The Jewish community was becoming alarmed by the rise of a Muslim organisation called PAGAD - People Against Gangsterism and Drugs - that became politicised by Qibla, a radical Islamic group. Its G-Force, operating in small cells, was responsible for killing a large number of gang leaders, and as well as embarking on a spate of urban terrorism - particularly bombings of tourist attractions, shopping centres, gay nightclubs, the Jewish Book Centre and the Wynberg Synagogue. The worst attack was on 25th August 1998 when a bomb at the Waterfront’s Planet Hollywood restaurant killed one person and injured 24. It was claimed to be in retaliation for U.S. attacks on targets in Sudan and Afghanistan the previous week.
On erev Yom Kippur there was a bomb scare. Cantor Badash was davening when the shamash Normie Isaacson came to tell them there was a bomb in the shul and the police were outside. Joe Sapire and Rabbi Steinhorn calmly told the packed congregation to go to the car park where they would continue to daven. Everybody trooped outside and the service continued. Their previous practice drills had come in useful. After an hour they were given the all clear, they returned to the synagogue and the service proceeded as though nothing untoward had happened.[i]
Arrested and brought to trial, Mansoer Manuel told the court that Pagad's national co-ordinator, Abdus Salaam Ebrahim, sent word to the Grassy Park cell that it needed to work as they were very quiet and they were ordered to bomb the Sea Point synagogue. When they drove along Marais Road on 17th December 1998, they noticed that the shul had security.
"The cell felt it would be too dangerous and decided instead to bomb the Wynberg synagogue.”[ii]
Which they did that evening. It was Hanukah, but fortunately everyone had left the shul by then, and only the entrance was damaged. Manuel stated in court that Farouk Jooste told them the synagogue bombing had been a weak job, because no one was in the synagogue, but Ebrahim was happy as they had shown the world they were strong.
The Wynberg synagogue committee had refused suggestions from the community security organisation to install security. The G&SPHC committee had done so. Because they had visible security outside, the bombers had moved onto another target. Understandably both synagogues increased their security and president Clive Allen[iii] in 2001 announced that great strides had been taken in ensuring the security of the worshippers. A new entrance had been built on the inside of the security wall to shorten the walk for the ladies who previously had to walk outside before turning back into the entrance. A full-time security agency was guarding the shul and security cameras had been installed.
Security entrance to synagogue
Don’t be an idiot aubrey
A constant worry was how to attract the youth, who represented the future, to their services. When Aubrey Berman[iv] was president (1999-2001) he wanted to create a trust to fund the Shul’s youth and aged and, despite opposition, succeeded. Many years later he reminisced that the downside of being in control was the difficulty in participating when the committee debated crucial decisions to which one felt strongly opposed, yet one needed to abide by the majority vote. [v]
We urgently needed a Youth Centre, where all local Jewish children could congregate and socialise. For security purposes it needed to be within close proximity to the Shul. When we suggested that we build the Centre above our offices, there was an outcry and I was told, ‘Are you crazy? All the young children are emigrating with their families.’ However, we went ahead. When we started to build, the structural engineer felt that we needed additional reinforcement for the slab to support the upstairs floor. It would have resulted in the project far exceeding our budgeted cost. We decided to go ahead and the Youth Centre opened with over 50 children on Shabbat. By relocating the youth into the upstairs Recreation Centre, it created an enlarged venue to accommodate functions. I am proud to advise that the Youth Centre is still standing and the slab did not collapse. Then I suggested enlarging the kitchen, and I was told, ‘Don’t be an idiot. With the Albow Hall available who needs your Hall for functions?’ Needless to say, with the kind generosity of just two of our congregants and our Ladies Guild we were able to modernise and double the size of the kitchen so that it had a separate meat and milk kitchen partitioned with sliding doors. With the building operations on site we were then able at little extra cost to renovate and refurbish the staff offices, rabbis’ office and Boardroom. Furthermore, by building the outside security gate and bomb-proof external wall, we were able to introduce an outside patio where congregants and children could gather in a secure area and not on the pavement. We even managed to get the toilets upgraded after a complaint from a congregant that the steel urinal created a reflection that could cause embarrassment – or pride - and was thus contrary to Halachic law. Not being the Av Beth Din, nor his favourite President, I did not tender a ruling, and replaced them with porcelain.
My other pet project was to find a way to increase our revenue without raising membership fees above the inflation rate. We provided numerous services and additional activities, particularly for the older generation which we felt should be financed by the Shul. We also provided additional services at the Weizmann Hall during the High Festivals to cater for all Jews looking for a Shul to attend, whether they had a seat booked or not - at times it was so packed, there was standing room only. This brought to me the idea of developing shops in the vacant Weizmann foyer that served only as an entrance to the Hall and Sephardi Shul upstairs. It was an extremely valuable asset that was not generating any income. We estimated we could raise 3/4 Million Rand in tax free rental income annually, as it would be subsidising a religious institution. This development was estimated to cost 2 Million Rand which we projected would be paid off in 3 years with the rental income.
A special meeting of the congregation was held to get permission to develop. There was tremendous opposition, mainly from the older more conservative members who argued that they did not want to encumber the Shul financially in a project and that part of Regent Road was not a good area for retail shops. Aubrey was told, “Stick to Shul affairs and leave property developments to the professionals.
The projected budget showed a 25% return after building the shops and a new Sephardi Hall, so they decided to go ahead. In the end, in order to pacify the opposition, they used no Shul funds and took an outside mortgage bond to cover the development costs. The funds generated supplemented the revenue required to balance the budget while releasing funds for additional services for the youth and elderly. At the same time, they received a bequest that allowed them to build the Maisie Kagan Youth Room which incorporated the Morris Fine Library in which, like an internet café, they supplied computers to be used free of charge and videotapes of a Jewish interest that could be viewed.[vi] It was a great addition to their Youth Centre.
Within three years the project was paid for in full and still provides the Shul with revenue in what is today's main retail strip and shopping area. So, although President Berman might have been considered a crazy idiot, the G&SPHC benefitted from his ideas.
[i] Joe and Esther Sapire, interviewed, 4.12.2017
[ii] Johns, Lynnette, “Pagad's G-force spy lifts the lid on violence”, 10.10. 2000, IOL. Manuel, who was a Christian when he joined Pagad, told the court he was forced to convert to Islam because Barendse told him Christians and Jews could not be trusted. "I changed my religion and got involved in pipe-bomb attacks and drive-by shootings. I was interested in the work Pagad was doing." Members who disobeyed their cell’s spiritual leader faced certain death. Manuel said it would be like "signing your own death warrant".
[iii] Clive President’s message, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 2001 – 5762, 1
[iv] Messages from Past Presidents, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 70th Anniversary 5765, 10
[v] Personal communication, 3.8.2018
[vi] Berman, Aubrey, “President’s message”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 1999 - 5760, 1