Memories are short. The 75th Commemorative Edition of the G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual states that the Sea Point Congregation was founded in 1926 through the creation of the Sea Point Hebrew School when it elected its first committee, that the school was established in 1930 and that it was at the schools’ AGM in 1931 when the decision was taken to establish its own synagogue.[i] Investigation shows that this is not the way it happened. The 1974 Rosh Hashanah 40th Anniversary Annual reports that:
“We have in our possession the very first Minute Book of our congregation in which are recorded the proceedings of all general and committee meetings from 19th September 1926 to 5th June 1929. A meeting was held on 19th September 1926 at ‘Monreith’, Hall Road, Sea Point, the home of Mr and Mrs Gutman. The meeting had been called as a result of “representations of a number of the younger members of the Community for the purpose of electing a strong working Committee to go into the question of the proposed new Synagogue”. Arthur E Abrahams was elected chairman and I Lewis, secretary. The Minutes of the meeting were signed by Morris Alexander, who presided over the subsequent general meeting held on 24th October to approve the committee’s recommendation. In the meantime, services were held in the Gutman home, later in hired premises at the Old Sea Point Town Hall.”[ii]
Morris Alexander, cartoon by D C Boonzaier
Note that it says nothing about a Sea Point Hebrew school or a school committee but about establishing a proposed synagogue. There is confirmation of this intention in the memoirs of Bubbles Harris, the daughter of the Gutmans.[iii]
“My parent’s home in Hall Road, next to the then Sea Point Hall, proved an excellent central meeting place for the Jewish families gradually moving into the suburb. An association was formed, a committee elected and for at least ten years, every Thursday evening at eight ‘o clock except for Public Holidays and Yomtayvim, these twelve men sat around our dining room table deliberating on the formation and the raising of funds to build the shul.”
The minutes of that meeting, now in the UCT Library’s Special Collections department, quotes the chairman as pointing out that there was a large and ever-increasing Jewish community living in Green and Sea Point and the question of building a synagogue could be delayed no longer. A similar meeting had been held two years earlier (i.e. 1924) when a certain gentleman had promised over £600 - which had not been collected - and the committee that had conducted the New Year services in the Sea Point Town Hall had a credit balance of between £50 and £60. Mr Henry moved that a Hebrew congregation be established to be known as the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation. Mr Davids suggested that instead of starting immediately with a building scheme, they should hire an unfurnished house for services and Hebrew classes because year after year for the past ten years meetings had been held of interested people and nothing had been done. Mr Gutman disagreed completely (19.9.1926). (Mr Davids was not elected onto the committee.)
For ten years people had been meeting to discuss establishing a synagogue and money had even been promised but not given. No wonder Mr Davids felt disgruntled.
Memories in the 25th Anniversary edition are more reliable than the 40th Anniversary edition – there were many more people still alive who could remember the momentous decision and Rabbi A T Shrock[iv] assembled an authoritative and detailed description, much of it culled from HF (Bob) Lewis and Arthur E Abrahams who claimed that his parents, Mr and Mrs SC Abrahams, were the only Jewish family in Sea Point and that services used to take place in the Abrahams’ house until the Gutmans arrived in January 1920 when services were held in their large lounge and dining room (Gutman’s phone number was 489). Bubbles Harris recalled that the Aron Kodesh was housed in a spare room and she could vividly recall going with her father erev Rosh Hashanah to the Gardens Shul to collect the Sefer Torot lent to them for the Yomtayvim. By 1924, there were so many worshippers that the decision was taken to hire the Sea Point Town Hall with the Rev Isenstein engaged to conduct the services.
Bubbles Harris remembered that:
“Sea Point Hall featured prominently in our lives, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services were conducted in the Main Hall seating approximately 250 - 300 people. It was the task of my brothers and their friends to devise a seating plan and take the necessary booking on the Sundays prior to the Yomtayvim. The beginnings of the Talmud Torah were also held in a room of our house set aside as a classroom and it was only when membership grew too large to hold all the pupils that the Talmud Torah moved across to rooms at Carisbrook.”
Rabbi Shrock adds that it was young unmarried men who formed themselves into a Shul committee. These included J Gutman’s step son, Bob Lewis, and his friends Issy and Phiny, the sons of SM Lewis, who had been the Hon. Secretary of the Minyan Committee that had organised the minyan in the Town Hall, Isaac Dodowitz, David Sutton, Phil Valentine and Lew Diamond. They then invited the elders to join them and things began to happen. Bubbles[v] also reported that the children of those first committee members were gradually ageing out of the scene but she, Roy Sacks, Joe Mauerberger, Norman Robinson and Rene Kleinman remembered their fathers going around collecting donations of five shillings towards the building fund.
On 19th September 1926 they met at Monreith for the specific purpose of “electing a Committee which would go into the question of the proposed new Synagogue”. AE Abrahams was elected chairman with Isaac Dodowitz, J Gutman, M Henry, Sam Kaplan, Bob and Phiny Lewis, Marks and Phil Valentine on the committee. Later SM Lewis, E Rostowsky who were the remaining members of the original Minyan Committee – and a woman, Mrs B Klein - joined the Synagogue committee. The Minyan Committee had charge of the Banking Account for the funds that would have to be raised for a synagogue.
Mark Kaplan[vi] in 2007 recalled the election of the first committee in 1926 because his grandfather’s brother, Sam Kaplan, was a member. A Constitution was drawn up with the first clause reading “the congregation shall function as an Orthodox Hebrew congregation and shall be known as the Green & Sea Point Hebrew Congregation, the holy congregation, the House of Jeshurun”[vii], Jeshurun meaning beloved or upright, implying their hopes that there would only be high principles and no vereibbles among their congregants.
The constitution made it quite clear that they were loyal members of the British Empire and would follow the services as followed in Britain, not how they did it in der heim. They were proud of their identities as South Africans, not people with one foot in Eastern Europe.
“The form of the service shall be in accordance with the ritual adopted by the United Hebrew Congregation of the British Empire which is under the spiritual direction of the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire for the time being.”
The following month they convened a general meeting chaired by Adv Morris Alexander MLA, Jewish Board of Deputies chairman. They proposed that a synagogue capable of being extended should be built to seat 500 men and 300 women. It was agreed and they elected a committee with the additions of J Carasov[viii], Dr Kramer and AM Jackson. (Jackson was to become a G&SPHC Life President and trustee and chairman of the UOS and the Board.) Lew Diamond suggested that they co-opted his father, Rabbi Diamond, onto the committee but they felt that too premature (2.11.1926). The news had travelled far because a letter arrived from Rev L Wolk from Elizabethville in the Congo asking to be considered for the post as minister (23.1.1927).
The newly established committee enthusiastically embarked on a census of Sea Point Jewry including children and by November the secretary reported that no fewer than 127 families were prepared to join the congregation – no wonder Murray remarked on the number of “new people” who were flocking there in increasing numbers. Mr Gutman would be their honorary shammas with Mr Mauerberger as parnass. They agreed that it was necessary to spend some pounds on printed stationery because “everybody knew the psychological effect of a letter written on a printed letterhead” (27.2.1927).
It is a reflection on the degree of religiosity of the Sea Point residents that, despite there being 127 families willing to join a congregation - enough to make up many minyanim, no effort had been made before to establish a shul or even a shtiebel in their suburb,
In the meantime, the older members wanted Passover services. Lew Diamond told them that his father would give his services for free if approached (27.2.1927) so the committee decided to inaugurate those services in April 1927 in the Town Hall inviting Rev M Diamond to preach and Rev Ch. Eisenstein to officiate. This was successful so they held Sukkot services as well with Mr Gutman offering to present one hundred boxes of chocolates for the children for Simchat Torah – but plain boxes with the name of the congregation would be more appropriate than fancy boxes - the large number indicates that the congregation was beginning to attract worshippers or customers for chocolates.[ix] They advertised that they would be holding services for the Yom Tovim and purchased 12 machzors, three taleisim, borrowed Sefer Torahs from the Gardens Synagogue and paid £3 to Rabbi Kramer for two etrogim and lulavim. Rev Diamond and Rev Eisenstein officiated again - but this time in a paid capacity, but the bonus would have to wait until the arrears for seats had been paid (11.9.1927).
