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Cyril Harris Centre to reopen for culture and social life



The Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre is to reopen its doors after a 20-month hiatus due to COVID-19.

The 21-year-old centre, situated in the precincts of the Great Park Synagogue in Johannesburg, unwillingly closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

But René Sidley and Hazel Cohen, the centre’s operations managers, say that the easing of COVID-19 restrictions will result in them returning to work very soon.

“We’ve been sitting at home since March last year,” says Sidley. “People come and pay at the door. Once we closed, nobody is coming and paying, so there’s nothing. We have no income. When we closed, we had no phones as Telkom let us down. We were starting to install fibre, and that didn’t happen. We’ve been struggling the past few years. If we could get sponsorship, it would be absolutely marvellous. That’s would really help us.”

Although the centre falls within the Great Park Synagogue, it’s a separate non-profit organisation. Its income derives from ticket sales at the door, a few donations, and annual membership, which gives members a 30% discount to all events.

The centre started in 2000 with very little funding and no database. Rabbi Cyril Harris, then chief rabbi of South Africa, had the vision to create a cultural centre in the Great Park Synagogue while it was being built, and it was accomplished together with Ernest Leibowitz, Lolly Lotzoff, and Anthony Spitz.

The mandate of the centre, as a Jewish-based organisation, is to provide recreational, cultural, educational, and social programmes to perpetuate, strengthen, and serve the greater Johannesburg community. This was achieved beyond the most optimistic expectations because of the generosity of many who supported its functions and events.

“The community centre has been a vibrant part not just of the Jewish community, because a lot of non-Jews come to us as well,” says Sidley. “We have the most amazing talks, lectures, and films and it’s not what you find on the circuit. You can’t go to Ster-Kinekor and see one of our movies. It’s just been such a fabulous centre and a safe place for people to come on their own.”

The centre’s Monday matinees, supervised bridge mornings, Yiddish classes, and art exhibitions are very popular, and give the audience another avenue for discussion and enjoyment.

It has hosted many international and local luminaries. Well-known locals include FW de Klerk, Professor Barry Schoub, Albie Sachs, Professor Adam Habib, Arthur Chaskalson, George Bizos, and Pieter-Dirk Uys.

The centre used to host about two evening events a week, and each event was followed by tea in the lounge. “The tea is famous for the fruit cake, and this gives our audience the opportunity to meet each other, discuss the evening, and socialise,” says Sidley. “Many people have made new friends and rediscovered old friends. There has even been a marriage of a couple who met here.”

One of the memorable moments Sidley recounts at the centre was when almost every doctor attended late renowned palaeontologist Professor Phillip Tobias’s lecture, which he had to repeat because of overbooking.

Artist William Kentridge came to talk about his frieze along the embankment of Tiber River in Rome’s urban waterfront. The evening was so oversubscribed, Kentridge agreed to do two talks on the same night and the auditorium could have been filled to overflowing for a third session.

The three Pelham sisters, Naomi, Ruth and Aviva, were persuaded by the centre to do an evening of song, which they put together as a tribute to their mother, and at the end of the performance, they called their 90-year-old mother onto the stage to join them in song. It was so successful, Aviva turned it into a musical production that she took to London.

The centre, which hosts many book launches, was once asked by one of its regular visitors to host the launch of a book he had written on Alzheimer’s. The centre thought that no one would attend, but it decided to give him the platform. “To our amazement, the auditorium was filled to capacity, and at the end of his talk, we were approached to continue with this programme by two women who gave a talk on memory retention,” recalls Sidley.

On Sukkot, the Holocaust & Genocide Centre often brought survivors for a film and tea in the Sukkah at the centre. Rabbi Dovid Hazdan of the Great Park Synagogue joined the survivors for tea, and helped them partake in the mitzvah of the lulav and etrog. For one of the survivors, it was the first time she had even held a lulav and etrog, and it was quite an emotional experience for all concerned.

The centre’s chairperson, Marlene Bethlehem, opened the South Africa Rugby Minyan exhibition wearing her Springbok rugby shirt, and got rugby great Syd Nomis, who was there, to autograph the back of her shirt.

Judith Mason, one of South Africa’s leading artists, designed the stained-glass windows in the Great Park Synagogue. A tribute was held in the centre when she passed away.

For residents of old-age homes, the centre annually hosts a morning in which they see a movie with a Jewish theme, followed by tea.

“The centre is a beacon of light, stimulation, and entertainment for the Jewish community and to the many loyal non-Jewish members who take delight in the programmes,” says Sidley. “It plays such an important and vibrant role in the Jewish community that it must reopen. To do so, it needs help with funding, and we can only appeal to our wonderful community to support us.”

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