1989 was a year in which the world changed. It was a turning point in political history because a wave of revolutions swept Eastern Europe, starting in Poland and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall that had separated Communist east Germany from democratic west Germany. The fall of the Soviet Union meant that the African National Congress (ANC) in alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) could no longer obtain weapons and support nor could the leftist secular revolutionary states of Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

Nor could the South African apartheid government use the Rooi gevaar - the Communist threat - to provide legitimacy to their authoritarian and racist policies. Also, in this remarkable year, President PW Botha, an outspoken opponent of communism and majority rule, had a stroke and although unwilling to resign, was forced from office in August and replaced by the younger and more moderate FW de Klerk who soon after assuming the party leadership, called for a non-racist South Africa and for negotiations about the country's future.

Each year before the start of Parliament Chief Rabbi Harris and other religious leaders visited the State President, a practice begun by PW Botha. On 1st February 1990 the Chief Rabbi brought with him to the meeting Joe Fintz, the chairman of the Board of Deputies and G&SPHC representative of the Sephardi Congregation. Chief Rabbi Harris tackled De Klerk on many issues and on the way out the State President said to him, “Rabbi, I’m not going to let you down. Tomorrow I am going to make a statement which will change the course of history in our country”.[1]

Gerald Leissner, Joe Fintz, Archbishop Tutu and Chief Rabbi Harris outside Parliament


Gerald Leissner, Joe Fintz, Archbishop Tutu and Chief Rabbi Harris outside Parliament

And, indeed, he did just that! On 2nd February 1990, President FW De Klerk opened Parliament. The Chief Rabbi Joe Fintz, and all South Africa were startled when President De Klerk announced that bans on the ANC, the SACP and the Pan African Congress had been lifted and that all political prisoners would be released, as well as Nelson Mandela who had been imprisoned for twenty-seven years. President FW De Klerk’s speech changed the course of South Africa’s future.

Yet in his president’s message in 1990, President Joe Sapire[2] makes no mention of the momentous changes proposed by President de Klerk. Instead he expresses concern about Israel.


Our beloved Israel is in mortal danger, threatened by a new Haman who has arisen in the Middle East – a madman who threatens the destruction of Israel and our people with poison gas and fire … In praying for Israel, we are also praying for our individual existence as Jews, especially in the Diaspora.

While de Klerk was mulling over changes and South Africa was awakening to the dawning of a new reality, the collapse of the Soviet Union also had a destabilising effect on the Middle East. Soviet-backed Arab revolutionary regimes in this oil-rich territory had competed for dominance against the Western-backed Gulf monarchies. Now that the Soviet power was gone, the West and the Arab monarchies reduced their financial and military support to the Islamist radicals who then turned against them. One of the results was the Gulf War (2nd August 1990 – 28th February 1991), when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait. Saudi Arabia and Egypt called on the United States and other Western nations to intervene which they did. Hussein attacked Israel with Scud missiles expecting Israel to retaliate thinking Arab countries would then take his side, but the United States asked Israel not to intervene.[3]

In June 1991, all apartheid laws were rescinded. Now that it was safe to be outspokenly anti-apartheid, the Congregation invited Rabbi Steinhorn to return as its spiritual leader. He was regarded as possibly the most intellectually gifted rabbi this country has ever had. He had been their rabbi in the early 1980s until the Government refused to renew his visa. Now things were different. Rabbi Steinhorn was most ably assisted by Rabbi Kohlenberg.

Later that year, the president Cliff Sossen[4] referred to it having been a year of miracles. However, like Joe Sapire, he was not referring in his message to the miracle of the termination of all apartheid legislation in South Africa, but to events in Israel - to Israel’s deliverance from the Gulf War as well as the miraculous deliverance of Jews, both from Russia and Ethiopia.