Finally, in November 1927, a deputation went to the CTHC which agreed to make the Sea Point congregation a branch congregation, but problems arose as the Sea Pointers were reluctant to give the Gardens Shul group the financial guarantees it requested. It took another year before they agreed to meet again and six months more before the Gardens group agreed to drop the clause regarding guarantors. In the meantime, the Seapointers were busy raising funds and looking for a suitable site.
Bubbles Harris recalled that her father was friendly with Mr Dent, who owned the Bordeaux Hotel, and approached him on behalf of the Shul committee to buy the stable area at the back of the hotel which the hotel no longer used – cars had replaced horses. In November 1928 its purchase was unanimously agreed on at a general meeting. In the meantime, the Sea Point Minor Hall was used for Succot and Simchat Torah, but when unavailable due to other bookings, the Gutman house was used for minyanim and their Succah was opened to all members attending the services. The services in the Gutman’s home in Hall Road were convenient because worshippers could catch a train from Cape Town and get off at the Hall Road station - a subway under the railway line in Marais Road below Bordeaux led to the beach.
Train passing Bordeaux
High Holy Day services were held in the Sea Point Town Hall which seated 300 in the major and 60-70 in the minor hall. The price of seats for gentlemen were two guineas, one guinea, and 10/6d; for ladies from one guinea to 10/6d. One year somebody forgot to book the hall in time – it had been booked for a dance and the Stodel family kindly allowed them to use the Marine Bioscope on the corner of St Johns and Main Road for the Rosh Hashanah services.[x]
Sea Point Town Hall
The High Holy Day services in 1929 were reported on at length in the SA Jewish Chronicle.
“It was filled to its utmost capacity… every available seat was occupied before the commencement of the service, over four hundred adults and many children being present. This has again brought home the urgent need for Sea Point possessing its own House of Worship, and in view of the rapidity of the growth of the Jewish community in this area, the Committee realise that only by an immediate start upon the erection of a Synagogue, can it hoped to provide for the members next year...The Committee has therefore decided to leave no stone unturned to accomplish this…Several of the younger members decided, at short notice, to form a Choir, and under the direction of Mr I Lewis, acquitted themselves excellently… this undertaking was greatly appreciated by the entire congregation.”[xi]
Naturally there were the nay-sayers. Perhaps this is why Jackson listed himself in the 1929 Jewish Year Book Who’s Who as an “ex-member”. Some moaned that a synagogue was an unwanted luxury. Others proposed abandoning the scheme. Mr Gutman complained that the proposed shul was much too big and would never be filled. Mrs Gutman complained it was too small. As the congregation grew, weekly services were held in a flat above Bussels Drapers between Wisbeach and Norfolk Road.[xii] For months the committee could not decide whether or not to build but they responded on their printed letterhead to a paragraph in the SA Jewish Chronicle asking what progress the congregation was making (24.7.1929). The newspaper asked why the committee was advertising for chazonim for the High Holy days when they still did not have a more suitable place of worship, especially as they had already acquired a plot of land.
Two weeks later the Chronicle[xiii] printed their response (probably sent on a printed letterhead) which was that until they had managed to raise £5,000 they could not proceed, but they already had £3,600 out of which they had paid for the land. They were “of a sufficiently optimistic opinion to feel that by the time” of the next Holy Days their synagogue world be an “accomplished fact.”
Sufficient optimism was not enough - it would take another five years. Their letter also stated that readers would no doubt be interested to learn that the arrangements with the Gardens congregation were proceeding most satisfactorily. Again, they were wrong.
