Once iconic Johannesburg shul now a popular church
PHOTOGRAPHS: MICHAEL BELLING
Pictured: The memorial stone to the first president of the shul – still in the foyer.
It is now the Revelation Church of G-d – with values based on “love, unity, mutual respect and embracing diversity and ethnicity”.
So popular is the church that the queue of worshippers extended inside and outside the building and all the way along Wolmarans Street to Joubert Park and around the corner on the other side of the building.
Worshippers sat in multiple rows on the pavements opposite the building for the full length of the block, erecting umbrellas against the hot sun and bringing food and drink to tide them over their long wait for the service.
The many marshals extended the hand of friendship to escort us to meet the leaders.
The church’s leader and founder, Prophet Samuel Radebe, has thousands of followers in southern Africa and the church website states he has the revelation to deal with African problems.
“The foundation of our church is love, not religion. There is a myth that exists in the black culture that church is for whites because it came with missionaries.”
According to their understanding, the Bible meant that what blacks were doing was culturally wrong and had to be abandoned.
“The Revelation Church of G-d wishes to dispel the belief that Christianity is antagonistic to African culture.”
According to Ishvara Dhyan, a Jew who adopted this name when visiting India, there is a sense of hierarchy in this church and everything is run from the top.
Dhyan discovered this congregation during one of the walking tours he conducts of the inner city, Hillbrow and Doornfontein, where he delves into the “ancient secrets” of the old shuls in the area.
“Jews have always been made to feel welcome by Prophet Radebe and his congregation. I have been taking people there for years and last year did a tour for Limmud.”
Dhyan is a chef by profession and was exploring different areas in a search for authentic recipes.
“The Great Synagogue was opened by Rabbi Judah Leib Landau on August 23, 1914. It was designed by a Swiss architect and paid for by Sammy Marks.”
It was the seat of Chief Rabbi Landau, Chief Rabbi Dr Louis Rabinowitz and Chief Rabbi Bernard Casper and Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, although Rabbi Harris elected to become a peripatetic chief rabbi, no longer based at the shul.
Rabbi Dovid Hazdan most recently occupied the pulpit at the Great Synagogue until the congregation moved to new premises – the Great Park Shul in Houghton, architecturally modelled on the Great Synagogue.
What is now the church building is owned by Dhyan’s friend Jeremy Gordon. It retains the architectural features and much of the original décor, including Magenei David and a menorah which is still lit regularly. The foyer remains largely unchanged, including a memorial stone to the first president of the shul congregation.
Dhyan says the church is very African, with Christianity concentrating on the Old Testament.
“The church adopts a lot of Jewish traditions.”
As far as Jewish influence is concerned, the congregants sport T-shirts proclaiming 2016 as the year of rest, a reference to the Jewish shmitta year, during which the land is left to lie fallow, according to the Torah.