Century-old Benoni Shul shuttered but not forgotten
Benoni Shul, which served the once thriving local community for 90 years, officially closed its doors for the last time on Sunday, 23 July, with a deconsecration ceremony.
“The Benoni congregation has always stood proudly among the congregations of South Africa as an heir and teacher of the great heritage of Judaism, handed down to us by our ancestors,” said Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the national director of the Small Jewish Communities Association.
Rabbi Josh Green, who has been the shul’s rabbi for almost 14 years, said, “Closing down a shul isn’t an easy process, but it was done at a good time, when Benoni was still relevant in a lot of people’s lives. We didn’t wait to drag it out until there was nothing left to celebrate.”
Green, who hosted the event with his wife, Hanna, said that there wasn’t actually a service in halacha to de-consecrate something, “because no matter what happens, the holiness that has permeated the walls and the grounds of that area can never leave it”.
He alluded to the destruction of the Temple, which was believed to have occurred in this week of Tisha B’Av, and how, even once the temple was destroyed, holiness remained. “So even though we have to close Benoni Shul physically, the holiness of Benoni and the holiness of the Jewry and all of the brachot and the prayers and everything that happened there, you can’t de-consecrate that.”
“It was emotional, but it wasn’t a sad day,” said Green. “There was a mutual understanding that the time had come. While the shul might close, it’s sort of gone but not forgotten. The memories are still there.”
Green said that in 2010, he and his wife approached Silberhaft, who is also the national director of the African Jewish Congress, and offered their services for a shul over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “We were looking for somewhere exotic,” said Green, “and he called me back to tell me he had a wonderful exotic place called Benoni.”
“We went there one or two Shabboses before Rosh Hashanah as a kind of trial run, and got on really well with Bernie Goldman, who was president at the time and has since passed away. And we’ve been there almost every other Shabbos since then,” Green said.
“As the minyan slowly dwindled, we would go once a month to Benoni for Shabbat. So, before Shabbos, we’d drive out there with all our food and we’d host a Friday night dinner with all the members of the shul,” said Green. “We’d sleep over there and run shul the next morning. We’d have a nice kiddush, followed by lunch, and then we would stay until Shabbos ended and drive back home. We’ve had two kids since then, both of whom have always looked at Benoni as their second home.”
Over the years, they have hosted Sukkot braais, Purim and Chanukkah parties, Tisha B’Av ceremonies, and more. Green said that a highlight was celebrating milestones like birthdays and Barmitzvahs.
And he was honoured to witness the celebration of many second Barmitzvahs. “Getting to celebrate a second Barmitzvah with them was a huge privilege. I think just making friendships with people that are twice, even three times my age, and being guided by the elders of our community really had an impact on me.”
Green said that after Goldman’s death a couple of years ago, he was committed to keeping the shul open for as long as possible, but realised that the time had come to make the difficult decision.
They held a mincha service on Sunday, followed by kaddish for all the past members of the Benoni Jewish community. Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein spoke, as did Rabbi Silberhaft, Rabbi Green and Yvonne Rimer, the secretary of the United Hebrew Institute and chairperson of the Benoni Chevrah Kadisha.
Silberhaft encouraged those in attendance not to be disheartened by the closing of the shul but to keep the legacy of the community alive through mitzvot and by sharing the memories and lessons of the community. He urged them to “continue to live the legacy of the Benoni Jewish community wherever you are. By doing that, its 116 years won’t be something of the past but part of your and your family’s future.”
He also spoke about the importance of maintaining the graves of the Jewish cemetery in Benoni, saying, “Don’t abandon your family’s graves because you don’t want your children to do the same to yours one day.”
Yvonne Rimer, who has been a member of the community for 48 years, recalled that in the 1980s there was a community of more than 400 families, most of whom sent their children to the Hillel school, then the Jewish school in Benoni. Sadly, she said, “when the school closed, it was almost the beginning of the end of the community because a lot of people moved to Johannesburg to put their children in King David. Some extremely influential and successful Jewish members have come out of Benoni, and they have continued to support us throughout the years.”
The ceremony honoured business leaders Larry Nestadt and Stephen Koseff, who grew up as part of the Benoni community and always supported it.
Koseff said he recalled the shul being a vibrant community centre. “My father was a treasurer of the shul,” he said. “I remember all the Barmitzvahs and functions there. There was a big field, so while the adults were inside, we would go and play soccer”. Koseff said Sunday’s ceremony was “very emotional” as the shul contained such important memories for so many.
The shul’s Torah was rehomed at Linksfield Shul.