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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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OP-EDS

Our title deed to Israel was given by G-d

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Yom Ha’atzmaut is an opportunity to declare proudly and publicly our connection to Israel. This is our opportunity to remind ourselves and the world what Israel means to us.

We can draw our inspiration for this from a beautiful and powerful mitzvah bikkurim – the mitzvah for farmers to bring the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicate them to G-d.

The Talmud paints a colourful picture of the farmers’ procession to the Temple as they brought the bikkurim. They didn’t arrive one by one in Jerusalem; rather, they would go up in a group, accompanied by music and a whole entourage to mark the occasion. At the head of the procession, there was a bull decorated in gold. And all the residents of Jerusalem – the shopkeepers and all the workers, sometimes even the king – would come out to greet the farmers. Upon arriving at the Temple, the Levi’im would sing a song from the book of Tehillim.

Then, on dedicating their baskets of produce to the Temple, the farmer would make a declaration summarising Jewish history and expressing gratitude to G-d for bringing the Jewish people to the land of Israel – to the sacred ground from which these first fruits were harvested.

Why all the fanfare? And how is any of this connected to Yom Ha’atzmaut?

One of our great sages, the Malbim, explains that the declaration on the bikkurim was a response to those who would challenge our right to the land of Israel. He cites Rashi’s very first comment on the Chumash – the question of why the Torah begins with the book of Genesis, the more narrative-driven portions of the Torah, when really the Torah is a book of commandments.

Quoting from a prescient midrash, Rashi explains that the reason the Torah begins with the story of creation is because one day, the Jewish people would be accused of unjustly appropriating the land of Israel, to which we can respond – G-d, the creator of the world, gave it to us. That is our title deed. And we underline this claim by publicly declaring and celebrating our connection to the land of Israel in the bikkurim ceremony.

There’s certainly a lesson we can draw on here in our own age about proudly and unapologetically celebrating our connection to the land of Israel.

But bikkurim has another – no less important – lesson for us for Yom Ha’atzmaut – the lesson of gratitude. Through the declaration, farmers express gratitude for the fact that G-d took us out of Egypt and brought us to the land of milk and honey from which the fruits were harvested. In this way, the entire farming experience becomes grounded in a deep appreciation. And the way we show our gratitude is by dedicating the best and the first to G-d through the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben, of redeeming a first-born son, and through the mitzvah of bikkurim.

Gratitude is at the heart of Jewish identity. The word “Jew” comes from the word “Yehudi”, derived from the name “Yehuda”, Leah’s fourth son. When she gave birth to Yehuda, she said, “I will give thanks to G-d.” As Jews, we know that everything we have, every blessing we enjoy, comes from our creator.

And so, as we mark Yom Ha’atzmaut this year, as we look back with satisfaction on all of the immense achievements of the past 73 years, our hearts are filled with gratitude and appreciation to G-d for His blessings that have made it all possible.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, is famous for having said, “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” G-d’s miracles have accompanied the birth, growth, and development of the state of Israel throughout these 73 years. From the great military victories and economic and technological achievements, to the miraculous rebuilding of yeshivot and Torah learning on a grand scale beyond the wildest dreams of those who saw the destruction of these institutions in the Holocaust, the Jewish people have established, with G-d’s blessing, a thriving state in spite of all odds. Israel has, with divine help, continuously defied the natural order of things.

This Yom Ha’atzmaut, as we once again declare our historic connection to the land and celebrate all that our beloved state of Israel has miraculously accomplished, let us do so with deep gratitude and unabashed pride – and through this, let us unleash abundant divine blessings for many more years of greatness.

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OP-EDS

Beth Din works to make Pesach “lesstressingmoreblessing”

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The kosher department spends nearly six months of the year planning for Pesach and making certifications.

This year was particularly challenging with the sad and untimely passing of Rabbi Desmond Maizels in Cape Town. His care and knowledge added much to South African kashrut for many decades.

Various products available all over the country are manufactured in Cape Town. With the help of the Cape Town kosher team, we ensure that the highest standards are kept, and all essential items that the community needs are made available across the country.

This year, we launched a #lesstressingmoreblessing campaign, which we hoped would help make everyone’s preparation ahead of Pesach a little easier. We shared our expanded Green List, which is a list of products that don’t require a special Pesach hechsher.

We all know how expensive this time of year is and unfortunately, it’s costly for companies to manufacture Pesach items. In many cases – locally and internationally – the ingredients need to be changed, and factories often need to be closed for at least 24 hours to kasher production lines.

Furthermore, runs are often done in small batches and in most cases, production is done under the direct supervision of a mashgiach. We do what we can to research products all year round to add to our Green List to make it easier and more cost-effective to keep Pesach.

We then shared some delicious recipes from Romi Rabinowitz. Next, we created and shared helpful videos on kashering some of the latest kitchen appliances, which also enabled the community to meet some of the kosher team. Most importantly, we extended the hours of our kosher desk hotline to answer all the community’s questions.

