In 1983 the G&SPHC celebrated its Golden Jubilee. For months beforehand, the committee had been meeting to plan events for this big occasion. There was to be a choral concert at the Nico Malan Theatre with Aviva Pelham, Cantor Badash, a Johannesburg cantor, the Herzlia Choir and the Sea Point Choir. (Kol Isha was not a problem.) The Johannesburg cantor refused to participate - he said he preferred more modern music. They decided to move it to the Baxter. They rejected the ideas of a theatre premiere, of a cinema premiere, of a Herzlia play premiere - there being nothing suitable. They thought of a Jewish eisteddfod for the school children ending with a concert. It was decided to change the word eisteddfod to Talent competition then to Talent Concert including singing, acting, musicians and shofar blowing. The school teachers were enthusiastic, but this idea too was scrapped as the talent was not good enough. There was to be a wall calendar illustrated by the school children. There was to be a banquet with a distinguished guest - the State President – they were surprised that he accepted the invitation.
It published a bumper Rosh Hashanah bulletin with many articles on its history by members of the congregation and messages of congratulations including one by Rabbi Prof EF Duschinsky, Av Beth Din, who wrote that he had enjoyed close friendships with six of their rabbis - Rabbi Dr Levine, Rabbi Dr Shrock, Rabbi Rabinowitz, Rabbi Prof Newman, Rabbi David Rosen, Rabbi Joseph Fogel and Rabbi Dr EJ Steinhorn. Rabbis Newman, Fogel, Steinhorn, Rosen and Suiza contributed reminiscences and the son of the late Rev Robinson contributed pencil sketches.
The celebrations culminated in a dinner given on 25.4.1983 with the State President, Marais Viljoen as their guest. The Jewish community had arrived - fifty years after Jews were banned from the Transvaal National Party Congress party membership, and laws were passed preventing Jews from Europe from immigrating, Jews were now accepted as part of the privileged melanin-deprived population, although they were not as desirable as Northern European Protestants.
Mr van der Kar greeting State President and Mrs Marais Viljoen in the Rabbi’s office before the service
To invite the State President to be a guest at their celebrations was a politically correct and astute move for a minority community, but in hindsight, and for those congregants who abhorred the racist policies of the government, whose sons were serving on the border, it was an invitation that left some feeling distinctly uncomfortable. One wonders how many refused to attend the banquet on principle.
Their Rosh Hashanah bulletin reprinted in full the speech given by the State President.[i] He praised the congregation for its work with the youth and the aged, its daily bible study classes, the weekly Jewish philosophy classes run by Rabbi Steinhorn, the seminars and lectures, the Ladies Guild Domestic Worker’s Friendship Club which included sewing classes, film evenings and sick visiting.
He gave a remarkably well-informed history of the origin and development of the Synagogue, including precise information not found in their own shul publications, such as the facts that before the Gutmans moved into their home Monreith in January 1920, services were held in the home of SC Abrahams and that it was not the older folk but the young people who clamoured for a synagogue, that “stormy years followed” until it was proposed on 30th March 1931 that a house of worship be erected and that it was announced in October 1933 that work had commenced on the building. He also knew that funds had run short when South Africa was in the grip of a severe depression and the women responded and organised several balls and morning markets. And that the decision had been taken in May 1934 to establish a choir.
Either the State President or his speech writer had access to the Shul’s minutes or else his security service kept a close eye on the doings of their Jewish citizens.[ii]
He was presented with a leather-bound copy of a book of Bible stories for children - Jonah by Rhoda Getz, who had started the friendship club, with illustrations by Thelma Chait. In the book president Len van der Kar acknowledged that Rhoda had been conducting Shabbat bible classes for children at the shul for the previous twenty years.[iii] Its book launch at the shul by Sir Richard Luyt, the UCT’s Vice Chancellor, was one of the celebratory events for the shul’s Golden Anniversary.[iv]
Mr van der Kar presenting a book to the State President
Marais Viljoen also mentioned that the shul’s history had coincided with events and crises in the existence of Jewry, like Hitlerism and the rise of Nazism in Europe (he skipped over the similar rise in South Africa), the Second World War, the Holocaust and the birth of Medinath Israel and four Arab Israeli wars.