They did take a number of positive steps. N Wilk was appointed as assistant secretary to the Hon treasurer at a salary not exceeding £3/- a month (26.2.1929); Rev Diamond was paid £30 as first reader and Rev Eisenstein £20 as second reader (7.8.1929). (In 1940 the Diamond family presented the synagogue with two candelabras to be placed on either side of the bimah table, with the Hebrew yahrzeits dates inscribed on each (1.7.1940). They heard that Mr Selikowitz of SA Cabinet Works had a Sefer Torah and asked him to present it to the congregation. He agreed and a letter of thanks was sent to him and to Mr Stoller. When Mr Segal noticed that the Sefer Torah was not complete, they advertised in the Jewish Chronicle that they would be holding a Siyum Torah (23.10.1929) at which further inscriptions would be made and funds raised. They were fortunate to be presented with another scroll on 6.2.1930 by Mr and Mrs J. Heilbron. They still needed to approach the Gardens Shul in 1931 to loan them a Sefer Torah. They also signed a Temperance Alliance protest against granting a liquor licence to Crosby Hall (7.8.1929).
One of the contentious issues was whether the synagogue should become affiliated to the Gardens Synagogue. Rev Bender regarded his shul as the Mother Shul with himself as the supreme arbiter of anything Jewish in the Cape. The committee argued about affiliation for several meetings until in November they decided to send a deputation to the CTHC – but did nothing about that for a year.
Gardens Synagogue (the original synagogue now the Jewish Museum is behind the trees on the left)
Archie Sacks[xiv] joined the committee in 1928 and served on it until his death in 1979, as president 1934-1938 and 1941-1943, when he became a life trustee. Archie’s father, Mordechai Sacks had founded the Chevrah Lomdei Torah. Archie’s daughter, Rene Kleinman said that he loved the shul. “It was his passion. Every Sunday morning, he attended meetings at the shul so we could never go out.”[xv]
Shekol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh. When the committee read about the Arab riots in late August over Jewish access to the Western Wall - 133 Jews killed and 339 injured - the committee planned to hold a memorial service for the victims. The worst massacre occurred in the Jewish quarter in Hebron, where Arab mobs attacked, looting, killing and raping men, women and children - 65–68 Jews were killed and 58 wounded, with some of the victims tortured, or mutilated. The memorial was planned to take place in the Sea Point Minor Hall with Rev Diamond and Rev Eisenstein conducting the service and Rev Bender, JM Goodman and Mr Shacknovis delivering addresses. The Sea Point Hall was not available so the plan was scrapped – unfortunately their own synagogue was still only a dream (30.8.1929).
[i] Message from the Committee, Looking back to the beginning, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual, 75th Commemorative Edition, 2005 – 5770, 5
[ii] “Our Shul …The First 40 years”, IN 1974 – 5735 G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual, 40th Anniversary, 12,13.
[iii] Harris, Bubbles, “Tribute to the late Leah & Joseph Gutman”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual 1996 – 5757, 42
[iv] Shrock, Rabbi AT, “The Green & Sea Point Hebrew congregation”, reprinted from the G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual Silver Jubilee, September 1955, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual 70th Anniversary,19-21 Much of the following information comes from this.
[v] Harris, Bubbles, “Recalling the Past”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual 70th Anniversary, 5765, 41
[vi] Kaplan, Mark, “Early days of the Green & Sea Point Hebrew Congregation”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual 2007, 5768, 10
[vii] Gross, Sam L, “Our congregation”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual, 1997-5758, 44
[viii] Carasov was the Board’s Immigration officer, meeting the ships to assist the new immigrants.
[ix] The Cape Jewish Board of Deputies collection contains chocolate boxes from the Maitland and Woodstock Congregations - each has a lid with a photo of the synagogue. These would have been more expensive than plain boxes.
[x] Harris, Bubbles, “Recalling the Past”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual 70th Anniversary, 5765, 41
[xi] “In and Around the Peninsula”, IN SA Jewish Chronicle, 18.10.1929
[xii] Sacks, Ian,” I remember it well”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual Golden Jubilee, 1983-5744, 46
[xiii] South African Jewish Chronicle, 2.8.1929
[xiv] Sacks, Archie, obituary, G&SPHC Rosh Hashana Annual 1979 – 5740, 26
[xv] Interview with Rene Kleinman, 8.1.2018