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SA Jewish News

Once vibrant Rosettenville Shul breathes its last

  • RosettenvilleShul8
The Rosettenville Shul is just a shell of what it used to be. Once a thriving shul and community, this beautiful 88-year-old shul now sits empty, having had its last service on Rosh Chodesh Iyar (Sunday 15 April).
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jun 28, 2018

The rich heritage of the 110-year-old Johannesburg South Jewish community is in danger of being lost and its vibrant past forgotten as the community has moved elsewhere. There is no choice but to close the shul permanently and sell it, bringing an era to an end.

“My father’s name appears here alongside others who made this shul a reality, “says the shul’s last Chairperson Dr Ben Krengel, 85, pointing to a marble slab affixed to the wall in the foyer of the shul.

“When this building is sold, it will probably be demolished along with the wall to which it is attached. It is sad, but who will want to preserve it? It’s too much work.”

Recounting the history of the shul and its once vibrant community, Krengel and his wife Felicia remember the halcyon days of Johannesburg South with fondness. “There was a time when every seat in this place was occupied,” says Krengel. “There weren’t enough seats here over Yamim Noraim. We brought chairs in and placed them in every space we could find. I remember sitting on the steps at the door one year when there simply was no room.”

Born to parents married in the shul itself, Krengel has been a proud member of the community since his birth. The shul’s origins can be traced even further back, however, as he explained. “There were only a few families in the southern suburbs at the beginning of the [previous] century.”

“There was a house here where the shul stands, and services for minor festivals and shabbat were held here. The services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were held in the Masonic Hall in Kenilworth, and though it was not ideal, it made the most sense.”

For this reason, when Louis Joseph Broomberg offered to sell a small hall he owned in La Rochelle for 200 pounds, a drive for funds was launched immediately. Shortly thereafter, the La Rochelle-Rosettenville community officially came into existence with Broomberg as its first Chairperson. Its first service took place over Rosh Hashanah in 1908. “Although two men from town were still needed to complete the minyan,” says Krengel, “it was an occasion of note, because it all officially began then.”

Until that point, no Torah learning nor Hebrew lessons were offered to the community’s youth, who had to cycle into town to attend lessons. A few years later, a Mr Hurwitz was appointed as the first Hebrew teacher and minister of the community, and after his departure five years later, Rev. Lipkin arrived from Booysens.

It was after the arrival of his successor, a young man from Lithuania by the name of Kaplan, that Krengel was born. “Kaplan was one of my teachers,” recalls Krengel. “I remember him teaching me the aleph bet. He was sent a wife from Lithuania who he had never met, and he became our chazzan and rabbi. It was him who told me I’d get a matric and become a doctor one day, and who left me his microscopes when he left the community. I went on to use them in my career as a doctor, just as he had predicted.”

In 1928, the southern suburbs were struck by a tornado, and the house which stood at the current site of the shul was completely demolished. “If it weren’t for that tornado,” laughs Krengel, “we would probably never have had a shul.

“The house was completely blown away, and its owner, Mr Weiss, had no intention of repairing it. He offered the site to the community for 450 pounds, and it was accepted immediately.” The hall in La Rochelle was sold, a committee established to raise the necessary funds, and the shul became a reality. The building was completed and dedicated in 1930, and in 1949, it was decided that its name would change from the La Rochelle-Rosettenville Shul to the South-Eastern Hebrew Congregation.

Recalling those first years of the shul’s existence, Krengel remembers a collection of committed individuals, special services, and a sense of true community. From inspirational talks over Sukkot, lively shul parties, to the involvement of Bnei Akiva shlichim from overseas, the shul offered its congregants many special opportunities to be inspired and involved.

“I sang in our shul choir with my friend, Morris Kretzer,” says Krengel, “ but I don’t know if singing is the word for what we did. We weren’t trained very well, and we ended up shouting more than anything. After doing so for a few minutes during a service, people rushed up to us and asked us if we would kindly stop. We did, and it was probably better that way.”

Krengel recalls how committed people were to the shul, and how they all strove to do whatever they could to ensure that it thrived. “The late Joe Joffe supported the community greatly in his day. He was a dedicated leader and a great man. He offered his home to us for services at night when walking was risky and not possible. The day before he died, Joe, who was confined to his bed, told us that if we needed a man to complete our minyan, we should wrap him in a blanket and carry him from his home to the shul. He passed away the next day, but I will always remember how dedicated he was to what we had.”

Krengel says his most cherished memory is the celebration of his Barmitzvah. “I celebrated my Barmitzvah right here,” he says proudly. “Every Barmitzvah party was held in the Coronation Hall, but I was determined to be different, and wanted to have my party in the South Kenilworth Hall. I was becoming a man, and the Coronation Hall was too ordinary, too mundane for such a special occasion. I told Kaplan what I wanted, he took my side, and pleaded my case to my parents. They relented, and we had a great time,” he laughs.

“I can still see the crowds of women who used to descend from the galleries upstairs after a service,” he says. “The hall was full of people, and there was no space to move. The community was vibrant, devoted and special. We had lovely times here.”

Sadly, the once strong community dwindled as people began to move elsewhere and the Jews of the southern suburbs headed north. Although this happened before his term as Chairperson began ten years ago, Krengel says that the past five years were particularly difficult. “This was a community which once hosted dances in its hall, celebrated Barmitzvahs regularly, and had a strong membership,” he says. “With the decline of the south, we lost people to Israel and other parts of Johannesburg.”

Krengel and his wife are in the process of moving to Norwood, but they stress how much the community and shul have meant to both of them. “I wish I could have handed over the position to someone after me, but I know it’s not reasonable to persist in light of reality. Things have changed, and even we’ve had to move. This is the sensible thing to do.,” Krengel says.

“Today, I can count on one hand the people who still live here,” he says. “This once was a very close community, especially during the war. We felt a strong sense of connection with Jews around the world, and knew full well what was happening to them in Europe. I remember one afternoon, cheder was cancelled, and the rabbis convened to daven for our brothers in Europe that they should be saved.”

Says Felicia, “The services we had here were the most sincere and beautiful I’ve ever experienced. I was heartbroken when we were struggling for members in later years. Most of the minyan we had here for Yamim Noraim slept in our home, and we were grateful to them for helping us. I will always be happy that we lived here, and that we were part of something so unique. I wish we could find new members, but this is the way of life.”

Despite the sadness they expressed, both remain positive, and will continue to cherish the memories they amassed over time. “The shul was certainly special to us,” says Krengel, “but we must embrace the future and move forward. If anything, our past gives us the strength we need to press on. We must all have courage in times that are difficult for the Jewish people, and make the most of what we have. If we have faith, we can still succeed, no matter what.”

1 Comment

  1. 1 Maish Grauman 06 Aug
    I too remember the amazing community & Shul. I celebrated my bar mitzvah at this Shul in 1955 & still have the bar mitzvah gift from the shul.
    I vividly remember the Krengel family - Julius Krengel was one of my best friemds - What an amazing family. But then there were many amazing and wonderful families in the Souhern suburbs.
    A truly buatiful history & proud to have beenb part of it

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