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Great Park Synagogue – steeped in tradition

Almost uniquely for a major Diaspora city, Johannesburg has had a Jewish presence from its earliest beginnings. Two present-day Jewish organisations can trace their origins back to the late 1880s, when the town was less than a year old. One is the Chevrah Kadisha and the other the Great Park Synagogue.

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Religion

DAVID SAKS

Pictured : Interior of Great Park Shul.

The Great Park’s status as the “Grand Old Lady” of Johannesburg shuls is belied by the recent origin of its current premises. It was only in the second half of 2000, in fact, that the congregation permanently relocated there.

Trace the congregation’s history back to the very beginning, however, and you will eventually find yourself back in July 1887, when 88 eminent Jewish residents met in the store of B Wainstein to found the Witwatersrand Goldfields Jewish Association.

Since then, always allowing for the various name changes, schisms, amalgamations and changes of location that have taken place, the congregation has been in continuous existence.

In addition to being Johannesburg’s oldest congregation, the Great Park was for most of its history its most prestigious. It was at the Great Synagogue on Wolmarans Streets that all major community prayer gatherings took place, among them the public mourning for the victims of the Holocaust and the celebration of the founding of the State of Israel.

From 1915 until the late 1980s, it was the official seat of the Chief Rabbi, a position that at first referred only to the head of the congregation and its affiliate bodies, but eventually was expanded to encompass the entire country.

The United Hebrew Congregation, as it was called throughout the Wolmarans Street years, took the lead in establishing the Johannesburg Beth Din and Federation of Synagogues (precursor to today’s UOS). It took the lead in providing Jewish religious education and later ran a Ministers’ Training College to provide the country’s first locally-trained Jewish religious officiants. 

With the decline of the Johannesburg CBD, the Great Synagogue’s attendances dropped off sharply from the mid-1980s and in November 1994, its doors were finally closed. Such was the attachment congregants felt to the old building, however, that the new premises in Glenhove Road, Lower Houghton, on a smaller scale, reproduced it as exactly as possible in terms of its proportions and such key features as its dome, column and arches. It also includes the original fittings of the Great Synagogue, such as the bimah and rabbi’s pulpit. 

There was considerable opposition from certain quarters to the building of a costly new shul at a time of demographic and financial uncertainty in the Jewish community, but the project went ahead notwithstanding.

On Rosh Hashanah, 2000, the congregation came together to worship for the first time in their magnificent new premises. Today, the Great Park Synagogue is a thriving centre of Jewish religious and (thanks to its adjoining Rabbi Cyril Harris Community Centre) cultural life.

Under its long-serving Rabbi Dovid Hazdan, it combines a youthful dynamism with a reverence for tradition – epitomized, perhaps, by the top hats proudly worn by its honorary officers on all important occasions. 

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Noble Ryde

    Aug 3, 2015 at 11:18 am

    ‘And how exactly has the community left the old structure in Wolmarans Street? It has been left to rot- and fittings like the plaques for the oldest community leader in JHB, Emanuel Mendelson and Jaques Klisser, and EVEN the star of David Aron Kodesh, still with Hebrew writing upon it has been left behind to heathenism. If you live in Johannesburg, chances are your Bobba or Zaida davened in that shul. What a disgrace and insult to our forebears!

    In countless communities old synagogues are protected by the parent communities and safeguarded or turned into a Jewish Museum, which Johannesburg lacks!

    The modern day Great-Park community cannot pride itself until it saves the old shul, as mandated by halocha.

    Apparently the shul was last sold for R800,000! Come on fellow Jewish South Africans – let’s buy our old Shul back- after all this is where our parents and grandparents davened for generations- where they grieved in a special service for Holocaust victims and said a mass Kaddish (many fainted at that tragic service)- we need this place back- who will take the initiative? We need YOU to assist! ‘

  2. Menachem Mendeal ben Yisrowal

    Jul 31, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    ‘Great.   My Mother was married there.

    SQT^U

    Can you email me a picture.’

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Religion

“Louder!”

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Tragedy struck in Meron, Israel, last week. Dozens of deaths and injuries in a horrific collapse as thousands were celebrating the joyous day of Lag B’Omer. My wife and I were privileged to be there a few years ago, and it was an incredibly inspirational experience. Our hearts go out to the bereaved families, and we wish the injured a complete and speedy recovery.

Sadly, the Jewish people are no strangers to tragedy. Usually, though, it has been inflicted upon us by those who hate us.

