MEN EVACUATE IN 2½ MINUTES, WOMEN TAKE LONGER NEGOTIATING THE STAIRS
By the mid-1980s, South Africa was in flames, in what Mervyn Smith called the “bad security years”. There was increased confrontation between the state and political organisations fighting for liberation with armed actions by Umkhonto we Sizwe guerrillas who had infiltrated the country. Every few weeks the newspapers reported deaths and destruction caused by exploding bombs and incendiary devices, including one in August 1983 at Temple Israel in Hillbrow. The violent resistance and escalating insurgency were countered by the Government with harsh repression of any opposition, press censorship and states of emergency in 1985 and 1988.
G&SPHC’s Solly Kessler, elected chairman of the Board of Deputies in 1981, tried hard to alleviate the panic caused when his predecessor, Archie Shandling, was quoted in the Sunday Times 30.8.1981 saying that because of the rise in antisemitism, the increasing growth of the right wing and the depressed economy with Jews being retrenched, there would not be a Jew left in South Africa by the year 2000.[i]
In 1982 Solm Yach approached the committee on behalf of the Jewish Board of Deputies to ask it to improve the security of their synagogue and their congregants. His warning was taken seriously. They decided to keep the outside lights on throughout the night with a separate electric circuit and to close the back doors permanently with signs stating that access to the shul would only be through the main entrance. Members of the congregation would be called upon to perform specific functions at specific times for security purposes and an adequate lighting system would be installed in case of a power failure with lanterns fixed to the stairwells to prevent theft (12.8.1982).
A special Safety Sub-committee was established which arranged for an additional fire escape for the Ladies gallery and for self-locking panic bolts on exit doors (12.10.1982). A suggestion to approach an Israeli attached to the Embassy for free security advice was found not to be feasible. Announcements were to be made from the bimah that congregants sitting in areas marked out by coloured tapes on the book rests, would be required to be evacuated through specific exit doors, in the event of an emergency. Trained marshals, wearing reflector-type armbands and sashes and holding torches, would be responsible for conducting them to a central meeting place. Reflector signs would be placed over doorways in case of power failures and protection would be placed over windows bordering the streets. A full-time security officer was to be appointed to patrol the premises during services and there was to be a fireproof door on the ark. Fire drills were to be held regularly. The seven female and eight male marshals appointed would have specific seats around the synagogue. A map of the synagogue was drawn up marking off these sections and the seating plans were amended with fewer seats and wider aisles to enable rapid evacuation. The traffic department was asked to prevent cars from parking outside the synagogue, Bnei Brith, Hebrew Order of David and Lions were to be encouraged to participate in the drill. Children were to be instructed to sit on the floor until Bnei Akiva leaders would lead them out to the beach front. These suggestions were agreed to unanimously ( 2.6.1983, 16.6.1983).
In August the committee reported back on a successful evacuation drill. It took two and a half minutes for the men to evacuate the synagogue. The women took longer as they had to move slowly down the staircase. The Safely committee suggested that an arm rail be placed on both sides of the staircase and that there be more female marshals to assist the older ladies down the stairs.
The Committee was to be congratulated on the proactive and responsible steps it took. When, ten years later there was a bomb hoax at the synagogue, the congregation was prepared and the evacuation took place speedily without panic, the congregation returning once the sniffer dogs had gone. When the Islamist PAGAD movement ordered the Marais Road Synagogue to be bombed in 1998, the people assigned to the task discovered that the shul had security so they took their bomb instead to the Wynberg Synagogue whose committee had refused to increase its security.
Under the circumstances it was not surprising that ABH Margolis some years later presented the management committee with a carefully thought out memoranda of his observations about the current state and his suggestions as to possible improvements. He stated that in the past years the Jewish community had been in a state of turmoil because of the political situation, the State of Emergency which had led to an increase in emigration leading to a lack of leadership and a downward trend in membership. Because of the emigration of younger members, the community was ageing and donors to the communal funds who had left were cancelling their stop orders. The economic situation had deteriorated to the extent that the communal coffers were beginning to suffer. The number of unemployed was on the increase. Emigration had led to a decrease at the Herzlia Day Schools while some children went to other schools for financial considerations. There was a polarisation of political thinking within the community between the right and the left and a general apathy in spiritual matters, it was becoming more difficult to get spiritual leaders from overseas.
These things, Mr Margolis predicted, would be aggravated in the future. No young people were attending on Saturday mornings. The Bnei Akiva minyan only attracted its members, there was a lack of people between 25 - 50 and assimilation was on the increase. Even the shul committee only met once a month to vote; most members were not required to do anything further and were not given jobs to do while the executive tried to carry out all the functions of the committee getting no assistance from the other members of the committee. Margolis suggested organising a conference to discuss the situation, that committee members be given jobs, that sub-committees be reactivated – one could be for sick visiting, another for the Chevra Kadisha, and one for internal management. A Public relations campaign should be arranged to create better communication and understanding between the committee and the members. There should be a membership drive. Attempts should be made to strengthen the youth sub-committee and there was serious lack of study of Judaism and the rabbis should organise programmes. Many of these criticisms echoed the analysis of Rabbi Steinhorn.
As environment and culture changes, so too do religious practices.[ii] In his sermons Rabbi Steinhorn began to express his concerns about an increasing separation of people and synagogue with an accompanying waning of covenant consciousness and covenant commitments. The synagogue had failed to acknowledge this momentous separation or come to grips with it.[iii] His analysis was that it was caused by a reaction to liberalism, a search for meaning, direction and truth and an assimilationist – traditionalist cycle and he advised every synagogue and institution to engage in serious soul searching and self-analysis regarding its relations to what he termed the Covenant people.
Despite all these problems, its 1984 president, Les Marcow, believed it was a golden year.[iv] The Shul had had attracted 175 new members, barmitzvahed 36 boys and batmitzvahed 34 girls. Friday nights attracted between 800 and 1,200 worshippers. On first night Pesach the shul was so full, with 1,800 to 2,000 congregants, that some men had to sit upstairs.
[i] Robins, Gwynne: South African Jewish Board of Deputies Cape Council `1904-2004: A century of Communal Challenges, op cit, 66-68
[ii] Schrire, Gwynne, “Tradition is the illusion of permanence: A fresh look at some Purim, Pesach and other Jewish festival traditions”, Jewish Affairs, Vol 72. No 1, Pesach 2017
[iii] Steinhorn, Rabbi EJ. “Extract of message delivered on Golden Jubilee of the G&SPHC”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual Golden Jubilee , 1983-5744, 11
[iv] Messages from Past Presidents, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 70th Anniversary 5765, p10