Pick n Pay again printed our Pesach Guide, and innovated by placing a variety of Pesach-specific products on its Bottles app. This is something we hope to expand in the future.

What’s most important to us is community feedback. After Pesach, we reached out to the community via a survey, and got just less than 800 responses.

Here are the most pertinent:

•     Most of the community was happy with the product range available this year;

•     They prefer to buy locally-made products as it keeps costs down;

•     More than two-thirds of the community felt that the kosher department gave them useful information this year;

•     The Green List was found to be the most useful information shared;

•     There is a range of locally produced items that people would like to see available next year, namely: Orley Whip, sweets, cold drinks, diet drinks, chocolates, spices and sauces; and

•     Many expressed appreciation for our team, which we are grateful for.

The survey is now closed, so if you didn’t have the opportunity to respond to it, we invite you to contact us directly with your feedback.

We are grateful to everyone who completed the survey. We value the feedback and, with the positive and useful information given, we have already begun to plan for Pesach 2022. We hope we will keep you #lesssressingmoreblessing.

  • Rabbi Dovi Goldstein is the kosher managing director at the Beth Din.

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OP-EDS

Is the US losing interest in the Middle East?

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The United States-Saudi Arabia relationship is a really interesting case study for those who watch Middle Eastern geopolitics closely. Some background to current events is necessary to set the context.

On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is a difficult ally. Its human-rights record is suspect, to say the least. It was clearly responsible for the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, which caused a worldwide outcry. It has also been involved in a war in Yemen that has created a humanitarian disaster, with high civilian casualties and hunger, malnutrition, and illness in that country.

On the other hand, it’s a strategic US ally, and a stable, pro-Western country. It entered the war in Yemen for good reason – to prevent the Iranian-aligned Houthi forces from taking over the country. It was also the second biggest oil producer in the world in 2020.

President Joe Biden was left with a difficult choice. Heading up a Democratic administration, which supposedly prides itself on its support for human rights, he couldn’t leave things as they were. On the other hand, he couldn’t damage the US’s vital strategic and national interests. To this end, he seems to have attempted to walk a fine line by taking the following actions:

He released a redacted intelligence report that blamed the crown prince for being behind the murder of the journalist, but took no further action. He has made it clear that the US no longer supports the operations of the Saudi coalition in Yemen, and has temporarily paused the sale of offensive arms to Saudi Arabia, but has allowed the continued sale of defensive arms.

More importantly, he didn’t act when Saudi oilfields were once again attacked by Houthi missiles and drones on 7 March, which led to a spike in oil prices briefly above $70 (R1 021) a barrel.

The US said on the Monday that its commitment to defend Saudi Arabia was “unwavering”, and in a Twitter post, the US mission in Riyadh condemned the attacks, which it said demonstrated a “lack of respect for human life” and a “lack of interest in the pursuit of peace”. However, the US took no further action.

The main issue, however, which is being brought to the fore by the awkward US-Saudi dance, is that the US is losing interest in the Middle East. The area is much less of a priority than it used to be.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the US no longer relies on imports of oil from the region. Last year, according to The Economist, the US was in fact a net exporter of oil and natural gas.

Second, the US has been involved in long and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have cost trillions of dollars and achieved very little.

Finally – and this has been the policy across three US presidents now – the US wants to pivot to Asia and focus much more on countering a rapidly growing and influential China. It wants to lighten its burdens in the Middle East, and instead focus its energies on what everyone believes will be the world’s leading growth region of the 21st century.

This doesn’t mean the US will withdraw totally. It still has troops all over the area, and has vital interests in preventing a nuclear arms race there and not allowing terrorist groups to grow and find sanctuary. However, given recent events, it seems clear that it will scale down its activities and no longer expend the time and energy it has in the past. Its military activities will be curtailed.

The effect of this clear signal from the US has been dramatic, and it no doubt played a major role in the Abraham Accords and signing of peace treaties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. If and when the Saudis join the emerging Israel-Sunni reproachment, it will no doubt also be due to the fear of less US involvement in the region and of therefore having to face their enemies alone.

While this development has been positive for Israel in that it now has new strategic allies in the region, bringing much more diplomatic strength and regional influence, in the long term, there must be concern.

The US moves towards Saudi Arabia are a portent for it becoming much less involved in the region, and clearly show its intention not to be dragged into any more wars there.

While Israel now has a lot of new allies as a result, and it seems the friendships will be warm, none of the new allies are major military powers. Local regional alliances, useful as they are, cannot replace the world’s main superpower, and an unstable region will surely become still more unstable without the US’s active presence.

Israeli leaders have long suspected this, but the fact that the US hasn’t responded militarily to the two recent attacks on the Saudi oilfields when in the past, under any president, there would have been a robust and strong response, shows how dramatically things have changed. The US can no longer be relied on as a military ally. Israel will be left to fend pretty much for itself if and when the next war breaks out in the Middle East.

  • Harry Joffe is a Johannesburg tax and trust attorney.

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