Pretoria Shul: small in numbers, big in Yiddishkeit
Pictured: The first shul built in Pretoria some 120 years ago, is now dilapidated and unused. It was closed in the early 1950s and served as the venue for the notorious Treason Trial a few years later.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PRETORIA JEWISH CHRONICLE
“It’s not like Johannesburg, with lots of shuls,” he says. “The shul really connects the community; we are the heart of the community.”
Rabbi Fox last month celebrated 10 years of service in Pretoria, with the beautiful new shul in Groenkloof as his base.
The main communal organisations are intertwined with the shul, he says. WIZO, the IUA-UCF and the Pretoria Jewish Chronicle all operate from the shul campus. In addition, the Pretoria rabbinical college, the Yeshiva L’Rabbanut, operates from the shul premises.
The new shul was built around the turn of the century to house a Jewish community that has shrunk substantially over the years and in an area of the city in which most Jews now live, not far from Jaffa, the magnificent Jewish retirement home in Pretoria.
The Pretoria Jewish community is “a family of friends”, Rabbi Fox says.
The first shul in Pretoria dates back almost 120 years, when building commenced in Paul Kruger Street, just north of the centre of town, close to where the homes of the majority of the Jewish population were at the time.
The shul served the community for over 50 years, but by that time most Jews had moved eastwards. New shul premises were purchased in Pretorius Street, Arcadia, and a substantial domed building was erected in the early 1950s to house the congregation, with communal offices in a large house on the same property.
At the time the Pretoria Jewish community numbered over 3 500, with the overwhelming majority being members of the new shul.
Two smaller synagogues catered for the remainder of Pretoria’s Jews, the Adass Israel, a small Orthodox congregation, which no longer exists, and a Progressive congregation.
When the Pretorius Street Shul was completed, the building in Paul Kruger Street was sold, but it still stands. The premises gained notoriety as the venue for the Treason Trial in the late 1950s, as no court was large enough to house all the defendants and the legal teams.
The final acquittal of all the defendants (including Nelson Mandela) was the last significant event to take place on the premises, which are now neglected.
The Pretorius Street Shul closed over 20 years ago. The community was by then already much smaller and most of the Jews had moved further east. The building was sold – it now serves as part of the Pretoria premises of Boston City Campus and Business College and Boston Media House.
In the 1990s the congregation used the Carmel School hall for its services, until the current premises were purchased and a modern, smaller shul was erected 15 years ago.
Rabbi Fox says the Pretoria community – numbered at around 1 000 – is stable, but as part of its forward thinking, six three-bedroom simplex houses are being built in which young couples can live, essentially rent-free for up to five years.
This is a way to attract young people to come and experience Pretoria and for the community to bring in new young people. The houses are due to be completed by the end of the year.
“We are the vision for the future. The Pretoria Hebrew Congregation sees our responsibility as catering for the future of the entire community,” he said.
Rabbi Fox is optimistic. “The dynamism of the community is