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End of an era as Bulawayo Jewish aged home closes its doors

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The Zimbabwe Jewish community is tiny, but it’s still functioning. So an announcement last week that Jewish retirement home Savyon Lodge in Bulawayo is closing down was greeted with shock, sadness, and a sense that this is truly the end of an era for this former centre of Jewish life in Southern Africa.

Described in old newspaper clippings as “the apple of the community’s eye”, Savyon Lodge was more than a retirement establishment. It was a gathering place, a welcoming haven, a home away from home, and a “touchstone” symbolising what was once a thriving and close-knit community.

“I’m pleased my grandparents aren’t around to see that [Savyon Lodge is closing down]. How devastating after all these years and so much effort! For those it served, it was a blessing,” wrote Joanne Simon Verster on the Zimbabwe Jewish Community Facebook group.

“My late grandparents, Ellie and Millie Zacks, were the ones who started Savyon Lodge,” she said. “There’s a plaque on the wall at the entrance with my grandfather’s name on it. They spent so much time and effort on Savyon, often moving in there for chaggim or if there was no matron around. Without them, there would never have been Savyon Lodge. They were the most generous and loving souls who worked tirelessly for the elderly.”

“I hoped to spend my final days there back home where I belong,” said Jennie Greenspan-Sher. Describing the deep sense of loss, Vicky Codron Koblenz wrote, “I don’t know how to react. Everything I grew up with is gone … this new world I really don’t belong.”

“In the past, my parents were devoted to maintaining the wonderful place it was. My uncle Leizer lived there for many years until he passed at the age of 108,” wrote Hylton Reiff. According to Theresa Bengis, Leizer Abrahamson still davened at the home’s shul service every day at the age of 105. There was a shul service every morning and evening, with a minyan, which continued until recently. There was accommodation for visitors and the residents enjoyed hosting family so that they could enjoy a yom tov with guests as they did when they had their own homes.

Ilan Wiesenbacher, who still lives in Zimbabwe, wrote, “A very sad day indeed. In saying that, there also needs to be special mention of the people who kept it going all these years through extremely tough times. I’m not going to mention names, but I know many people who have given of their time and resources and to you, I say kol hakavod! Thank you.”

Ronnie Elkaim agreed, saying, “Kol hakavod to all the wonderful people who contributed so much of their love and time to all the residents and staff of this amazing place. My brother, Jack Furmanovsky, together with Leanora Granger, designed the building. There is a charcoal drawing by the late Dave Golub’s sister. The picture was hung in the dining room. This artist was murdered in Vilna by the Nazis. I think the late Edith Golub donated the picture to Savyon Lodge at some stage.”

Another member of the community said that the charcoal drawing was “still hanging in pride of place in the lounge when I last looked”.

According to community members, Savyon Lodge’s last resident is now living at the BS Leon retirement home in Harare, and has settled well.

So why was Savyon Lodge such an icon of the once-thriving Zimbabwean Jewish community? “Savyon was an oasis of peace, calm, and support for so many for many years. It was one of the last Jewish-owned and run institutions in Bulawayo and a symbol of the once proud community that cared for the young and the aged,” says Dave Bloom, a former resident of Zimbabwe and the administrator of the Zimbabwe Jewish Community Facebook group.

“The beautiful shul burned down in 2003. The Carmel School is still running as a Jewish primary school but I’m not sure if there are any Jewish kids in the school,” he says. “It’s hard to say this, but this is another significant phase in the demise of the Bulawayo Jewish community, which today numbers about 50 to 60 souls from its peak of about 3 000 in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Of course, this isn’t unique to the Zimbabwe Jewish community but a trend throughout the smaller communities of Southern Africa.”

Paul Bernstein shared photos of the Bulawayo Jewish Community Centennial Magazine published in 1994, which included information about how the home was founded. “At a public meeting in the Jewish Guild Hall in December 1960, it was decided to establish a home for elderly residents. The overall plan provided for 30 residents. When Savyon Lodge opened its doors in July 1967, it could accommodate only 13 people. The third and final stage was reached in 1976, when room was made for a further 26 people. By 1976, it had risen to 45 people.”

Residents had their own private rooms, received three kosher meals a day, and care was provided by trained nurses and caregivers who knew the intricacies of Yiddishkeit. Receiving no government subsidy, the home was funded entirely by residents’ charges, investments, and donations from the local community and abroad.

According to African Jewish Congress chief executive and spiritual leader Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, Bulawayo has always been a “warm and united” Jewish community, and Savyon Lodge had a special atmosphere. He says there are about 200 members of the Jewish community in Zimbabwe today, and the various congregations continue to observe Shabbat and chaggim.

“Savyon Lodge, the only Jewish old aged home in Zimbabwe, was a unique and wonderful institution. It served all the Jewish communities in what was Southern Rhodesia and then Zimbabwe. It upheld the Jewish traditions – Shabbat and yom tovim were celebrated, and there was a kosher kitchen. It was run by dedicated and caring staff and equally dedicated and caring members of the community. It was a gracious and beautifully maintained institution with tranquil, lovely gardens and excellent amenities.

“There was never a question that the physical, mental, and personal needs of the aged community weren’t catered for, and there was a place for all who needed it,” he says. “As the Jewish community declined in numbers, donations from all over the diaspora from ex-Zimbabweans and others and organisations such as ChaiSA, helped Savyon to maintain its traditions. There are so many wonderful memories of all the residents, staff, and community members who played their part in making Savyon Lodge such a special place in the fabric of a Jewish life in Bulawayo and Zimbabwe.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Max Wolf

    Nov 4, 2021 at 4:01 pm

    As the son of my mom,Golda who spent the last part of her life there
    I shall always be most appreciative of this fine institutional .
    The people who ran the sparkling gem shall always be remembered
    I was able to stay there when my mom past .
    The peaceful ambience was always welcoming after a long haul from the states.
    The Chai organization was available at all times even when the residents were sparse .Local folk were always seen Visiting.
    Hopefully the remains staff have alternative jobs in the community now
    Shall always be proud of Savyon.
    If there is anything my family can do in the twilight period We shall help

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