As president of an apartheid government, he could not resist drawing a comparison. The story of the congregation was a story of a people that staunchly believed in its own way of life, its own culture and its democratic right to be themselves, which was just what the Afrikaans people were trying to do through their apartheid policies.
At the dinner Rabbi Steinhorn reminded the audience, including the State President, that although they swore allegiance to the Republic and served with honour in its armed forces, yet they were exhorted to keep alive the vision of the prophets and the cause of social justice and universal brotherhood. It might on occasion make their lives complicated and uncomfortable, but comfort was certainly not one of the perquisites granted to covenant and people. Rabbi Steinhorn defined the covenant as the rule of law tempered by the needs of society and the demands of G-d as conditioned by the needs of man. The way was open to attack from both right and left but peace of mind was for those who like the turtle, pulled in their heads to avoid the fray of existence. They lived long lives, but not covenantal existence.
What the Honourable Marais Viljoen thought of this sly attack on the lack of social justice and universal brotherhood in the Republic is not recorded but the subsequent withdrawal of Rabbi Steinhorn’s work permit might not have been unrelated.[v]
Four months later it was the fiftieth anniversary of the Reform Movement in Johannesburg and they also invited President Viljoen. This time a bomb blew apart the western wall of Temple Israel a few hours before and the event had hastily to be moved to Temple Emanuel. The Honourable Marais Viljoen in a show of confidence arrived without bodyguards and read the haftarah in English from the bimah but this was additional evidence, if evidence was needed, of the antagonism towards his government. A solidarity meeting was organised by the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Zionist Federation at the site of the bomb blast – even Orthodox Chief Rabbi Casper attended – but he stood on the pavement on the opposite side of the street, read out a statement, and left.
Later that year a referendum was held to allow the white population to vote on a new constitution. The government was not prepared to allow One Man One Vote, but thought it might gain some international wriggle-room by inventing a tricameral parliament. White people could continue to debate in their Parliament, coloured people would be able to debate in their own parliament, Indian people could debate in their own parliament while black people would not debate in any parliament, unless they went off to the newly created so-called homelands. The government thought it would show the world that they were trying to bend its inflexibility a little bit. The referendum passed with a two thirds majority and the new constitution came into force on 3 September, fooling no one. When Rabbi Rosen came on a visit the next month, he was reported as saying “Judaism cannot endorse a move towards a legitimate goal using illegitimate means. For that reason, I do not think I could support the proposals.”[vii] The Cape Times called him the controversial and good-looking Chief Rabbi of Ireland.
It was a sick society where someone could be called controversial for criticising a constitution passed to enable pinky-beige people to debate in one chamber, honey-coloured people in another, coffee-coloured people in a third, while chocolate-coloured people could only clean up the mess afterwards.
Like Rabbi Rosen, Rabbi Steinhorn was charismatic, open-minded and had a strong sense of values and commitment to social justice. Although the president and executive supported him, his sense of values conflicted with committee members who had been living for a quarter of a century under strict apartheid legislation and had come to accept the current ideas of social inequality and rigidity and the need to keep their heads down. These rabbis had ideas that were too liberal for the times.
Not only was the G&SPHC by now the largest synagogue in South Africa, it was prepared to give a bimah to charismatic Modern Orthodox rabbis who, unlike most South African rabbis at that time, were prepared to speak out against the apartheid regime and whose committee was prepared to support them and take the risk of employing them.
Like Rabbi Rosen, Rabbi Steinhorn was critical of the apartheid government and many of his sermons attacked the government. This concerned some congregation members who were scared that the community would be attacked.[viii]Although Rabbi Steinhorn was on a four-year contract, he resigned sooner, his resignation coinciding with the withdrawal by the government of his work permit - his outspoken criticism of its apartheid policies was not welcomed.
