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Pretoria’s Old Synagogue: from simcha to shande

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OP-EDS

On a recent visit to Tshwane, I was horrified to see the dilapidated state of the Old Synagogue on Paul Kruger Street in the city centre, which is a heritage icon for Jews and South Africans.

So many happy recollections of weddings, Bnei mitzvah, and Brit Milahs flooded my memory, and my eyes filled with tears. I thought of the significance of this majestic building that witnessed the start of the Rivonia Treason Trial of 1960 and 1964, as well as the inquest into the death of Steve Biko.

Today, the building lies in ruins, designated to the ash heap of a bygone era. The pain in my chest was acute as I looked at this wonderful monument that has been vandalised and abused instead of being cherished and preserved for generations to come.

As part of my oversight visits to buildings owned by the department of public works and infrastructure, I was asked by Councillor Wayne Helfrich and Candidate Councillor Leanne de Jager to come to Tshwane to investigate a number of heritage buildings. The belief was that while they had all been abandoned, they could be repurposed and reused.

It’s of the utmost importance that buildings such as this magnificent shul should be preserved at all costs to tell the stories of a bygone era. It needs to serve as a reminder of the tremendous impact it played as a catalyst to the birth of democracy in South Africa.

The first stone of the Old Synagogue was laid in 1897, and the shul was consecrated on 20 August 1898, making it the first permanent shul in Pretoria.

As a result of the end of the Anglo-Boer War in 1902, the community had financial constraints. In 1906, legendary philanthropist and businessman Sammy Marks settled the mortgage of the shul, and donated it back to the community. He had three strict instructions:

  • The property couldn’t be sold, ceded, or assigned to anyone, but was to be used exclusively for a shul in perpetuity;
  • No mortgages, charges, or encumbrances could be applied or laid on the property; and
  • The house on the property could be used only as the residence of the minister of the congregation (rabbi) or some official of the shul.

What would Sammy Marks be thinking today? He and his descendants would be horrified if they stood where I stood and saw – and smelled – the destruction that greeted us when we entered the building.

I can still feel the heaviness in my heart as I gazed up at the once ornate, beautiful ceiling and the galleries that had held so many faces smiling down on the simchas that marked this building’s history.

But the building wasn’t just a source of joy and miracles. In 1952, the growing Jewish community moved to another building in Pretorius Street, taking its Aron Kodesh, menorah, cornerstone, and stained-glass windows with them to their new home that could accommodate increasing numbers.

The site was then expropriated and transferred to the state with the intention of redeveloping the entire block on which the shul stood into a new Supreme Court.

In 1958, it was modelled as an annex of the Supreme Court for security-related cases. The striking sandstone façade of the building was neutralised by painting it cream. Two utility buildings for police accommodation, holding cells, and witness waiting rooms were added.

This further dehumanised this once magnificent vestige of Jewish life in Pretoria. These utility buildings were created with strict racial segregation, another painful reminder of our tragic past.

The area of the Aron Kodesh and bimah were converted into judicial benches, windows, were bricked up, the Magen David replaced by the South African coat of arms, and the seating converted to that of a conventional court.

The neshomah of the shul was removed in its entirety, but it started to have importance in our democratic life. The first treason trial was transferred to this holy building on 1 August 1958, and lasted until 29 March 1961.

Those who made their appearance in this building in the two treason trials (of 1958 and 1962) included Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, and my late uncle, Denis Goldberg. Their sentencing in the infamous Rivonia Trial, however, took place in the Palace of Justice.

During the trial, one of the witnesses, M Mkalipe, brought his Bible into the witness box. To the surprise of the judges seated where the rabbi used to stand, Mkalipe read a few verses from the book of Daniel to his “assembled congregation”. He said he did it deliberately to invoke the rich history of the Old Synagogue – a religious space distinct from the Calvinist Dutch Reformed roots of the apartheid regime.

“We cannot allow such a magnificent, significant, and authentic piece of our history as Jews and as South Africans to disappear,” says Helfrich. “We have to come together as a community to restore this once great symbol to its former glory. The Jewish community in Tshwane has expressed a deep sense of sadness at the demise of the building, and would love to see it restored as a Jewish and major South African heritage site.

“So many promises have been made to the community that this beautiful home will once again be able to teach and inspire our youth that they have given up hope of them ever seeing the light of day.”

As Jews and South Africans, we need to change this. We need to restore hope that history has a place in our lives, that we can continue to celebrate the rich heritage that is housed in this building, and that we can free the voices that once rang out in this shul so that they can speak to us again.

