Harvesting Brakpan Shul’s rich history
Brakpan Shul was built in the East Rand almost a hundred years ago, and thanks to the efforts of Yakima Waner, it could stand for a hundred more.
At a time when several historic South African shuls have fallen into disrepair, Waner has committed to preserving the rich heritage of the Brakpan Jewish community by saving its shul from neglect.
Together with her organisation, The Harvest Project, she is in the process of securing its status as a heritage site so that it will forever stand as an icon of Judaism on the East Rand.
“This shul is an icon for Jews who entered South Africa from Eastern Europe during the early 1900s,” Waner told the SA Jewish Report. “The Jews that came to the East Rand were more labour-skilled [like merchants and cobblers], a community which used their hands and had some business skills. They weren’t as educated as the Jews that went to Johannesburg.”
Waner is the founder and chairperson of The Harvest Project, a non-profit organisation which aims to uplift vulnerable people in need (especially children) and help them to overcome the consequences of war, inequality, poverty, health issues, and abuse. The project’s main goal is to teach those in need the value of self-worth through the therapy of harvesting their own food.
According to Waner, Brakpan Shul was officially opened in 1931, although the community itself was established in 1918. It was designed by Wolseley-Spicer, a recognised English architect who designed many landmarks in South Africa.
“The United Hebrew Institute of Brakpan [UHI] is in fact much older than the building,” said Waner. “It’s the heart of the synagogue and has kept it going all these years. It also looks after the Jewish section of Brakpan Cemetery.”
It was through partnering with the UHI that Waner strengthened her family’s bond with the shul.
“The partnership came about when we were given the opportunity to open our Blessings Eco Preparatory School on the surrounding shul grounds after we were denied the right to open the school in the community,” she said. “At the time, the shul was still running, and my father, Ernest Waner, and uncle, Jeffrey Waner, had been looking after the synagogue since 2001.
“They opened their loving arms to our project in memory of all the children that were oppressed and executed during the Holocaust.”
Jeffrey played an integral role in maintaining Jewish life in Brakpan over 15 years, assembling a minyan on Saturdays by bringing residents of Sandringham Gardens to the shul, and maintaining the Jewish cemetery. Tragically, he passed away early last year.
“Brakpan Shul has been a great part of my life since I was a child,” said Waner. “I was never regarded a Jew because my mother wasn’t, but that didn’t stop my connection with this sacred space. I will always remember my aunt, Matilda Rosowsky, speaking of its healing properties. She said the shul had healed many souls, including her own.
“For years, the UHI wanted to open a museum and convert the building into a heritage site so it could be a permanent icon that celebrated all the Jews of the East Rand, not just Brakpan,” she said. “I was honoured to look after this building in memory and celebration of all my ancestors.”
The Harvest Project has created a presence on the grounds through the school and the Harvest Centre of Judaism & Equality, promoting equality and diminishing deterioration or vandalism, said Waner.
“We keep the space clean and safe, and will be making the UHI’s dream of a museum and heritage site a reality,” she said.
“Today, there is still a caretaker who makes sure the site is clean, something which isn’t the case with other sites in the East Rand. Some Jewish cemeteries on the East Rand and in other metros in the country where Jews have left are in very poor shape. They are nothing but eye sores.”
Few Jews remain in Brakpan today, among them 93-year-old Monica Ressel, the secretary of the UHI, who still calls former Jewish residents of Brakpan to see how they are and to remind them of upcoming yahrzeits.
“There are a few Jews left from the past, but no youth have remained here,” said Waner. “During lockdown and now, The Harvest Project offers services to the elderly Jewish residents of Brakpan, and though the shul will always be a part of the Waner family, it has become sacred and precious to others too.”
Indeed, during the first lockdown in 2020, about 19 000 meals were provided to those in need from the shul grounds.
“This is what has become of Brakpan Shul,” says Waner. “It’s now a place of salvation and hope for all in the name of G-d.”
The plight of immigrants to South African and the less fortunate, often treated with hostility, isn’t unlike that of Jews who entered this country in the 19th century, Waner said.
“The Harvest Project sees every life as equal, and protecting this landmark is a step to promote equality for the formerly oppressed and the children who are oppressed today,” she said. “As long as this building stands, we won’t give up on the community which looks to us for salvation.”
With plans in place to secure status as a heritage site, Waner hopes to celebrate the building’s centenary by planting 100 fruit trees in the community via “The Harvest Plant a Tree Project” when the time comes.
“We encourage people from the East Rand to donate any artefacts to the shul museum,” she said. “Many Jews don’t understand the important of having a presence. They take it for granted. Many have criticised the UHI for keeping the synagogue open because they don’t see eye to eye with its open-mindedness.
“At the end of the day, the UHI looks after the forgotten ones. That’s a great honour in the eyes of Hashem.”
Zaka honoured for bravery in Bank of Lisbon inferno
Jewish rescue and recovery organisation Zaka SA has been awarded a medal of bravery by the Gauteng province for its assistance with the fire in the Bank of Lisbon building in the Johannesburg CBD more than two years ago.
Zaka SA was honoured on International Firefighters Day on 4 May, a day in which the City of Joburg remembered all firefighters who had “courageously put others’ lives before their own, saluting them for their selfless dedication and bravery”.
Three firefighters lost their lives in the blaze, one plunging to his death on the pavement below, after trying to put out the fire near the top of the high-rise building. The building was subsequently found to be only minimally compliant with health and safety regulations, and firefighters faced a lack of water and oxygen. It has since been demolished.
Zaka SA “rescued the rescuers” by offering psychological support to devastated and exhausted city firefighters, and food for 100 firefighters, with the assistance of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD).
However, when they reached the scene, Zaka and the SAJBD discovered that 700 students housed in a building next door needed to be evacuated for fear of smoke inhalation, and more food was urgently required to feed them. Zaka was honoured for assisting with the evacuation of these students, and for providing necessary relief.
“Bank of Lisbon was a complicated story,” said Daniel Forman, the head of Zaka SA. “There was a vacuum of resources including water availability, and we encountered a challenging scene as the three firefighters lost their lives soon into the crisis but firefighters had to continue to fight the fire. The biggest challenge was that the fire was so high up in the building, so firefighters had to preserve their oxygen supplies going up.”
Zaka SA was set up in 2015 to assist the community with emergency search and rescue, body identification and recovery, and fire-containment services. Like Zaka around the world, it’s entirely staffed by volunteers, and relies on communal support to keep going.
It has two trailers which each hold 600 litres of water, and is often the first responder in suburban fires, where early detection and response can eliminate the need to call city firefighters. However, Forman cautions that 600 litres is used up in just seven minutes, and a house can burn down in minutes, making additional resources mandatory.
Zaka is sometimes called on to fight more than six fires a month, he said, particularly in the winter months when people rely on heating devices in their homes, and fires are lit by the homeless and security guards to keep warm.
“Zaka’s fire-containment unit came about through challenges which exist in the system,” Forman said, “including the long wait for firefighters.” Another of these challenges is theft of brass parts from neighbourhood fire hydrants, rendering them ineffective.
However, he stressed that the City of Joburg had been involved in a major upgrade of these hydrants, and was amazingly supportive of Zaka generally. He praised the Gauteng government for exposing the organisation’s communal efforts.
“Not once have they not responded to our call or thanked us for our help,” he said of Joburg’s firefighters. “They do an amazing job.”
Yummy Shavuot from Yaddies
Seven hundred families in financial difficulty in the community can now enjoy Shavuot treats including cheesecake, mac n cheese, and pizza thanks to generous monetary and food donations from the community, Jewish schools, and the Rabbi Kraines Chessed Challenge (RKCC).
Their generosity made it possible for Yad Aharon to distribute these special treats, as well as healthy, nutritious food, to community members to make sure that they also have a joyful chag.
RKCC is an initiative which has challenged the community to maximise acts of good deeds and loving kindness during the 49 days of the Omer.
The initiative was formed in honour of Rabbi Kraines (zt”l), whose untimely passing left a void in the Johannesburg community. It celebrates the legacy of a man who was known to be a champion of the mitzvah of chessed.
In addition to the RKCC, Yad Aharon’s Shavuot drive has involved more than 20 Jewish schools as well as local and international donors who realise the importance it plays in alleviating nutritional insecurity in the community.
- To contribute towards the Shavuot drive, visit www.yadaharon.co.za
A portrait of PE through a life of service
As Port Elizabeth community stalwart Isaac Rubin reflects on his 90th year, his life story emerges as a portrait of this once thriving, now diminishing, but always impactful, Jewish centre of life.
Having offered decades of service as head of the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Benevolent Society, as well as a vice-chairperson and member of the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation Council and serving as its choirmaster, Rubin has lived a life firmly entrenched in service. His has been a contribution that has helped ensure that Jewish tradition continues to be fulfilled in this small seaside town.
“My best saying is, ‘Zeh hayom asah adonai, nagila v’nismicha bo.’ (This is the day that G-d created; let us be happy and rejoice in it.) To rejoice and be happy, you have to have your health, financial resources, a partner, a family.”