Rabbi Franklin: With the withdrawal of Rabbi Steinhorn’s work permit, the synagogue appointed another Modern Orthodox rabbi who was an unabashed human rights activist. Rabbi Selwyn Franklin, like Rabbis Rosen and Steinhorn, was charismatic and open-minded, with a strong sense of values, a commitment to social justice and an active participant in interfaith services dedicated to peace and justice in South Africa. As for Rabbi Steinhorn, he became Faculty Director of Teacher Training at Jews College, London and head of Yeshivat haKotel in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Franklin’s duties included leading the shul services, layening, giving shiurim for the Chevra Lomdei Torah and the Ladies Guilds, pastoral duties, hospital visitations, funerals, consecrations, shiva houses, serving on the Beth Din, teaching at Weizmann and Herzlia – and involvement with Jews for Justice (25.5.1981).
The Cape Times quoted Rabbi Franklin as saying “together with other leaders of major religious denominations I call for consultation and negotiation with the legitimate leaders of the black community so that peace, tranquillity and justice will prevail."
Rabbi Franklin was openly critical of what he termed an “iniquitous” society and shared platforms with the United Democratic Front. In 1984 he started the organisation Jews for Justice. In 1985 he was one of the first people to join Dr Ivan Toms in a 24-hour solidarity fast for a just peace as part of the End Conscription Campaign’s Troop out of the Township campaign. Detention without trial, influx control and forced eviction of people, he said, was an anathema to the Jewish faith. When 60,000 people were left homeless in 1986 as a result of a violent power struggle between two factions in the Crossroads squatter camps, in which the police did not intervene, and in which Rabbi Franklin came under police fire, he formed the Jewish Relief Committee to assist the victims.
He faced no opposition from the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies but, unlike Rabbi Rosen, and like Rabbi Steinhorn, faced politically conservative committee members of the G&SPHC who did not want his contract renewed as they felt that he was excessively preoccupied with politics. They complained at the content of his articles published overseas after he had agreed to advise the president of his intentions in advance (24.9.1986). They refused him leave to attend an interfaith conference in Nairobi and finally they advised him that the majority of the committee was dissatisfied with his activities, and it was necessary to see on what basis the rabbi would be staying provided that the past would not re-occur (22.10.1986). When interviewed by Tzippi Hoffman and Alan Fischer,[ix] he told them the following:
The division between politics and religion is not a Jewish one. The very essence of Judaism as Rambam put it, is to try to provide for the co-existence of human beings. What is happening in South Africa is not just political, but a question of morality and therefore we should be involved. A lot of my community are very afraid of change because change of essence carries with it a degree of uncertainty. A lot of them are senior citizens, who have lived their lives and played according to these rules of apartheid. A lot are concerned that if there is a black administration in this country, it would mean a degeneration of their privileged position.
In the same way that the committee had not been happy with the writings of Rabbi Rabinowitz, so too did they wince at Rabbi Franklin’s written views. Although the president and executive supported him, his sense of values conflicted with committee members who had been living for a quarter of a century under strict apartheid legislation and had come to accept the current ideas of social inequality and rigidity and the need to keep their heads down. When he started to speak about Gugulethu, people would mutter, “Here he goes again”.[x] Rene Kleinman recalled that although Rabbi Franklin was speaking out as every rabbi should have been doing, the older people did not want such criticism. Their rabbis had ideas that were too liberal for the times. His contract was not renewed, almost certainly because of his politics[xi] and in 1988 Rabbi Franklin decided to go on aliyah and then to Sydney, Australia and served as a rabbi in New York and as a professor at Moriah College in Sydney, Australia.
Rabbi Fogel had retired two years previously when he turned 65. He and his wife Judy had lost so many family members during the Holocaust, they wanted to be close to their ageing siblings in Israel. He described the farewell event in his autobiography, Nothing Happens Haphazardly.