Perhaps the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in conjunction with the Tshwane Jewish community can breathe life into this Grand Old Dame of Jewish heritage. Let’s mobilise and make a difference. Let’s revive this legacy, and let it be a historic museum, a testimony to the past, and an inspirational teaching space for generations to come.

  • Madeleine Hicklin is the Democratic Alliance shadow deputy minister: department of public works and infrastructure.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Lawrence Nowosenetz

    Mar 25, 2021 at 1:25 pm

    The Pretoria Council of the SAJBOD made exhaustive efforts to restore the Old Syagogue with the Department of Arts and Culture and to covert it into a museum. Such arich history. No one was interested. The lauder Foundation was also approached without success. Any ideas?

  2. Troy

    Mar 25, 2021 at 7:56 pm

    I was inside that synagogue about a month ago. I took some pics. Very sad to see how it has been neglected.

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Israel

Why Benjamin Netanyahu treats the Jewish media with contempt

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(JTA) Whether this week marks the last of Benjamin Netanyahu’s record-setting tenure as prime minister or is just a prelude to another never-count-him-out comeback, it seems a fitting moment to try to understand why he has consistently treated diaspora Jewish media with disdain.

It’s something I’ve experienced personally on several occasions, and may well reflect the prime minister’s attitude not just toward the Jewish press but toward American Jewry in general.

It seems ironic, if not baffling, that Netanyahu would be rude to the one group of journalists who are most sympathetic and accommodating. But then he is a man of many contradictions, with remarkable skills and ugly traits, towering oratory, and gutter-level charges, and great success in protecting Israel from outside threats while allowing the weakening of Israeli society from within.

I have interviewed the prime minister one-on-one in his Jerusalem office, attended a number of meetings he’s held with the press, and heard him speak many times in the United States (US) and Israel. Perhaps the most illuminating example of his contradictory behaviour dates back to a visit he made to the US when he first served as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999.

During that visit 25 years ago, Netanyahu’s staff scheduled back-to-back sessions for him with two separate groups of journalists in a small conference room at his Manhattan hotel. The first group consisted of about a dozen major media figures, including the network news anchors of the day and A-list reporters. The second meeting was with the same number of editors of Jewish newspapers from across the country.

As editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, I was invited to the second meeting. But thanks to an influential friend at the local Israeli consulate, I was allowed to attend the first meeting as well, though I was asked to keep a low profile.

When Netanyahu walked into the room with the media notables seated around a table, he was warm, friendly, and upbeat from the outset. He greeted them individually by name, shaking hands, making small talk as he moved gracefully around the room. During the session, he handled questions with aplomb, on point, articulate, and used colloquial expressions at times – it was easy to forget that he was the leader of a foreign country. He was thoroughly charming.

About 15 minutes after the meeting, while Netanyahu was taking a break, my Jewish media colleagues were ushered into the room. When we were settled in, the prime minister re-entered and immediately sat down at the head of the table. No schmoozing this time. He was all business and began, “OK, ask me your questions.”

A bit taken aback by the abrupt opening, the chair of our delegation asked if it would be all right for us to introduce ourselves briefly, stating our names and professional titles. Netanyahu agreed. When it was my turn, the prime minister looked closely at me and said, “You look familiar.”

I said, “I was with the first group here as well.”

What I wanted to add was, “I saw how engaging and friendly you can be if you want to make the effort. What’s your problem?”

For a split second, Netanyahu seemed a bit taken aback, but he just nodded and the introductions continued.

The mood of the session couldn’t have been more different to the earlier one. Though he was in the presence of loyal, influential Zionists who treated him with great respect, the prime minister was curt, contentious, and clearly couldn’t wait to be done with us.

“Ask me your questions.”

A few years later, when I was in Israel, I was granted a one-on-one interview with Netanyahu in his Jerusalem office. I was ushered in by an aide who announced my name as I sat down in a chair facing the prime minister. He wore a leather bomber jacket and was seated at his desk, reading through a document in front of him.

“Go ahead, ask me your questions,” he said without looking up. He was using a yellow outliner pen to mark his reading material.

I wasn’t sure how to proceed and waited for him to make eye contact. After a moment, he repeated his request. I waited again – it felt like minutes but was probably only a few seconds – before proceeding, reluctantly, with the interview.

I don’t remember the details of what transpired, only that I was thrown by Netanyahu’s rudeness, and that the agreed-on 45-minute session ended abruptly when an aide came in to announce that the prime minister was needed for a pressing matter. It seemed prearranged; the prime minister got up and followed him out of the office without a word or gesture to me.

