, the majority of whom were refugees fleeing persecution and poverty in Czarist Russia. “Cliftonpark Avenue – where the Herzogs lived – became the hub of the community.”[8] Rabbi Isaac Herzog was known as an outstanding Jewish scholar and a benevolent individual, traits that attracted those in need of financial help, from both within and outside the Jewish community.  Unable to turn anyone away, Herzog was so generous that on occasion he was penniless within hours of being paid! As a result, when he married Sarah, she demanded that he be paid by cheque instead of cash and ensured any charitable cheques required both their signatures.[9]

In 1919, the family moved to Dublin where Isaac Herzog was appointed rabbi.[10] Isaac and Sarah were both fluent in Hebrew and Irish and, while in Dublin, Isaac became life-long friends with Eamon De Valera and became known by some as the ‘Sinn Féin Rabbi.’[11] In Dublin, Sarah gave birth to her second son, Yaakov, in December 1921.[12]  The following year, Isaac became the first Chief Rabbi of the Irish Free State, a position he held until 1936.[13] In 1936, the family moved again due to Isaac’s appointment as Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine in modern-day Israel.[14]

Sarah Herzog with her son Chaim, Belfast 1919. 

Sarah Herzog was a formidable political force in her own right. According to Steven Jaffe, co-chair of Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, “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.”[15] In 1939, the British government – headed by Neville Chamberlain – issued the “Macdonald White Paper”. This policy paper “called for the establishment of a single Palestine state governed by Arabs and Jews based on their respective populations,” along with severely limiting Jewish immigration and ability to purchase land in Palestine.[16] This timing of this paper was especially devastating given Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jewish community. By 1939, over half of the Jewish population in Germany had emigrated to escape the Nazi regime.[17] Sarah Herzog was a leading figure in protests against the policy, especially since it would not allow Jewish children from Nazi-controlled areas to be resettled in the British Mandate of Palestine.[18]

Sarah was an active, unofficial ambassador in Israeli politics and international Jewish women’s organizations. She became President of the World Mizrachi Women’s Organisation in 1940.[19] The Mizrachi women’s organisations were founded throughout the Jewish world and aimed “to promote activism among Jewish women in their countries”.[20] Sarah was instrumental in bringing the various organizations together to form the World Mizrachi Women’s Organization.[21] Mizrahi or Mizrachi Jews are the descendants of the local Jewish communities that had existed in the Middle East and North Africa from biblical times into the modern era.

In 1977, Sarah founded and became president of World Emunah. World Emunah is a Jewish women’s organisation that was “one of the largest social providers in Israel and has helped absorb Holocaust survivors and over 800,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands.”[22] So great was Herzog’s dedication to providing care for others, that her legacy lives on today through Emunah’s institutions, two of which are named after her: “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.”[23]

Sarah with her son, Chaim. Circa 1940s.

Sarah was also a volunteer head of Ezrat Nashim Hospital in Jerusalem and she demonstrated tremendous tenacity and energy in gathering support for the hospital.[24] The hospital has since been renamed in her honour as the Sarah Herzog Memorial Hospital.[25]  Today it “is Israel’s foremost centre for geriatric, respiratory, mental health and psychotrauma care, treatment and research”.[26] According to her son Chaim, Sarah “had been offered – several times – the opportunity to run for the Knesset (Israeli parliament)” but decided to focus on her other work.[27]

Sarah “devoted her life to Israel – starting schools, helping immigrants and setting up the largest mental and geriatric hospital in the Middle East.”[28] Sarah was celebrated for her achievements to Israeli society numerous times during her life, being awarded the Honored Citizen of Jerusalem Award, and the mother of the year award from the Council of Women’s Organizations in 1966.[29] In 1975, she was also awarded two honorary doctorates in Philosophy, from the Bar-Ilan University and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.[30]

Sarah Herzog (right) with Ita Yellin (left) at demonstrations against the ‘MacMillan White Paper’ in May 1939.

In his book, Living History: A Memoir, Chaim Herzog described his mother 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 around the world.”[31] He also stated that Sarah “was the personification of practicality, a powerful figure and strict disciplinarian who dominated the home and, indeed, any organisation with which she was associated.”[32] Sarah Herzog died on 14 January 1979 at her home in Tel Aviv, at the age of 82.[33] Throughout her life, Sarah was a force to be reckoned with, whether this was in her role as Rebbetzin, the family matriarch or her wider community work and political life.

Sadly, there is currently no public commemoration of Sarah, or any members of the Herzog family, in Belfast. The plaque marking Chaim Herzog’s birthplace in Cliftonpark Avenue was removed in 2014 following attacks on the building, which were condemned by the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland as a hate crime.[34] However, the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel has created the ‘Chaim Herzog in Belfast’ project, which includes an online exhibition of photographs, videos, and links to media coverage of the Herzog family. This project aims to celebrate the unique history of the Jewish community in Belfast and to tell the story of the distinguished Herzog family.[35]





[4] Herzog, Chaim (1996). Living History: A Memoir. Plunkett Lake Press.



[7] Wolowelsky, Joel (Winter 2002). “Rabbis, Rebbetzins, and Halakhic Advisors”. Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought. 36 (4): 54–63.













[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.


[23] Ibid.





[28] Ibid.


[30] Ibid

[31] Herzog, Chaim.  Living History: A Memoir.

[32] Ibid.



[35] Ibid.

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