One section stands out from the rest in this week’s parsha. It’s known as the Tochecho or The Rebuke. There we read a whole litany of disasters that will befall our people should we abandon the G-dly way of life. The tradition is that the Torah reader himself takes this aliyah, and when he reaches the relevant section, he lowers his voice to soften the blow of these terrible curses.

For 24 years, I produced and hosted South Africa’s only Jewish radio show, The Jewish Sound. Once, my guest on air was Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Israel. He told the story that as a child growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, one Shabbos, he went to daven in the shul of the Rebbe of Klausenberg. Originally from Hungary, the Rebbe was a spiritual giant of a man who had lost 11 children in the Holocaust and never sat shiva because he was pre-occupied with saving lives. After the war, he settled in America and developed a large following. Subsequently, he relocated to Israel and among other things, set up the Laniado Hospital in Natanya.

That Shabbos, The Rebuke was being read. When it came to the part of the curses, the reader did what he always did. He lowered his voice. Suddenly, the Rebbe shouted in Yiddish, “Hecher! (louder).” The reader was confused. He was simply following the tradition of generations. Perhaps he wasn’t hearing right, so he continued reading in the softer tone. “Hecher!” thundered the Klausenberger Rebbe. “Let the Almighty hear what is being read! All the curses have already been fulfilled. Now there must be only blessings for our people.”

Many of our sages have described the Holocaust as the birth pangs of Moshiach, and the ultimate redemption. Never will there be a repeat of such calamities. We have endured more than enough of exile, wanderings, pogroms, and persecutions. The curses, in all their tragic, cataclysmic imagery have materialised. Now there must be only goodness, happiness, warmth, and blessing for am Yisrael.

At the end of The Rebuke, G-d says, “And I will remember My covenant with Jacob, and also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham will I remember, and I will remember the Land.”

As He remembers us, let us remember Him and our covenant. May we prepare for Shavuot and the giving of the Torah with earnestness and joy. May G-d and His people always remember each other. Amen.

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Religion

Lag B’Omer, fire, and faith

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With the old Johannesburg General Hospital, Cape Town’s Table Mountain, and the University of Cape Town having suffered devastating fire damage just last week, I would imagine that the custom of lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer will be somewhat subdued this year.

Perhaps it’s timely to ask where this custom originates. And, in general, how is fire looked upon in Jewish thought? What, is, in fact, the spiritual symbolism of fire?

If we go back to the very beginning of time in the Genesis story, we find that the first human, Adam, discovered fire on the very first Saturday night in history. It was the first time he had experienced darkness and, somehow, he was inspired to rub two flint stones together sparking a flame which enabled him to see in the night. This is the source for our weekly blessing over fire, “boreh meorei haeish”, in the Havdalah prayer recited at the conclusion of Shabbat.

Fire features prominently throughout the Bible and in the Tanach. Just a few episodes that come to mind immediately are Moses’ very first revelation from G-d at the burning bush, and the clouds of glory which miraculously guided and protected the Israelites during their travels in the wilderness which included a pillar of fire. During the great revelation at Sinai where we heard the ten commandments directly from G-d, scripture records that, “The whole of Mount Sinai was smoking because the L-rd had descended upon it in fire.” Indeed, the Torah itself is described as “a fiery faith”.

Tragically, twice in our history, our enemies set fire to Jerusalem and our Holy Temples, causing destruction and the enduring exile from which we have yet to fully recover.

Arguably, the most famous wedding speech one hears under the chupah is the one about the Hebrew words for “man” and “woman”, “ish” and “isha”. Ish (man) contains the Hebrew letter yud while isha (woman) contains the letter hay. Together, yud and hay spell one of the holy names of G-d. Remove those letters, and you are left with only the alef and the shin in each word, which spells aish, or fire.

The sobering message to bride and groom? Leaving G-d out of the marital relationship definitely spells trouble and may well bring a fiery end to the marriage, whereas the presence of Hashem in their home is a recipe for a life of happiness.

Not long after the people sinned with the golden calf, the Jewish people were remorseful but needed to do something meaningful to atone for their terrible mistake. G-d told them to bring a half shekel of silver as their penance.

