In this study, we have examined how the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation has coped and adapted to changing political and religious realities.
Changing Political Realities
There is a sensible halakhic rule dina de-malkhuta dina that the law of the country is binding, even when one does not approve of those laws, as happened once the Nationalist Government came into power in 1948, When the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation came into existence, it was in a province that was still firmly under British influence in a country that was part of the British Empire and its constitution stated that its service would follow the ritual of the United Hebrew Congregation of the British Empire under the spiritual direction of its Chief Rabbi. The British Jews, wanting to conform to the traditions of the established Anglican Church which had an authoritarian structure under the archbishop of Canterbury, had adopted a similar structure with a Chief Rabbi, a system unknown in Eastern Europe or in America, where there was much more diversity and flexibility of Jewish congregations. They were loyal citizens and arranged an impressive service for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Even after 1948,when they found themselves living under a raft of rapidly passed draconian and morally abhorrent racist apartheid laws the congregation continued to abide by the customs and conventions of the community in which it existed, comfortable that they were able to benefit as they were now included in the ruling white minority. No written criticism of the government could be found either in the minute books nor in the president’s annual reports printed in its Rosh Hashanah bulletins, not even during Sharpeville. It was as though they were living in an alternate universe. Anyway, criticism had been outlawed by the 1950 Suppression of Communism Act, the General Law Amendments Act and subsequent legislation. Indeed, it was not until 1977 that president Shabse Sive referred even obliquely to the government, stating that “during the past year developments in South Africa have caused concern for the future of the Jewish community”, and then this only in a reference to the members who were emigrating. No mention of the Soweto riots the previous year causing the emigration - but then they were living in what Prime Minster Vorster had called "the happiest police state in the world".
One could only gauge their opinions of the government obliquely by their actions, not by their words and it could be seen that their synagogue was far more progressive both in their actions and in the rabbis they employed – these were far more outspoken about the iniquities of the apartheid system than the rabbis of other Orthodox synagogues in Cape Town, or in most of the South African synagogues. Two of them had their visas withdrawn, one resigned and one did not have his contract renewed. They let the Weizmann Hall for a fundraising concert for the Treason Trial dependants and to an Academic Freedom Committee symposium, but refused a 1962 request by the National Party. They also let the hall out to “Non-Europeans” for public entertainment despite the Group Areas Act and the Separate Amenities Act. From 1979 their Ladies Guild used the shul hall for a club for black domestic workers and hosted popular film afternoons with Rabbi Steinhorn operating the projector until stopped by the police. For reasons of expediency they invited President Viljoen to their Golden anniversary. For reasons of integrity, Rabbi Steinhorn spoke that night on social justice and universal brotherhood. His visa was withdrawn.
Their shul hall served as one of the polling booths in the first free elections on 27th April 1994, and on 9th May, the day before Nelson Mandela was elected president, he visited the Shul to address the Jewish community. It was one of the proudest days in its history.
Attitudes to women. White women got the vote in South Africa in 1930. Two years before, a proposal that co-opted ladies be invited to join the shul committee with full voting power was turned down, with the exception of subcommittees - they wanted the women to raise money to buy land for the shul. Ladies could serve tea and raise money, but only men could make decisions. Once Parliament had agreed to allow women to vote, public opinion changed and their 1932 AGM agreed that women could serve on the shul committee. Some men were still not happy despite the South African Chief Rabbi JL Landau stating that it was halachically acceptable and they had to get the approval of British Chief Rabbi Dr JH Hertz who agreed but warned about extending women any other privileges which might lead to measures which were “either religiously questionable or… would tend to change the traditional character and spirit of the service”. Ironically, from 1932 to 1992 only two ladies took the opportunity to serve on the committee.
Education: Religious education for their children was so important, that it was one subject that turned them from passive bystander to activist, and their activism had positive results for local Jewish education. At the initial meetings in 1926 to discuss forming a congregation, it was suggested that they should start Hebrew classes. When they became disturbed at Ellerton School’s response to their concerns about its religious education in 1929, they contacted the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Cape Town Talmud Torah who met with the Provincial Administrator, resulting in the inclusion in future school entrance forms of the parents’ wishes regarding the teaching of religion. They also decided to establish a Talmud Torah starting in March 1930.
