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Great Park Synagogue - steeped in tradition

  • Shul
Almost uniquely for a major Diaspora city, Johannesburg has had a Jewish presence from its earliest beginnings. Two present-day Jewish organisations can trace their origins back to the late 1880s, when the town was less than a year old. One is the Chevrah Kadisha and the other the Great Park Synagogue.
by DAVID SAKS | Jul 22, 2015

Pictured : Interior of Great Park Shul.

The Great Park’s status as the “Grand Old Lady” of Johannesburg shuls is belied by the recent origin of its current premises. It was only in the second half of 2000, in fact, that the congregation permanently relocated there.

Trace the congregation’s history back to the very beginning, however, and you will eventually find yourself back in July 1887, when 88 eminent Jewish residents met in the store of B Wainstein to found the Witwatersrand Goldfields Jewish Association.

Since then, always allowing for the various name changes, schisms, amalgamations and changes of location that have taken place, the congregation has been in continuous existence.

In addition to being Johannesburg’s oldest congregation, the Great Park was for most of its history its most prestigious. It was at the Great Synagogue on Wolmarans Streets that all major community prayer gatherings took place, among them the public mourning for the victims of the Holocaust and the celebration of the founding of the State of Israel.

From 1915 until the late 1980s, it was the official seat of the Chief Rabbi, a position that at first referred only to the head of the congregation and its affiliate bodies, but eventually was expanded to encompass the entire country.

The United Hebrew Congregation, as it was called throughout the Wolmarans Street years, took the lead in establishing the Johannesburg Beth Din and Federation of Synagogues (precursor to today’s UOS). It took the lead in providing Jewish religious education and later ran a Ministers’ Training College to provide the country’s first locally-trained Jewish religious officiants. 

With the decline of the Johannesburg CBD, the Great Synagogue’s attendances dropped off sharply from the mid-1980s and in November 1994, its doors were finally closed. Such was the attachment congregants felt to the old building, however, that the new premises in Glenhove Road, Lower Houghton, on a smaller scale, reproduced it as exactly as possible in terms of its proportions and such key features as its dome, column and arches. It also includes the original fittings of the Great Synagogue, such as the bimah and rabbi’s pulpit. 

There was considerable opposition from certain quarters to the building of a costly new shul at a time of demographic and financial uncertainty in the Jewish community, but the project went ahead notwithstanding.

On Rosh Hashanah, 2000, the congregation came together to worship for the first time in their magnificent new premises. Today, the Great Park Synagogue is a thriving centre of Jewish religious and (thanks to its adjoining Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre) cultural life.

Under its long-serving Rabbi Dovid Hazdan, it combines a youthful dynamism with a reverence for tradition - epitomized, perhaps, by the top hats proudly worn by its honorary officers on all important occasions. 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. 2 Noble Ryde 03 Aug
    And how exactly has the community left the old structure in Wolmarans Street? It has been left to rot- and fittings like the plaques for the oldest community leader in JHB, Emanuel Mendelson and Jaques Klisser, and EVEN the star of David Aron Kodesh, still with Hebrew writing upon it has been left behind to heathenism. If you live in Johannesburg, chances are your Bobba or Zaida davened in that shul. What a disgrace and insult to our forebears!
    In countless communities old synagogues are protected by the parent communities and safeguarded or turned into a Jewish Museum, which Johannesburg lacks!
    The modern day Great-Park community cannot pride itself until it saves the old shul, as mandated by halocha.
    Apparently the shul was last sold for R800,000! Come on fellow Jewish South Africans - let's buy our old Shul back- after all this is where our parents and grandparents davened for generations- where they grieved in a special service for Holocaust victims and said a mass Kaddish (many fainted at that tragic service)- we need this place back- who will take the initiative? We need YOU to assist! 
  2. 1 Menachem Mendeal ben Yisrowal 31 Jul
    Great.   My Mother was married there.

    SQT^U


    Can you email me a picture.

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