Chief rabbis unite to celebrate Muizenberg Shul centenary
The appearance of two chief rabbis – of South Africa and the United Kingdom (UK) – to honour Muizenberg Shul’s centenary celebrations this month was a rare occasion.
South African Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein says it was a particularly special honour to have the UK Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, join him for the centenary.
“Chief Rabbi Mirvis has a deep connection to South African Jewry, and in particular, Cape Town, the Jewish community of his birth,” Goldstein says.
Mirvis and Lady Valerie Mirvis were invited as guests of honour at the centenary by Charlene and Herschel Mayers on behalf of the Muizenberg Shul centenary committee.
Mirvis told the SA Jewish Report, “Valerie and I had a most memorable time during the centenary celebrations. While reflecting on the significant role that Muizenberg has played in the lives of so many people, we were also celebrating the vitality of the community under the leadership of Rabbi Ryan Newfield, and hopefully a wonderful future as well.”
The Mirvises have a special connection to Muizenberg and its shul. Valerie (née Kaplan), who grew up in Bulawayo, spent summer holidays in the area. Having grown up in Wynberg, where his late father, Rabbi Dr Lionel Mirvis, was the rabbi, Mirvis was a Bnei Akiva madrich in Muizenberg as a teenager, and led services on the high holy days in Muizenberg Shul. Mirvis’ brother, Howard, was a rabbi at Muizenberg Shul for a number of years.
“I reached out to Chief Rabbi Mirvis because he had been an integral part of Muizenberg Shul. A lot of people in their 70s and 80s here remember him fondly,” the Muizenberg-bred Charlene Mayers said.
More than 1 500 people participated in the celebrations in Cape Town over eight days, starting from 28 December. “They were from all over South Africa, Australia, the United States, the UK, the Netherlands, and Israel,” Newfield, the architect of the events, says.
In his Shabbat morning sermon, Mirvis recalled that the very first Jewish communal facility in Muizenberg was a Talmud Torah and not a shul. He highlighted the centrality of Torah education in Jewish communities, particularly in Muizenberg. He challenged the many hundreds present to mark the special anniversary by strengthening their commitment to Jewish values and learning.
“It was a memorable, heartwarming, and meaningful Shabbos spent together with the Muizenberg community celebrating its centenary,” Goldstein says. “It was special to have the time to share the platform with Chief Rabbi Mirvis. I particularly enjoyed the interactive, lively, and engaging question and answer sessions we did together.”
Mirvis and Goldstein fielded questions on a wide range of topics, such as antisemitism, humility in leadership, the war in Israel, the inclusion of women in synagogue life, Israel and South Africa’s relationship after the 7 October attacks, and dealing with people with different views on social media. Particular interest was shown in Mirvis’s role in the coronation of King Charles III and his relationship with the royal family.
Other events included a surf day, in which local Jewish professional surfers taught kids to 70-year-olds to surf, and a historic walking tour of Muizenberg, at which participants heard stories of the early Jews in Muizenberg. There was also a hike up Muizenberg Peak for sunrise prayer, and men and women prayed in a cave on St James Peak.
“The closing ceremony got everyone crying with joy and pride in our shul’s history, with a 26-minute documentary that listed all the rabbis and influential persons who helped the shul start and continue. Our centenary is about the revival of Muizenberg Shul.”
The shul is one of the oldest in South Africa, starting in 1916 and occupying the same building since 1924. “More importantly, almost the whole of South African Jewry has ties to Muizenberg Shul from vacations for the past 100 years,” Newfield says.
Says Goldstein, “Muizenberg as a shul has served not only the local Jewish community, but also the broader South African Jewish community through its devoted band of holiday makers for many generations. It has a special and iconic place in the heart of South African Jewry. These centenary celebrations were really something to remember. It’s another reminder to us of the critical role that our shuls play in the continued vitality and vibrancy of the South African Jewish community.
“Our shuls are the places where we connect every single week, and are a beacon of light and kindness that supports community, learning, and mitzvot. The centenary celebration in a sense paid tribute to Muizenberg Shul, but at the same time, to all of our shuls across the country.”
Newfield says the shul is unique because it’s “one of the only – if not the only – shul in South Africa that has had almost the whole community of South Africa attend it and visit. We’re also one of the only shuls that has reached 100 years and is still going in this country.”
The shul has experienced a revival in spite of challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, largely thanks to Newfield, who has significantly expanded the community since his appointment in March 2020. “We were forced to go online during COVID-19, and we had international reunions that have connected disconnected parties for more than half a century,” he says.
In December, the shul’s minyan is made up of Jews from Cape Town, Johannesburg, and around the world, each with different hashkafas (worldviews) and clothing.
“Muizenberg Shul’s vision for the next 100 years is to become the most inclusive Orthodox shul in South Africa by virtue of the fact that we’re one of the most assimilated and intermarried parts of the country,” Newfield says. “Non-Jews of Muizenberg know the shul, and want to visit it.”