By 1941 parents and teachers were complaining about conditions in the Talmud Torah and the committee fired the teachers who complained to the Board of Jewish Education and the Hebrew Teachers’ Association and the committee were told they would get no new teachers until it had settled with the old teachers . By 1943 the Talmud Torah had 103 students and offered Junior Certificate and Matric classes in Hebrew. When they built the Weizmann Hall Complex, it included a Talmud Torah which morphed into the Weizmann School which, within twenty years, had more than 400 pupils - soon there were not enough pupils to make an afternoon Talmud Torah viable.
When Rabbi J Newman discovered in 1970 that 50% of Jewish pupils at Sea Point Junior School received no Hebrew education, they asked the Board of Education to consider arranging Jewish instruction in Sea Point Schools. In 1974 the same question would arise in connection with Christocentric education and once again the shul approached the Board of Deputies. When the Minister of Education said they would only allow their own teachers in their schools, the Board of Deputies suggested that Jewish parents paid for Jewish teachers. The parents refused. Rabbi Newman sent letters to all the congregants warning parents that the Government would be intensifying Christian National Education and advising them to ask for their children to be exempted from religious instruction or to enrol their child in a Jewish day school. Parents moved their children to Weizmann and Herzlia and G&SPHC member Gerald Kleinman succeeded in bringing a Religious Instruction (RI) programme into the government schools. Because of its concern for what was happening in Sea Point Schools, a very successful RI programme came into being in many Cape Town schools, only ending when most Jewish children were enrolled in Jewish day schools, leaving too few learners in government schools to make it worthwhile supplying a teacher. In 1979 the Sea Point Boys Primary School agreed on a Jewish Education programme with the Board of Jewish Education, the Reform Congregation and G&SPHC sharing costs.
Zionist identity: One would look in vain among the minute books, the presidents’ AGM reports or the Rosh Hashana magazines to find any reference to Sharpeville, Soweto, the Treason trial or Rivonia, but when it came to events in the Holy Land, this was different. Admittedly one would not be banned or sentenced to solitary confinement for referring to Zionism. Even as early as 1929 when they did not even have a synagogue of their own they planned a memorial for those killed in the Hebron riots. Among their responses to the Holocaust was the hope expressed in 1946 that compensation would be vouchsafed to them in the form of the restoration of their homeland. Rabbi Shrock considered the day that the State of Israel was established to be the most significant event during his term of office in Sea Point. In 1952 they named their new hall after Chaim Weizmann, the first President of Israel. The synagogue held a special service of intercession for the welfare and safety of the State of Israel in 1955 and at the 1956 AGM President Abramson appealed to them to donate generously to the IUA Campaign, referring to the Sinai Campaign. A special solidarity gathering was held when the Six Day War broke out.
Changing Religious Realities
Sephardi Jews: When the Congo gained its independence in 1960 the English Consulate and the Italian Embassy called for immediate evacuation. The Jewish community fled in convoys escorted by Belgian troops and many came to Cape Town where the community helped them and they joined the G&SPHC. As a French- and Ladino-speaking Sephardi community, they found the Ashkenazi Minhag strange so the G&SPHC allowed them to use one of the Weizmann classrooms for their own 1960 High Festival services, the rest of the year they worshipped in Marais Road. When the community grew to sixty families by 1967, the G&SPHC committee let them use the Weizmann School assembly hall and lent them Sifrei Torah and prayer books. When a Bush War began in Rhodesia in 1971, the Rhodesian Sephardi community joined them. With a community now numbering 180 families, 600 souls, the G&SPHC let them use the Minor Weizmann Hall and eight years later gave the Sephardi community permission to use the Minor Hall as a synagogue on a permanent basis with their own rabbi, Rabbi Suiza.
Turn to the right: After the Second World War and the Holocaust, survivors and refugees from Eastern Europe moved to the West. They were Talmudic and halachic scholars but had not grown up in the West with its acceptance of the ideas of the enlightenment and the need for tolerance and acceptance of diversity. Their students led to the acceptance of more fundamentalist and right-wing practices. During apartheid the more enlightened and centrist orthodox rabbis were not prepared to take up positions in South Africa whereas to the followers of the Ohr Someach ba’al teshuvah movement and the Lubavitch Chasids the saving of souls was more important than the politics. These were inward not outward looking movements and they were happy to move into the void. Their influence on South African Judaism and its leaders, especially in Johannesburg, led to far stricter observance of halacha than had been practised in South Africa and this was to play out in conflicts with the G&SPHC.
Kol isha. Earlier some South African and British Orthodox synagogues had mixed choirs. Cantor Katzin from Riga in Latvia put together a mixed choir of ladies and gentlemen in 1942. Women would not want to play rugby on a Saturday nor were they away fighting Hitler. The choir boys, resenting the competition, demanded that the girls be discharged. When the choirmaster refused, the boys walked out and staged a strike. The boys won – but it was a pyrrhic victory because they were sorry after it happened. Even as late as 1953 they were still struggling with the Beth Din to get permission to have a mixed choir.
Attitudes to the Progressive Reform movement: A G&SPHC founder and its long-time president Dr Herman Kramer left in 1944 to become president of the Progressive Reform Congregation. The G&SPHC’s Rev Rosenberg wrote to Hon Lily Montagu, the honorary secretary of the World Union of Progressive Jewry, asking for financial support to leave the G&SPHC as he did not feel in sympathy with the customs and principles of Orthodoxy.
When Cape Town Jewish Reformed Congregation treasurer, Mr S Roy wrote to ask why it had not been invited to the inauguration of their new rabbi in 1944, the G&SPHC committee answered that they had only invited members of the United Council of Hebrew Congregations, seemingly forgetting that they had also extended invitations to non-Jewish ministers and members of parliament. Despite the threats of boycotts and economic sanctions by Chief Rabbi Abrahams and the Board of Jewish Education, the G&SPHC showed some ambivalence. In 1962 the shul allowed the Jewish Board of Deputies to use the Weizmann Hall for a lecture by visiting Rabbi Freehof, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the World Union for Progressive Judaism – only once it had been reassured by the Board chairman that there would be no Reform propaganda in his lecture. Tongue in cheek, the shul committee said that at no time was there any question of not letting the hall to a Reform Rabbi (29.1.1962). Rabbi Rosen conducted a batmitzvah with the participation of the Reform Congregation choir without a problem. When the shul president was invited to the induction service of a Reform rabbi the Av Beth Din told him there was neither reason nor halachic grounds for him to refuse to attend or for Rabbi Fogel not to attend a chuppah under which a Reform rabbi participated.
But by the 1980s the pendulum had swung away from the values of pluralism and tolerance and the Johannesburg Beth Din started to exert pressure on any attempts to share events with Progressive Judaism. The SA Rabbinical Association sent Rabbi Steinhorn a telegram of complaint when he agreed to appear on the same Johannesburg platform as Reform Rabbi Norman Mendel to discuss modern Judaism. The shul president discussed the matter with Chief Rabbi Casper and they decided not to reply to the telegram. Then the shul president was asked to a meeting at the Beth Din offices where Rabbi Duschinsky, who had often publicly expressed the desirability of forging discussions between Reform and Orthodox Jews, complained that both the local rabbonim and those in Johannesburg were upset that Rabbi Steinhorn would be sharing a platform with Rabbi Spiro at the annual Spring Seminar organised by the Council for Adult Jewish Education for the entire Cape Town Jewish community in a venue belonging to an Orthodox Hebrew Congregation. But there had never been complaints about this annual event before.
Professors David Benatar and Milton Shain had pointed out that the liberal values of pluralism and tolerance embraced by the new South Africa were under attack by a steadily more intolerant and coercive rabbinate so that even those Orthodox rabbis who would not have minded sharing a platform with Reform Rabbis no longer did so for fear of ostracism. The committee supported Rabbi Steinhorn so there was only one thing that the Johannesburg Beth Din could do - get rid of Rabbi Steinhorn and change the policies of the synagogue.