We notified the congregational leaders who tried to persuade us to remain and offered me a contract for a further five years. We were however determined in our decision. A farewell function was held by the Chevra Lomdei Torah where I had been the maggid hashiur for the last ten years. Gabriel Sacks, chairman of the Chevra, paid tribute and made a suitable presentation. Finally, on Sunday March 30th 1986 the congregation arranged a public farewell at the Louis and Leah Waynik Hall adjacent to the shul. Tributes were paid by Rabbi Selwyn Franklin, Rabbi Eric Kaye of the CTHC, Mrs Queenie Sacks, chairperson of the synagogue’s Ladies Guild and by Geoffrey Breskal, president of the congregation who presented us with a golden handshake cheque of a very handsome sum in appreciation of our services over the past ten years and of my being the longest serving rabbi of the congregation. The atmosphere was charged with emotion and tear-filled eyes. With hugs of friendship and kisses of affection, hundreds of congregants lined to bid us farewell.”[xii]
He used his retirement in Israel to undertake something he had frequently discussed with colleagues while still in Sea Point. How should they prepare young boys adequately for their barmitzvahs? The Rabbinate was tolerating an intolerable situation because the boys were taught little more than how to recite the maftir and haftarah, primarily because of a lack of suitable teaching material. They learnt little, if anything about their Jewish heritage. His colleagues said if he felt so strongly about it, he should develop the curriculum himself, so he did. Three years later he published My guide for Bar/Bat Mitzvah once more sponsored by the G&SPHC. The book was reprinted in Jerusalem and was used in many schools including the Hebrew school of Rabbi David Rogut of Sydney Australia.[xiii]
Not only was the G&SPHC by now the largest synagogue in South Africa, it was prepared to give a bimah to charismatic Modern Orthodox rabbis who, unlike most South African rabbis at that time, were prepared to speak out against the apartheid regime and whose committee was prepared to support them and take the risk of employing them. Rabbi Rabinowitz, Rabbi Rosen, Rabbi Steinhorn and Rabbi Franklin. Four great rabbis, all prepared to speak truth to power, and all having to take the consequences for having fallen foul of a scared committee or an oppressive government.
Rabbi Franklin was replaced by Rabbi Baruch Rackovsky who was inducted by Chief Rabbi Harris on 14th August 1988. President Joe Sapire said that it took a very brave man to minister to such a large congregation virtually alone and although they continued to try to find an assistant rabbi to help him, apartheid South Africa did not attract candidates.[xiv]
[i] Rosh Hashanah annual 1985 – 5746, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual Golden Jubilee
[ii] Rosh Hashanah Annual 1985 – 5746, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual Golden Jubilee, 4-7
[iii] Van der Kar, Len, President, March 1973 in Getz, Rhoda, Stories from the Bible for Children and Parents: Jonah.
[iv] The first edition was made available for preferential distribution to the members of the G&SPHC in aid of its Golden Jubilee Fund
[v] City synagogue enters its 50th year, Argus, 26. 4.1983
[vi] Manoim, op cit, 352-354
[vii] “Controversial and good looking” from Cape Times, 29.10.1983; Quote from Argus, 25.10.1983
[viii] Interview with Rene Kleinman, 8.1.2018
[ix] Hoffman Tzippi and Fischer, Alan. The Jews of South Africa: What future?, Southern Books, Johannesburg, 1988, 336
[x] Joe and Esther Sapire, personal interview, 4.12.2017
[xi] Sifrin, Geoff, op cit, 45
[xii] Fogel, Rabbi Joseph, Nothing Happens Haphazardly, op cit, 195
[xiii] Fogel, Rabbi Joseph, op cit, 199
[xiv]The congregation was a very warm one. Esther Sapire spoke fondly of the popular brochahs, with their marvellous caterer Hadassah Friedman after which the ‘brochah club’ consisting of president Eddie Segal, the Ehrlichs and others members would eat lunch together in one another’s homes. Esther Sapire, interview, 5.12. 2017