He hopes that he has been able to assist in making this a little more of a reality for those around him.
“It’s a blessing that Hashem has given me, to have the strength to do mitzvot,” he says.
The history of Port Elizabeth can be traced back to a group of at least 16 Jewish families that came with the 1820 British settlers. Later, a wave of German immigrants also arrived. Rubin’s family, from the town of Ludza in Latvia, were part of a wave of Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms and antisemitism in the latter part of the century into the 1900s. His uncle came first, followed by his father. Later, his mother and oldest brother, Solly, arrived – both speaking only Yiddish.
Rubin, born in 1931, was one of four siblings born in Port Elizabeth itself. Building a life in this foreign country was difficult for the family especially as they hit the Depression years; yet his parents, both tailors, persisted throughout.
When it came to Rubin’s first day of school, he remembers how his father couldn’t come because of work and his mother because she didn’t speak English. A friend came with to help settle him in.
During the war years, he recalls having bomb drills at school where “we had to duck under our desk and put a cork between our teeth in order to prevent our jaw breaking in the event of an explosion”.
Rubin also attended cheder from the age of eight until matric. He was inspired by his studies there to complete Hebrew as a matric subject at school.
His family, in spite of financial struggles, persisted in maintaining cultural traditions. “Hard as it was, every Rosh Hashanah, we would get a new suit of short pants and a jacket. My father would close the shop on all major Jewish holidays, and we would go to shul. We kept a kosher home.”
Community life flourished in these years, with a Jewish population of about 5 000 people. “I was a troop leader in the Jewish Boy Scouts in the 1940s,” Rubin says. Always a keen sportsman, he established a Maccabi Jewish cricket club in the city which eventually had so many members, it played across three leagues. He also played in Port Elizabeth’s Jewish rugby team.
Rubin remembers some antisemitism at one school he attended – where the Jewish children were called “porkers”. Yet, he recalls proudly how when his own grandson attended the same school decades later, the outcome of such provocation was very different.
“My grandson’s teacher made a remark about how ‘you must look after your money, and be like the Jews’, and my grandson went straight to the teacher and said, ‘You aren’t allowed to say that.’” A meeting was held with the principal and family, and the teacher had to make a formal apology.
Meanwhile, after his own schooling, Rubin went on to become a pharmacist and travelled around the world, working at one time at a catering facility for the American army in the Arctic Circle. “I had a contract as a dish washer, and graduated to become a waiter,” he laughs.
Later, he married and settled back in Port Elizabeth with his wife, Shirley. They had a daughter who sadly died at age 37, as well as two sons and four grandchildren. Rubin opened his own pharmacy and his one son has followed in his career. Although Rubin retired at 67, he went back to work part-time 12 years ago.
Once a keen runner who completed 11 Comrades and 11 Two Oceans marathons, Rubin swims in the sea, does yoga, and walks. Both he and his wife are keen bridge players. Over the years, he also volunteered for Lifeline and Hospice. Yet, even this wasn’t enough for Rubin – at the age of 72, he decided to improve his musicality, and learnt to play the piano.
Always a committed member of the synagogue, over the years, he became increasingly active in communal leadership. Twenty years ago he became a member of the council of the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation and then adopted his roles in the Chevrah Kadisha, Benevolent Society, and shul choir.
His love of liturgical singing stems from his father who also loved Jewish and Yiddish songs, and would “sing softly”.
Rubin decided to join the Chevrah Kadisha “when I saw what it had done for my mother, father, and daughter” on their passing. In his role, Rubin would respond to calls night and day, going to the homes of the deceased, comforting the mourners, and organising all the logistics of burials. It was only at the age of 80 that he stopped even helping to dig the graves.
Earlier this year, Rubin stepped down as chairperson, although the organisation then elected to appoint him honorary chair for life.
Gidon La Grange, his successor to the position, recounts once being with Rubin when a call came through from a family who had tragically lost a loved one. “He couldn’t speak. For at least three minutes, he just sat. Silent. He took out his hanky, and wiped tears.” They then began discussing the practical arrangements.
“I remember thinking, this is the quality you should have in responding to people’s loss. This compassion is the way he deals with everybody. The whole community loves him because he carries everything close to his heart.”
Rubin stills heads up the shul choir and the Port Elizabeth Jewish Benevolent Society, whose role is to ensure that the basic needs of all members of the community are met. Although the community has shrunk drastically, its needs have increased.
While Rubin laments the diminishing numbers in the community – the Port Elizabeth Hebrew Congregation now has 182 members – he says the community can hold its head up high. “We have a community that we can be proud of – we’ve upheld our yiddishkeit throughout.”
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