Attitudes to Modernity: In his 1934 G&SPHC AGM report, Chairman AM Jackson remarked that the time had arrived for orthodox leaders to get together and eliminate some of the restrictions. They had an organ. They had a field telephone allowing the cantor to be in constant touch with the choirmaster and vice versa. They had an electric button connecting the bimah to the choir loft. They used a microphone. Rabbi Casper allowed them to use it if totally concealed; both Rabbi Rosen and Rabbi Steinhorn found it acceptable. By 1982 they found candidates for appointment as shaliach tzibur refusing to act because of the microphone system and possible Bnei Akiva objections but they continued to use it until, given the “temper of the times”, by 1991 it had become a definite no-no and it had become accepted that no matter how excellent the sermon, it would be inaudible to many in the large audience.
As the largest synagogue in South Africa, the G&SPHC was frequently in conflict with matters of precedence with the Gardens Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in South Africa, sometimes requiring the mediation of the Jewish Board of Deputies and Justice Joseph Herbstein. The G&SPHC had always attracted dynamic, well qualified and learned Modern Orthodox or Centrist Orthodox rabbis, well suited to a congregation which had among its members many business and community leaders, including members and chairmen of the Jewish Board of Deputies, City councillors and mayors and they valued their independence and numerical strength. In 1950 they seceded from the Jewish Board of Deputies and from the United Council of Synagogues because the G&SPHC refused to accept the appointment of a chief rabbi, the Gardens Shul Rabbi Abrahams, who would exert control over their equally well qualified Rabbi Dr Shrock.
With the later emergence of right-wing Orthodoxy as a result of the increase and growing self-confidence of the ultra-Orthodox through its control over the office of the Chief Rabbinate, there was increasing interference and attempts to crush the last stronghold of Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy in South Africa in what also happened to be the largest synagogue in South Africa.
In 1999 the Beth Din ordered the G&SPHC to retire Rabbi Steinhorn. They refused. Then Chief Rabbi Harris, Rabbi Kurtstag, Av Beth Din, ten dayanim and Cape Town rabbis fired off letters to every one of the 1,300 members of the G&SPHC informing them that, as their committee had refused to seek the retirement of Rabbi Steinhorn, as they had been requested to do, the rabbi would be declared persona non grata. They complained that Rabbi Steinhorn was considered to be in breach of his contract because he had refused to respect the authority of the Chief Rabbi (a repeat of the conflict fifty years earlier when the shul and Rabbi Shrock had refused to accept the authority of Rabbi Abrahams as Chief Rabbi). The matter was brought to an AGM attended by 700 members who gave Rabbi Steinhorn a standing ovation. They were not prepared to see their highly respected rabbi dismissed but were willing to negotiate and the Board of Deputies once more became involved. The Chief Rabbi ordered rabbis to refuse to officiate with Rabbi Steinhorn at any religious occasions including shiva prayers. The legality of the weddings at which he officiated, his recommendations on potential converts and his rabbinic statements would no longer be considered valid. With the implications of such blackmail, it was finally agreed that after Passover 2004 Rabbi Steinhorn would retire and become Rabbi Emeritus.
According to Judge Davis, “With Rabbi Steinhorn’s departure, the die was cast and the synagogue moved from its Modern Orthodox stance to the right. The shul gave up and there would be no intellectual content in the shul. We did not realise at the time what we were losing, the only rabbi who could talk to the really bright kids who did not want to have anything to do with their Jewish identity by giving them a viewpoint of Judaism that captured the exquisite dilemma of being secular and religious at the same time.”
In 2010 a Lubavitch rabbi was appointed to the synagogue.
Gmilut Chasadim When xenophobia hit Cape Town in 2008 with about 20,000 foreign immigrants seeking safe shelters, the Weizmann Hall was turned into a shelter for 200, many of whom had been found huddling for safety in the Cape winter, sleeping outside the Caledon Square Police Station in the rain. Rebbetzin Hayon and other members of the shul, the Jewish community and Weizmann parents reached out to help. The outpouring of goodwill and kindness was phenomenal - toys, food, clothing, and blankets were brought in, even a television set.