Russian Jews wanting to go on aliyah had been denied visas, were branded traitors, fired from their jobs, and became targets of public hatred. After the fall of the Soviet Union, their new president Mikhail Gorbachev lifted restrictions on emigration in 1989 - 183,400 Soviet Jews arrived in Israel in 1990, 148,000 more in 1991. With rebel forces approaching the capital of Ethiopia at the beginning of 1991, the Mengistu dictatorship agreed to sell their Ethiopian Jews to Israel for about $35 million plus shelter for some high placed officials in the United States and, on 24 May 1991, under Operation Solomon, about 14,400 Beta Israel were brought from Addis Ababa to Israel within 34 hours in about 30 specially adapted airplanes of the Israeli Air Force and El Al. So, if 1989 had been a turning point in political history changing the future of many countries, 1991 had truly been, for those wanting to go to Israel, a year of miracles.

As for the shul, Sam Lewis Gross, former shul president had written an article about what had become the largest congregation in South Africa for the April 1991 Jewish Tradition newspaper.[5] He wrote that although Orthodox in name, the congregation, as in most cases throughout South Africa, tended more towards conservatism. Although it was a close and well-knit community, Gross admitted that there were periodic differences for which their ‘Scribe’ and Rosh Hashanah Bulletins provided a forum for discussion and dissension, an aid towards maintaining unity in the congregation. Currently a source of friendly dissension was the ban on the reintroduction of a microphone system in the shul.

Mr SL Gross


Undoubtedly their large synagogue with its poor acoustics would have benefitted from a microphone, particularly during sermons. Gross was admitting to the reality of most South African synagogues being Orthodox in name only, as were its members. Dana Evan Kaplan, Research Associate at UCT’s Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research examined this problem in a 1988 article on “South African Orthodoxy Today: Tradition and Change in a Post-Apartheid Multi-Racial Society’[6] and his predictions were accurate.

He explained that South African Jews believed an authentic Jewish identity to be that represented by Lithuanian Orthodoxy tempered by British Jewish formality. Kaplan quoted Professor Jonathan Webber who pointed out that the average South African Jews forgot that when their ancestors arrived from Lithuania and moved from the traditional society of the shtetls into the relatively open South African society, they became very Anglicised and transformed themselves extensively. Most gave up their halachic commitments while at the same time they maintained their institutional loyalty to Orthodoxy. This perspective on history obscured the fact that Orthodoxy as it was practiced in South Africa was so altered that it would be unrecognizable in Lithuania, past or present. Further, there was little debate in South Africa on the need to question assumed values and/or to initiate changes. This had resulted in an atmosphere in which the Orthodox rabbinical authority was extremely secure and, as long as traditional sources of power existed, people did not sense the need for change. This, Kaplan maintained, was especially true in the South African Orthodox community at that time with most Anglo-Lithuanian Jews maintaining their loyalty to Orthodoxy despite carrying out few Orthodox practices. They observed the rites of passage, attended shul on the high Holy Days, fasted on Yom Kippur, went to a Pesach seder, and were satisfied that they were traditional Jews.

The Kaplan Centre published the results of Allie Dubb’s 1991 sociodemographic survey of the Jewish population of South Africa whose statistics on religious practices confirmed Dana Kaplan’s statements. Since a 1974 survey unaffiliated Jews had increased from 5.3% to 8.8%; 2/3 regarded themselves as Orthodox and 10% as Reform, yet only 86% of those calling themselves Orthodox belonged to a synagogue. In Cape Town only 9% went to the synagogue on Friday nights, 7% on Saturday mornings, and 48 % only attended a few times a year. Dubb wrote that middle of the road laissez faire Jews made up the largest proportion of those who regarded themselves as Orthodox.[7] Thirty years later the 2020 Kaplan Centre survey has found the same thing.

There was another change following the fall of apartheid regulations, a willingness to publish criticism of the Government. On 17th March 1992 de Klerk had held a whites-only referendum on ending apartheid. There was an overwhelming 68% "yes" vote for continuing negotiations to end apartheid paving the way for the country's first multiracial democratic elections in April 1994. The 1992 Rosh Hashanah journal published a letter from Colin Eglin, the Democratic Party MP for Sea Point. This letter marked a departure, and was part of the miracle that the new South Africa promised to be. Previously it would have been censured like the newsletters of Rabbi Rabinowitz or the writings of Rabbi Franklin. Eglin mentioned the Gulf War but also that the optimism created in SA by the Codesa[8] negotiations had given way to frustration and depression as mistrust and violence had shattered hopes of an early and smooth resolution to their problems. Vorster who had died in 1983 and had threatened that South Africa would not be blackmailed into giving One Man One Vote, would be turning in his grave. Now, with the collapse of the apartheid government and the fear of censorship or arrest, the synagogue felt free to publish more critical material.


Our task”, wrote Eglin[9],” is not merely one of getting rid of apartheid, of taking down some signs and repealing some laws. Our task is one of restructuring our South African society socially, economically and politically after decades of denial of opportunities, of racial discrimination and of apartheid. It is one of uniting a divided people in a common commitment to a new and better SA… As we enter the New year I ask you to put despondency and despair to one side, be positive. I believe that we can succeed. Indeed, we must.


[1] Fintz, Joe, “A time of transition between the old order and the new”, IN Robins, Gwynne (Ed) A Century of Communal Challenges, op cit 73; Sifrin, Geoff, Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris: How Humanity, morality and humour helped lead a community, The Chief Rabbi CK Harris Memorial Foundation, Sandringham,. Johannesburg, 2015, 16


[2] Mention was also made of the establishment of their own trust fund, the Beit Yeshurun trust fund. Its interest was to be used to strengthen and enrich Jewish life and help secure a future for their children, assist those wanting to qualify as ministers of religion, chazanim, teachers, youth leaders and communal officials, publish Jewish books and periodicals and make grants for buildings for Jewish religious, cultural and communal purposes. A leather-bound book would record all bequests and grants and would be placed in a glass case where it could readily be viewed. Furthermore for first time in its history they awarded the title Elder of the Congregation, the honour going to former president, Sam Lewis Gross, who for 40 years had been a member of the shul’s management committee during which time he had acted as a member, vice president, president, senior trustee and chairman of various subcommittees as well as being its honorary legal advisor, a former member of the Provincial Council, City Council, the chairman of NICRO, of the United Party, Green Point, the Green and Sea Point Ratepayers Association and the Haven Night Shelter. Sapire, Joe, The President’s message, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 1990 – 5751,

The Scuds were relatively ineffective, although 74 Israelis died - two directly and the rest from suffocation and heart attacks. 230 were injured and 1,302 houses, 6,142 apartments, 23 public buildings, 200 shops and 50 cars were damaged. This writer’s nephew had his bar mitzvah during the Gulf War. Twice the night before, the family had to go into the safe room. Their gas masks accompanied them to shul and the reception was cancelled.

[4] Sossen, Cliff, “President’s message:The Year of Miracles”, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual 1991 – 5752, 3


[5] For 40 years he had been a member of the shul’s management committee during which time he had acted as a member, vice president, president, senior trustee. Accompanying his article was another announcing that an eventful function had been arranged by the congregation to present him with an illuminated address thanking him for his lengthy honorary services. Gross, Sam L, “Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation, a profile”, IN Jewish Tradition, April 1991


[6] Kaplan, Dana Evan, “South African Orthodoxy Today: Tradition and Change in a Post-Apartheid Multi-Racial Society”, IN Tradition, Fall 1998, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 71–89


[7] Dubb, Allie, The Jewish Population of South Africa: the 1991 Sociodemographic Survey, Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research, University of Cape Town, 1994, 111


[8] Codesa (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) was a series of negotiations held between nineteen different groups including the National Party, the ANC, the SACP and the Democratic Party that ended the apartheid system in South Africa. It clarified how the changeover of political leadership would take place and agreed that a constituent assembly would be elected based on a One-Person-One-Vote basis in a united South Africa, which would draft and adopt a democratic constitution.


[9]Eglin, Colin, Message, G&SPHC Rosh Hashanah Annual, 1992 – 5753, 12