One more: five years ago, at a Jewish media conference in Jerusalem I attended with dozens of colleagues from the US, Europe, and South America, Netanyahu addressed our group and was ornery from the outset. His manner was challenging and dismissive, interrupting the moderator, the Forward’s Jane Eisner, and suggesting alternative topics. At one point, he evaded a question about his government’s relations with American Jewry and responded, in effect, “Why not ask me about Israel’s impressive dairy output?” He then waxed eloquent on the subject, and had an aide display a chart on the wall with statistics about Israel’s prolific cows.

“After the session ended, some of the women journalists in the room were furious, sure that he acted as he did because I was the moderator,” Eisner wrote. “I appreciated their support, but male colleagues tell me that Netanyahu can be similarly dismissive to them, too.”

How does one explain this behaviour?

I turned to two close colleagues and veteran Bibi watchers – journalist and author Yossi Klein Halevi in Jerusalem and Mideast expert David Makovsky in Washington – and asked why they think Netanyahu treats the Jewish media so shabbily. Is it because he doesn’t respect us as journalists? Or because he believes that diaspora communities are less relevant to Israeli politics? Or neither, or both?

“Bibi treats his friends worse than anyone,” Klein Halevi responded, “which is why, at the end of the day, he doesn’t have any. He takes them for granted and abuses their trust. That’s why this new government is being led, in part, by three of his former closest aides,” Naftali Bennett, Avigdor Lieberman, and Gideon Saar.

“The American Jewish media was simply in his pocket,” Klein Halevi continued, “or so he assumed, and he could treat them with the special contempt he reserved for those on his side.”

Makovsky believes Netanyahu views the diaspora Jewish media in the larger context of his attitude toward American Jewry – seen as declining dramatically in relevance.

On a practical level, he noted, diaspora Jews don’t vote in Israeli elections and so are “less central for his [Netanyahu’s] purposes to cultivate”. Similarly, the prime minister focuses mainly on Israeli media, which he views as either for him or against him, so the diaspora media is less important.

The prime minister has told those who meet with him privately that with the exception of the Orthodox, “American Jews will last another generation or two … due to assimilation and low fertility rates,” Makovsky said. “This has enabled him to discount the liberal attitudes and voting trends of non-Orthodox American Jews and not think of the impact of a few of his policies on the relationship.”

In addition, Netanyahu has said in private that as long as he has the support in America of evangelical Christians, who vastly outnumber Jews, and the Orthodox Jewish community, he’s in good shape.

We’ll know in the coming days the shape of Netanyahu’s immediate future. But even if the “change” coalition is sworn in, no one who knows Bibi Netanyahu believes he can be counted out.

  • Gary Rosenblatt was editor and publisher of “The Jewish Week” from 1993 to 2019.

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OP-EDS

Pull up masks for the third wave

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With the plummeting temperatures across South Africa, our community has once again descended into concern and despair as new COVID-19 infections skyrocket. This round seems even closer to home.

My cell phone is once again saturated with COVID-19 contact questions. For me, it has been a week of encouraging maximal caution among community members against the backdrop of having witnessed the devastating bereavement that this virus has recently unleashed on a few patients and close friends.

We need to understand that pandemics are dynamic. In the first article I wrote for the SA Jewish Report in March 2020, I spoke of a predicted short-term future of “pumping the breaks on social distancing” by epidemiological experts. These is precisely how this pandemic has ensued. South Africa is well into its third surge, and this is the time for this “pumping”. Let’s give some context.

As of 7 June 2021, there are 21 700 active cases in Gauteng alone, a number that’s probably better estimated as 31 000 due to untested individuals. Over the past seven days alone, there has been a 36% increase in cases. Most notably, the positivity rate of cases has increased from <4% to >13% in just a couple of weeks.

The Jewish community, unfortunately, outshines these humbling statistics, with 235 new cases loaded on the Hatzolah Wellness Programme in the past week (1 to 8 June 2021). This is more than its maximum number of cases at the peak of both the first and second waves. My own practice has admitted more COVID-19 patients to hospital in the past month than it has admitted over the past six months.

Another change in the dynamic of this wave is the astounding transmissibility amongst children. I clearly remember the claims of “COVID-19 doesn’t affect children” last year. This week, I have diagnosed COVID-19 in several young children under the age of seven.

