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Cape Town shul gutted by fire

  • ShulFire12
When it became clear that all five Sifrei Torah of Beit Midrash Morasha in Sea Point, Cape Town, had been lost in a massive fire around midnight on Tuesday, Rabbi Sam Thurgood tore his shirt and led a communal kaddish while flames lit up the night sky.
by TALI FEINBERG | Dec 06, 2018

“When a Torah is burnt, it is almost as if a person has passed away. We will likely also have a fast day after Chanukah and a funeral for the Sifrei Torah,” said the rabbi the morning after an unexplained fire destroyed most of the shul.

Thurgood and his wife Aviva have been the shul’s leaders since November 2012. Standing stoically in front of the burnt-out shell of the synagogue the morning after the blaze, he said no foul play was suspected, and he was waiting for assessors to figure out how the fire had started. He emphasised that Chanukah candles were never left burning overnight.

Reflecting on the previous 12 hours, Thurgood said he got the call that his shul was on fire at about 23:00 on Tuesday evening, just four hours after he left following the evening services. “The fire department was outstanding and did everything it could to save the Sifrei Torah and other holy books,” he said. While most of the shul’s library was saved, and its mikvah, garden, and offices remain intact, the inner sanctuary and the Torah scrolls were obliterated.

Jeremy Kavnat described in a call to ChaiFM how rabbonim were “saying tehillim, crying, howling, tears running down their cheeks, while they watched the shul burn. The most remarkable thing was the people who saved the siddurim, the teffilins, the talleisim... you would see firemen with gas tanks on their backs, their helmets on... they all went in like a unit, into the furnace, and came out with books ... ten, twenty books piled up,” he said.

“People who were not Jews, everybody was helping. They made a scrum, they went in for the next lot and the next lot... it was mind-boggling how these non-Jewish firefighters gave their all. The sweat was running down their faces. It was like a horror movie, like a small 9/11. At 2:00, Rabbi Thurgood announced that the Torahs were gone, and they started tearing their shirts and singing Hatikvah,” said the caller.

“It’s been a traumatic evening and morning,” said Stuart Diamond, the Director of the Cape South African Jewish Board of Deputies. “The response to the fire and efforts to extinguish the blaze were immediate, with 22 fire fighters and four engines at the scene. Thankfully there were no injuries. We gratefully acknowledge the valiant effort of the Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services, and extend thanks to the Community Security Organisation, which was deployed and co-ordinated the scene.”

Cape Board Chairperson Rael Kaimowitz said, “There was a sense of disbelief and helplessness as community members gathered outside. The spontaneous prayers, tehillin (psalms), and communal singing, together with a deep sense of mourning, was incredibly powerful. It highlighted in such a real and tangible way what a special community we have.”

The building is more than a hundred years old, and became a synagogue about 60 years ago. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, it was closed off to the public for safety reasons, but this did not stop the community from gathering for a solidarity shacharit service.

Rabbi Asher Deren brought through a Sifrei Torah from his shul, Chabad of the West Coast, which is across the city. Unusually for December, it was raining, but still people from all walks of life turned up in the early morning drizzle to daven. They were joined by fire fighters, passers-by, and Sea Point residents. Shul trustee Lance Katz took a pledge that his family would begin the task of underwriting a new Sefer Torah for the shul, hopefully supported by contributions from the whole community.

Across the road in the Bnei Akiva Bayit, hundreds of siddurim and books saved from the fire were carefully laid out to dry and to be catalogued by volunteers.

Support came from all sides, with a call for unity at this time of crisis. Monica Solomon, the National Chairperson of the South African Union for Progressive Judaism (SAUPJ), wrote that the SAUPJ was offering support to Beit Midrash Morasha at its time of need. “We are calling on our members to assist wherever possible. We need to stand together as one community during this terrible time.”

On social media, people from all over the world shared feelings of shock and helplessness, as well as memories of happier times. “Watching a shul burn and not being able to do anything is heart crushing,” tweeted Robyn Silverstone.

“We have made some of our best and closest friends at Morasha over the years. I talk about our special shul all the time at work, and they all wish they belonged to a community like ours. It feels like we have lost our home,” wrote Lee-Ann Lipman Gelb on Facebook. Ex-South Africans living overseas shared that whenever they return, this is where they daven. It represents home to them.

“We are heartbroken... this is the place where so many of us got married, brought our children into the faith, celebrated our Barmitzvahs, high holy days, and studied and prayed every day,” said Thurgood. “At the same time, there is a feeling of resolve and a commitment to rebuild it how it was before, or even better. We have faced adversity before, and we will face it head on again – and come out stronger.”

This sentiment was echoed by Aviva, who thanked Jews around the world for their unwavering support. “We have lost our home but not our community. The love and support will get us through and make us stronger.”

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein wrote to the community that it could “take solace in the fact that, thank G-d, no human life was injured, and recognise that the letters of the Torah, the ideas contained within it, and the holy service of the Morasha community, will continue and never be destroyed.”

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