Despite alternate programmes for the youth and the aged and the enforced absence of their dynamic Rabbi Steinhorn, the shul faced a number of years of steady decline, until finally hitting rock bottom in 2009 with the shul affairs headlined in the newspaper with the largest circulation in the country, the Sunday Times.[i] The members were embarrassed to open their Sunday paper one morning to see an article headed Synagogue War Takes Fishy Turn. The sub-heading was no better - Sushi fest the latest target of ire at Orthodox shul - and the article went on to say that the country’s largest Orthodox Jewish congregation was at war with itself at accusations of financial audits, vote rigging for top positions, insults and expensive sushi.

Cape Town, South Africa – The War of the Synagogue and the Shavuot Sushi Feast

Sunday Times May 31, 2009 8:32 am

As the old-timers would say, “Oy veh!” or “Shanda fur di goyim”. Jews do not like to air their dirty washing in public, nor display their raw fish. The Sunday Times reported that disciplinary charges had been brought against their executive director Ian Maltz, who was found, among other things, to have instituted what appeared to be a system of “chaos by design” and to have “foolishly fabricated” information for his personal gain. There had been reports of a damning forensic investigation, of fraud; unauthorised expenditures; unauthorised sale of a community asset; of a missing car; of forged letters and allegedly excessive catering sprees.


Mail and Guardian, 31.5.2009

Unfortunately, such things can happen even in the most efficiently and idealistically run organisation. Even the forthcoming Shavuot celebrations was a cause for alarm as a former city councillor was accusing the president of spending too much money on sushi as an electioneering gimmick. A poor decision by a previous committee to cancel the Yom Kippur appeal and to hold an exclusive fund raiser dinner instead was a total failure with no one willing to attend, the effects of which were being felt many years later. This financial failure together with many years of weak management resulted in the shul facing serious financial problems with approximately only two months of working capital to pay staff salaries. One rabbi to whom they turned for advice had said that a phoenix is born from the ashes and it might be better to allow their shul to be destroyed in order to be rebuilt.

This was cold comfort as they did not want to see the financial demise and destruction of what was once a great community, so despite considerable opposition from the old guard and their supporters reluctant to accept change, a new committee took over under Aubrey Miller. But, as former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, “Change is not threatening, so long as we keep firm hold of the values by and for which we live.”

To uproot the problems and rebuild, it was necessary to change the lay leadership; to change the executive director, to change the financial and administrative systems, to rationalise staff, to improve morale, to improve fundraising and methods of income, to review and renegotiate all lease agreements and finally to change the religious leadership.

It took two extremely challenging years to turn the shul around and re-establish the Marais Road Shul to be one of the leading Jewish congregations in the country. Besides these many challenges, Miller supported by his committee believed that the success of the shul was not determined by the committee but rather by a world class religious leader. Unfortunately there were many well-meaning but ill-informed congregants who did not share this vision and who, together with the current rabbi, organised a strong resistance. There were people in supermarkets with petitions opposing the changes that finally resulted in an angry special general meeting attended by 2,000 people, the purpose of which was to block the committee from terminating Rabbi Hayon’s employ and appointing another religious leader. Despite legal actions for defamation; threats of legal action; threats of charges being heard at the Beth Din; and criminal charges being laid, the shul emerged from this ordeal stronger and better with its values intact. It is just as well that the Sunday Times did not have the whole story. There was nothing more damaging than a misinformed rumour whether it appeared in Noseweek, the Sunday Times or over a bridge table.

What had been planted over many years was uprooted and replaced with a better organisation, what had been broken, was built up to make a more efficient and better running synagogue and the nay-sayers came around to apologise. Among the unpleasant financial decisions that had to be taken, was to close down the second High Holy Days Services that took place at Weizmann Hall, seriously inconveniencing the regular worshippers who had prayed there for years, but G&SPHC could not afford to fund it especially while reconciling the availability of seating in the main shul and the poor take up of seating at the Weizmann Hall. There were many monthly cost savings that were implemented, from the purchase of food and beverages that were dramatically reduced due to signed purchase request forms and regular stock takes, to a massive reduction in maintenance costs due to obtaining competitive quotes and the strict control of payments; to the installation of a coded telephone system which resulted in a saving in excess of R10,000 per month. Within almost six months the new committee improved dramatically on the Yom Kippur appeal and the methods of communicating with the congregation and began organising social events, talks and other forms of inspirational entertainment to bring them into the synagogue during the week.

Prof Hellig[ii] had explained that one technique that helped foster interest in Judaism was to import dynamic overseas visitors to speak in South Africa. Sponsored by the Union of Orthodox Synagogues, Ohr Somayach, and/or other Jewish communal organisations, such speakers provided an interesting way to spend an evening and helped build loyalty to the sponsoring body. Frequently affluent donors could be persuaded to subsidise the cost of these tours; other times admission charges helped defray the costs. One of the popular speakers on the international circuit was Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, most famous for his book Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy.

It was difficult to find a charismatic enthusiastic rabbi but they finally selected a Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi despite some resistance to engaging a Chabad rabbi for a Modern Orthodox congregation. The Lubavitche Rebbe was Rabbi Dovid Wineberg’s source of inspiration with the Chabad vision of “Shlichut,”, the mission of educating Jews in their heritage in a non-judgmental and loving manner. He believed that the shul services needed to be 100% “authentic”, while remaining accessible and engaging and he brought back certain “authentic” practices that had fallen into disuse, but what was “authentic” to Lubavitch might not have been “authentic” to Litvaks, and certainly not the belief of some of his followers that the Lubavitche Rebbe was the Messiah, but one person’s authentic is another person’s inauthentic.

The largest synagogue in South Africa now had a Lubavitche rabbi and with his arrival in 2010 the conservative elements had finally won.

After lecturing at G&SPHC, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach had written an article called, “The Chabadization of Judaism”. Chabad Rabbis, he wrote, were beginning to take over centrist, modern orthodox communities that once saw Chabad as too right-wing religiously. He believed that the reason why a modern-orthodox community would choose a Chabad rabbi with his unshaven beard, long black coat, and large brood of kids, all of which seemed so incongruent with the values of the shul itself, was because while other rabbis wanted to build shuls and increase membership, Chabad rabbis wanted people to practice Judaism with the synagogue being just one avenue by which to do so.[iii] Lacking the history, he was unaware that in South Africa this process was assisted by the determination of the Johannesburg Chief Rabbinate to crush modern orthodoxy with the resultant closing of the South African Jewish mind.

[i] “The War of the Synagogue and the Shavuot Sushi Feast”, Sunday Times, 31.5.2009

[ii] Quoted in Simon, J, op cit