But Moses was puzzled. How could the giving of a mere coin atone for such a grievous sin as idolatry? Rashi, quoting the Midrash, writes that G-d showed Moses a “coin of fire”. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the concept of the coin of fire means that while a coin alone is certainly an inadequate atonement, if it is given with fire, meaning with passion and profound feelings of contrition and regret, it can indeed bring about the desired atonement. Thus, fire becomes a powerful symbol of a passionate and inspired spiritual experience.

Of course, fire has always been a symbol of warmth, light, illumination, spirituality, and even divine revelation as it pierces the darkness of the material world. But, as we all know only too well, fire can also be a source of horrific chaos and destruction. Fire can illuminate and open our eyes to new and higher realities. It can help us to “see the light”, but it can also wreak havoc and destruction.

Nuclear energy can fire up power plants producing electricity for an entire continent, but if it gets into the wrong hands, it can blow our entire planet to smithereens.

Fire, too, can be a positive tool for building, illuminating, welding, and bringing things together; or, it can be a weapon of mass destruction, G-d forbid. It all depends on the people using it and their intentions, whether noble or evil. When controlled with intelligence and sensitivity, fire can provide energy to fuel a nation. Unchecked, it destroys and leaves utter devastation in its wake.

In the Lag B’Omer story, besides Rabbi Akiva, the other hero of the day is Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the second century sage who passed away on this day. Besides being a famed Talmudist, he is acknowledged as the author of the holy Zohar, the “Bible” of the Kabbalah and the father of Jewish mysticism.

Tradition has it that when he taught Torah it was, quite literally, a fiery experience. And, on that fateful Lag B’Omer day, when his holy soul was leaving this world, his face was so radiant that his students couldn’t gaze at him directly. And his entire house was shining with a fiery light, symbolising the powerful, spiritual light of his holy teachings. For this, as well as other reasons, we light bonfires on Lag B’Omer, especially around his tomb in Meron, the little town in Upper Galilee in Israel.

I will end with a Jewish proverb from the saintly sages of old that tells us: “After a fire, one is blessed with wealth.” So may it be for all who have suffered trauma and loss.

  • Rabbi Yossy Goldman is the life rabbi emeritus at Sydenham Shul and the president of the SA Rabbinical Association.

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Religion

To love is easy, to respect is hard

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“Twelve thousand pairs of students were under Rebbi Akiva, and they all died in one chapter for they did not act respectfully to each other. It was taught, they all died from Pesach until Shavuot. They all died a bad death.” (Talmud, Yevamot 62b).

There is something that really bothers me about this piece of Talmud, namely, were these students of Rebbi Akiva “goodies” or “baddies”?

On the one hand, they seem to be real baddies. To treat each other without respect certainly sounds pretty bad. And the Talmud tells us that they all suffered a “bad death”.

On the other, they seem to be real goodies. After all, the Talmud calls them Rebbi Akiva’s students. It doesn’t say that there were 12 000 pairs of dropouts from Rebbi Akiva! Furthermore, their demise is mourned for more than a month every year by every Jew. It could be that no other people in the history of the world are mourned to the same extent.

So which one is it?

It’s both. This profound Talmudic text teaches us the tension between two magnificent human traits: love and respect.

Rebbi Akiva taught love. It was none other than Rebbi Akiva who said, “Love your fellow as yourself.” This is a great principle of the Torah. No doubt, it’s the reason why his students were described as being in pairs. If the Talmud wanted to emphasise the enormity of their numbers, it should have said 24 000 individuals. But it said 12 000 pairs because it wanted to reveal their inseparability, and to emphasise the enormity of their love for each other.

Why, then, did they die? The Talmud is teaching us that they died not in spite of their love for each other, they died because of it.

The core power of love is commonality. People love each other because they share things in common. It’s this commonality that brings them together and unites them. It allows them to become one.

But people in love becoming one has its problems. First, it leads to sameness, and sameness leads to redundancy. And second, it leads to exclusivity, and exclusivity leads to rejection.

This is why the students of Rebbi Akiva died “in the same chapter”, because they all lived only “in the same chapter”. And it’s why they were able to love each other, but weren’t able to respect each other, because love is based on sameness, respect is based on difference.

The Talmud is teaching us about the goodness and importance of love, about the students of love who learnt from a rebbe of love, who taught a Torah of love. And we mourn those students to this day out of our love for them.

But the Talmud is also teaching us the dangers of love. To love is easy, to respect is hard. To love is to remove otherness, to respect is to admire it.

As great as love is, by itself, it has no future. It’s when love leads to respect that it will lead to Sinai, and a better future for all.

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