However, let’s not despair that this picture was unexpected, nor that we are ill-equipped to deal with it. Let’s understand that it’s in our power to curtail the pandemic and overcome it.

On a societal level, there are several vaccines emerging on the market that have each shown demonstrable efficacy against serious disease. It’s important to understand that breakthrough infections may still be reported after vaccination, but the level of immunity attained by the vaccines has shown impressive results against serious disease and death across all variants, including the South African variant.

In the world’s history of viral outbreaks, there has been a pattern of viruses mutating into variants that are clinically milder, although endemic, and which haven’t imposed ongoing significant risk to life. It’s thought that the Russian flu of 1889 was most likely a coronavirus itself which mutated into a more tolerable disease that eventually abated without a vaccine! Even in our own lifetimes, we have seen the famous H1N1 “swine flu” impose less of a real threat to individuals each year, in spite of the fact that this virus is far from eradicated and still rears its head each winter.

Professor Barry Schoub, virologist and the former head of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, explained to doctors on an online education webinar this week that the goals and likely outcome of the vaccination programme isn’t to eradicate COVID-19 but rather to convert the SARS-COV-2 virus into just another coronavirus that, at most, causes mild disease. This goal is reachable and probable.

On the ground, we have learnt over the past 16 months how to drop the number of new infections quickly. The old thinking was “stay home, save lives”. The new thinking is “don’t let your guard down, even with your most trusted friend”. I have had a plethora of patients recounting to me recently that they were infected by “a harmless interaction”. During previous peaks of this pandemic, we have learnt that the attention to simple details like interacting with loved ones with masks religiously worn, wearing the masks properly, interacting in only well ventilated spaces, and not participating in unnecessary shared meals have each been paramount.

There is, indeed, understandable COVID-19 fatigue after 16 months of social curtailment, but it’s important to realise that previous peaks have been short lived and the prediction is that in six to eight weeks, we’ll once again be able to relax some of these measures.

The biggest question at the forefront of most lay people’s minds at the moment is, “Will this pandemic ever end?” We can be deeply grateful for the formidable achievements of Israel, the United Kingdom, and the United States (US) amongst other developed nations that have answered this question with a resounding “yes”. The US, with a population of 328 million people, has vaccinated 52% of its population. Its infection rates have decreased from 208 000 new cases per week in January 2021 to 14 000 per week in June 2021. Israel, which has vaccinated about 60% of its population, recorded its first day this week with zero new cases in spite of conducting 7 575 tests on the same day. Israel’s positivity rate is now 0%, with only a handful of active cases in the country, and Israelis are no longer are required to wear masks in outdoor public spaces! Developed countries and past pandemics have taught us that this pandemic will indeed end.

So, what is the week’s take-home message? We must understand that prevention is better than cure. We can relatively easily prevent COVID-19 infections; to cure complicated patients is far more challenging. Let’s pull up our socks for the next few weeks and bring the infections in our community under control. Let’s look forward to future widespread vaccinations that will indeed eventually be offered to all adults, and we really can look to a brighter future without the overhanging clouds of COVID-19.

  • Dr Daniel Israel is a family practitioner in Johannesburg.

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OP-EDS

Jews should draw a line under latest social-media pogrom

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It’s a cold autumn night in Johannesburg. I lie on my bed preparing for my pending aliyah, my laptop resting on my thighs, writing. Suddenly my phone vibrates, I continue, it vibrates again, I focus on these words, the third buzz grabs my attention, and like most of us today I can’t stop myself from running to check the latest notification. Is it work? A friend? Maybe a funny meme worth sharing to the family group? No! It’s a vile message of hate, one I have become all too accustomed to as a Jewish and Israel-rights activist.

Over the past two weeks, there has been a silencing of Jewish voices across platforms with verbal violence that can be described only as a social-media pogrom. The terms used to demonise Israel such as “apartheid”, “genocide”, and “ethnic cleansing” have been meticulously designed to silence Jews. In a world where cancel culture is the modus operandi, the Jewish state is being spun into a web of lies designed to cancel us from the conversation.

What we are experiencing now is nothing new. Jews make up 0.2% of the global population and yet we find ourselves, once again, on the other side of an obsessive, vicious campaign of lies. Every time antisemitism re-enters society, it masks itself as social justice.

It’s sold as speaking truth to power. It functions by turning the Jew into whatever a given society hates or fears most. Under Nazism, the Jew was the race contaminator. Today, when the greatest sins of the world are racism and colonialism, Israel, the Jew among the nations, is being demonised as the last bastion of racist colonialism.

