Lions Shul still open for business 116 years later

  • Inside the shul 100th in 2006
Thursday, September 7, 2017: Doornfontein Shul in Johannesburg, (more fondly known as the Lions Shul), is now 116 years old. It is the last of 10 shuls which were in the area and remarkably, it still has a bright future thanks to the love of its congregants.
by MICHELLE BLUMENAU | Sep 14, 2017

Reverend Ilan Herrmann recently left by mutual agreement, after serving the congregation for 18 years and there are major restorations happening to preserve the beauty of this Johannesburg jewel.

Services are to be held over Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, and the regular Wednesday mincha ma’ariv and Friday night services will continue, as well as the famed Saturday morning minyan which begins at 06:00 and is over by 08:15.

Says Mike Baum, chairman of the shul: “Despite some recent rumours and lies, the shul will please G-d continue for another 116 years. We welcome everyone to join us for services, whether a member or not, and to experience the warmth of our congregation which has endured against the odds.

“Lions Shul has managed to keep the flame of Yiddishkeit burning in what was the centre of Johannesburg Jewry. There are many famous people in our community, here and abroad, who played on the lions as children - rabbonim, chazonim, doctors, lawyers, politicians and businessmen.

“So many stories of people’s lives: Reverend Smith who was the assistant spiritual leader and shammos, had his first barmitzvah in the shul at the age of 83, as he was fleeing persecution in Europe and on a train the day of what would have been his barmitzvah.”

The shul survived a fire in 1935 as well as the “semigration” of the Jewish community to the northern suburbs. Now it is the oldest remaining shul in Johannesburg in what was once the equivalent of the Glenhazel “shtetl” in its day.

Named for the two large cast-iron lion statues adorning its entrance, it is known for its beautiful architecture and décor, both inside and out. The shul has managed to keep the flame burning thanks to the brainchild of some dedicated and determined men who created the early morning Shabbos minyan. These included Morris Mirels, Alderman Issy Schlapobersky, Cyril Goldstein, Maurice Turiel, Morris Win, Mottel Frymer and Cyril Jacobs.

Originally aimed at those who were in mourning and who worked on Saturdays, the shul was ideally situated near the city centre and after a couple of biscuits and tea, the men could leave to arrive early at work. At the time, the founders could not have imagined that it was this service with a kiddish which would sustain the shul.

Baum continues: “The early morning minyan is internationally renowned, so much so that when members who have emigrated, make a point when they visit South Africa, of coming back to the shul on Shabbos and having a l’chaim.

“We also frequently get guests who nostalgically remember their barmitzvahs or weddings very many years ago.”


Doornfontein started in 1886 (the year Johannesburg was founded) as the grand old suburb for the well-to-do. Many of the Randlords built their homes there, as did wealthy businessmen.

Construction on the shul began in 1905 and was completed at a cost of £4 000. At the time, it was described as small, but “probably the most beautiful in South Africa”. It was built to serve Doornfontein’s mainly German and Lithuanian immigrants.

With the exception of some minor alterations, the building is still in its original state. It is a proud example of the heritage of the Jewish population of Johannesburg in the most popular residential area from the early 1900s until the late 1960s.

Surprisingly, it is not a national heritage site but the shul committee have made an application and believe they will be successful.

It is situated adjacent to Beit Street in which many Jewish delicatessens and food stores thrived for so many years. When Mervyn King spoke at the shul’s centenary, he reminisced about, “the twinkling of candles through lace curtains on a Shabbos evening”.

He recalled how his father, who owned the bottle store, exchanged whisky with Fehler’s butchery for meat, later Wachenheimer’s, Goldbergs, for their wonderful sausages, Crystals for the best challah and the lox at Fehler & Flax.

As late as the 1980s, he used to go to Wachenheimer’s to have pastrami on rye.

Memories of Doornfontein and the Lions Shul

The first time I walked into the Saturday morning minyan, I was welcomed like a lost friend. I was part of the Doornfontein Shul family and I see it continues now with every person who walks in. - Ruby Lipshitz

This is the only minyan I go to in the dark and come home in the light. There has been so much davening over the years in this shul, that the walls actually respond to your davening. - the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris

I have been attending the Lions Shul since 1933 and it is with pride that I can say that I was part of the second generation. We are today in the fourth generation attending the shul. My family moved out of Doornfontein in 1945. - the late Solly Frymer (written in 1996)

I proclaim in Yiddish “Ich ben ein Doornfontein bocher”, brought up in the suburb, rode the Beit Street trams, parked cars at Ellis Park Stadium during the rugby matches and humbly defended Jewish honour at the Doornfontein Talmud Torah when the ‘chateisim’ invaded. - the late Jack Shapiro

As a young girl, I used to sit downstairs with my dad. Reverend Smith had huge thick glasses and he couldn’t see so well. My mom had my hair cut really short because she couldn’t cope with my curls, so the reverend thought I was a boy (despite my wearing a floral dress). He asked me to open the ark for Anim Zemirot! - Michelle Blumenau Alge


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