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.”