Antisemitism will always be a political question. Atrocities against Jews didn’t succeed because individuals didn’t like Jews, it was because political movements convinced the public that stripping Jews of their rights was in their best interest. To achieve this without any pushback, antisemitism is hidden in plain sight. This is why from the Middle Ages until now, antisemites have said they weren’t antisemitic just anti-Hebrew, anti-capitalist, anti-globalist, and of course the all-too-familiar anti-Zionist.

It’s interesting for me that Jews are coined “colonisers”. Native peoples can’t colonise their indigenous homeland and aren’t referred to as foreigners or settlers. The West is attempting to turn history’s most successful indigenous rights liberation movement – Zionism – into settler-colonialism.

It’s proof positive that the far left’s form of antisemitism is rooted in projecting its own white societal guilt from the past onto the Jewish people and our self-determination. Thousands of years of historical and archaeological evidence show that Judaism and the beginning of the Jewish people began in the kingdom of Judea and Israel. After Roman colonisation about 2 000 years ago, ethnic Jews were exiled from their ancestral homeland and subsequently settled in every corner of the world.

In an act of blatant neo-colonialism, the American story is viewed as the universal prism through which all societies must be understood.

Completely ignorant of the specificities of Israel/Palestine, these neo-colonialists fit the square peg of the conflict into the round hole of American history. Jews are bizarrely cast as the white oppressor, and Zionism a movement of white supremacy, while Arabs who look exactly like Israelis are cast as people of colour.

This blind and seemingly ignorant superimposition of American racial politics must not be mistaken for naivety, it’s purposeful and dangerous as it normalises antisemitic attitudes in society.

The effect of this has been seen and experienced by us all with the recent violence. We are living in an era of white versus black, straight versus gay, oppressor versus victim. The allowance for nuance and complexity seems just not to exist anymore. I’m beginning to suspect that it’s not that attacks on Jews in the West are the unfortunate and unintended consequence of the persistent demonisation of Israel, but rather the demonisation of the Jewish state is undertaken so as to re-legitimise attacks on Jews in the West.

Denial is the weapon of choice for many antisemites. They deny the Holocaust, deny the ethnic cleansing of Jews in the Middle Eastern Arab states, and now they deny that we even originated from the Middle East.

With a 500% increase in antisemitic attacks in the past two weeks, the silence of the non-Jewish world is deafening, but history shows us not shocking. On an emotional Monday morning during the conflict, I wrote this on social media to many of my non-Jewish friends who had engaged with misinformation, the spreading of antisemitic tropes or anti-Israel bias: “You sat at my Shabbos table. You listened to us sing ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ on Passover. You ate my apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year. You told me how much you love challah. You love hummus, you love bagels, you love Jewish humour films. You are a humanitarian, an anti-racist. You are against hate. You walk with BLM. You march for gay pride. You love everything Jewish besides for Jewish people. You are silent! Replace the word ‘Zionist’ with ‘Jew’, and one can understand how the Nazis successfully killed 2/3rds of the Jewish population with the help of millions of regular everyday citizens.”

We must no longer try to convince anybody of our humanity. We know our humanity. We are no longer interested in false interpretations of our history. We know our history. In solidarity as a community, we must now say, “No more! In the spirit of our ancestors, we are once again resolved to take charge of the Jewish destiny.”

From generation to generation, we were unwelcome guests in the diaspora. An annoyance to the world like a mosquito buzzing in the dark, and that’s where they are right, we are an annoyance. The non-Jewish world has done everything in its power to isolate us from the orders of society, and time and time again, we revolutionised those very orders.

Abraham with his one G-d, Moses with his ten commandments, Jesus with his second cheek ready for the next slap. Einstein. Kissinger. Kafka. Marx. Herzl. Ben Gurion. Meir. I truly had hoped the rise of intersectionality would chant from corner to corner in solidarity with Jews – “lesson learnt: never again”. But that never happened.

Again, we are alone, but this time not from nowhere, we are from where we always have been, Israel, our home. Zionism has given us as a community the space to be liberated from millennia-long persecution. When we were sold into slavery out of Israel, our ancestors made a promise to one day return us home. We are the ones lucky enough to live their dream. It truly is a miracle of biblical proportions. Cherish it. Nurture it. Am Yisrael chai – the people of Israel live.

  • Samuel Hyde is an audio engineer/music producer and a Jewish and Israel-rights activist. He worked at the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre educating youth on antisemitism and its function in society.

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