When the first Jews arrived in South Africa in the 1800s, one of their main priorities was to establish shuls.
The first congregation was founded in 1841 in Cape Town, when 17 men gathered on Kol Nidrei night to form a minyan at the home of Benjamin Norden in Hof Street – a site that would later become the Mount Nelson Hotel. The first shul building was inaugurated eight years later in The Gardens.
In Johannesburg, the first recorded minyan took place in the store of a “Mr Weinstein” on the corner of Mark and Harrison Streets. It wasn’t long before the President Street Shul was built in 1888 – Johannesburg’s first shul and one of the young city’s first brick buildings.
The Jews who founded these shuls were refugees from the poverty, hardship and oppression of Eastern Europe, struggling to find their way in a new country. Wherever they went, across the length and breadth of the country, they set up shuls to gather as a community, to pray to G-d, learn Torah, and to be connected to the Divine heritage of the generations of Jews that had come before them.
We, South African Jews, the descendants of the brave pioneers who started our first congregations, have inherited their passion for shuls. Our shuls are places where we all feel we belong. We feel at home. We feel welcome no matter our background. We feel Jewish, we feel connected to community, we feel connected to Hashem. We love to come and feel part of a community where we find friends who become like family.
This commitment to shuls goes back to the very beginnings of Jewish history. One of the first instructions the Jewish people received from G-d, while we were still in the desert, was to construct history’s very first shul: the Mishkan, the holy “Sanctuary”, the place where G-d's presence was felt most intensely, the place the Jewish people gathered together to connect to G-d in an intimate way. The Mishkan was a forerunner to the Beit HaMikdash – the holy Temple in Jerusalem – and forms the prototype for our shuls throughout history.
According to the Talmud (Megillah 29a), even after the destruction of the Temple, G-d’s presence continues to dwell in the shuls we build, which our sages call a “miniature sanctuary”. Our shuls, so permeated with sanctity even amidst the darkness of exile, are a microcosm of the Mishkan and the Temple. They are places of innate holiness – of spiritual connectedness – where we can access G-d and be uplifted by its holy atmosphere.
At shul, we feel a deep sense of belonging. We form bonds of love and connection with each other and feel held by a sense of community. We feel G-d’s presence intensely and we nourish the roots of our Divine values that form the essence of our Jewish identity, and keep us strong in a turbulent, confusing world. At shul, we find solace and tranquillity, where we can regroup, refocusing on what’s important and doing so together as families and as a community. When we gather together in our shuls, prayer becomes a communal experience – not a lonely, isolated one – a way of transcending our own narrow interests, praying for the good of the whole, summoning our collective merits as a community and as a people, even as we come before G-d in humble submission.
As the South African Jewish community, we recognise these truths. We feel them deeply. We experience weekly, daily, how our shuls enrich us spiritually, emotionally and socially. We go to shul to connect with Hashem. We go to shul to connect with each other. We go to shul to find faith and strength, community and partnership, vision and inspiration.
And that is why these past six months have been so tough for us. One of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic is that we haven’t been able to go to shul – and we’ve been bereft without them. This absence has deepened for us how truly precious our shuls are to us. We could never have imagined a scenario where all our shuls would be closed. And yet that is what happened. This traumatic experience has made us appreciate even more what our shuls mean to us.
Now, thank G-d – with our commitment to implementing our comprehensive safety protocols – our shuls are open to us once more. And just in time. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in particular, is a time that we all feel the importance of being connected to our shuls and our congregations.
This Rosh Hashanah, let us recommit as a community and as individuals to our shuls. Let each of us think about what we can do in the new year ahead to strengthen and deepen our connection to our shuls and each other. Let us each contribute our unique energy, giving what we can give and doing what we can do to ensure our shuls’ ongoing vibrancy and sustainability. And, in turn, let us draw strength and inspiration from our shuls as we end a difficult 5780 on a more hopeful note, and pray for a better 5781.
May each of us and all of us together find favour before our Creator, and may G-d inscribe us all for a sweet new year – a year of health and healing.
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein