Subscribe to our Newsletter

click to dowload our latest edition


Featured Item

Temple Israel congregant gives back with ‘prayer poems’

Avatar photo



Every Saturday morning after the prayers for the sick, for Israel, and South Africa, the congregation of Temple Israel in Hillbrow listens to septuagenarian Berea resident Louis Ellenbogen reciting the poetry he has written for the occasion.

“The Torah must be our workshop manual; To govern, command, and reprimand all our; Aspirations and expectations; Help us to learn, discern, and earn; A destiny towards eternity,” is an excerpt from his poetry.

Reeva Forman, the chairperson of Temple Israel, said she enjoyed Ellenbogen’s “prayer poems”, not least because they often dovetailed into what she was going to say in her sermon for the week.

For more than 20 years, this shul has held Shabbat services for Jews living in Hillbrow and surrounding areas, including the 52 people who live in Vistaero Hotel with Ellenbogen.

Ellenbogen has been writing his poetry on and off for about five years. “I had read a lot of prayers throughout my life, and I thought that I could write something that could give it a little extra flair,” he said. “People seem to love my poetry every time I read it at various services. I asked Reeva if I could read a prayer poem at the service one week, and have been doing so every week since.

“I’ve lost count of how many poems I’ve written, so it’s a challenge to find a poem suitable for the particular week,” he said.

“Sometimes I get an idea for a prayer poem and start writing. Sometimes I take inspiration from happenings in the world around me.”

Each poem is handwritten, and he would “love to have them published in a book one day”.

Ellenbogen’s story began in Bulawayo in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where he was born and grew up. He was forced to leave school at 16 after shoving a school bully’s head through the window of the headmaster’s office. At the same time, he got his national service call-up papers and joined the Rhodesian Army.

“I was very young, but there wasn’t much else I could do at that time as I wasn’t an academic,” Ellenbogen said.

In 1973, Ellenbogen went to Israel to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) after a friend forged an application for indefinite leave from the Rhodesian Army to serve in the IDF.

“After some scolding, I was told by my general that he thought that there should be more men like me in service,” Ellenbogen said. He was happy to go to Israel because “I had a cousin in the IDF [Rebecca Gross], and I wanted to meet her.”

Little did Ellenbogen know, his former general contacted the leadership of the IDF to commend him. This led to Ellenbogen being given first-class treatment on his arrival in Israel.

“They made all the passengers wait for me to disembark before they could leave the plane. There was even an officer waiting for me with a car to take me to a hotel,” he recalled. Ellenbogen said his general’s message to Israel led to him rubbing shoulders with the crème de la crème of Israeli politics, including then Prime Minister Golda Meir, whom he dined next to at a breakfast on his third day in the country.

“I was taken to a private residence, where there was a long table full of food and people.” I turned to my side, and there, next to me was Meir.”

Ellenbogen subsequently returned to Zimbabwe from Israel to complete his contract with the Zimbabwean army. He returned with his then second wife, whom he had married while in Israel. But, he said, “The time in the Rhodesian Army put a lot of strain on the marriage as I was away a lot. Upon arriving back home from a three-month stint, I found a letter on the dressing table saying that my wife had gone back to Israel and had taken our two boys with her.”

In 2001, Ellenbogen married his fifth wife. “One day, I came home from my shift at GrandWest Casino, and my wife was lying comatose on our bed,” he said. “She had two strokes as a result of untreated meningitis which left her in that state. She passed away. While I was dealing with this dreadful news, I received a phone call from my ex-wife [in Israel] saying, ‘The boys are gone, and it’s my fault’.

“I didn’t understand what was going on,” Ellenbogen said. His ex-wife explained that their sons were on their way to a New Year’s party on the border, and were caught and killed in a raid.

“This was a very difficult time for me,” he said. “That year, I had to bury my wife, my two boys, and a few others. I still find it hard to talk about.”

After this tough experience, he found his way to South Africa and much later, in 2022, Hillbrow community member Allan Friedman encouraged him to come with him to Temple Israel in Hillbrow.

“I believe Hashem stepped in. I hadn’t stepped into a shul since I was in Israel,” Ellenbogen said. “I have had to relearn Judaism to a large extent, and the customs. Rabbi Jonathan Fox has played a big part in this. I’ve been able to connect with my Judaism through him and Temple Israel.”

His visits to the synagogue have helped him find out more about his family history as well. And for all that he gets from this congregation, he gives back in his weekly poetry.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *