Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG
East London Progressive Jewish Congregation
by Manfred J. Schwartz ©1999
Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2003 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
Date: 30 May 2003
To commemorate the first 45 years of the East London Progressive Jewish Congregation and Temple Hillel, 1955-2000 5715-5760.
Prepared and presented by Manfred J. Schwartz, ©December 1999 (Kislev 5760)
Acknowledgments: Dr Peter Arnold for copy-editing.
- I would like record my sincere thanks to:
- Mesdames Tzilla Reisenberger, Katie Weil, and Lynn Lucka; Messrs. Jack Albert and Ronnie Kann; and George and Hettie Schlachter, for their support, encouragement, assistance and valuable suggestions, and for allowing me access to the archives and making available all the documents needed for my research. They all, in one way or another, supported my need (as one finds in every daily situation) to be strong (chazak) and filled with courage (amatz), [chazak ve'amatz], to complete an assignment of such magnitude.
- Special thanks to M/s Ronnie and Daniel Kann, for their gracious offer and generosity in arranging to have this project printed.
2. History of the Reform Movement in Southern Africa
3. History of the Reform Movement in East London
4. South African Union of Temple Sisterhoods
5. List of Burials and Cremations
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What better way can there be of introducing a new Century and a new Millennium than by issuing a chronicle of the East London Progressive Jewish Congregation and the members of Temple Hillel. Naturally, the membership was drawn, in the main, from the orthodox congregation, causing a rift of sorts. Despite this, however, we are an inter-twined people. Although we are divided in our form of prayer, we are bound together by our common heritage and kinship.
Strangely enough, South African Jews were also divided 100 years ago. The many English and German Jews who, several years earlier, had come to the diamond fields, considered themselves superior to those immigrants (greeners in every way) who had only recently arrived from Russia, Poland and the Baltic States. It must be remembered that the Eastern European Jews were still subjected to pogroms far into the 19th Century and that virulent antisemitism has never left the breasts of the Russians and the Poles. Even now, at the end of the 20th Century, many of them still hate Jews. Is it any wonder that these refugees from the pogroms could never have been as learned or as cultured, or as worldly-wise, as their Western European counterparts, who had enjoyed scores of years of emancipation, with civic as well as economic freedom?
Since they were being discriminated against even here in South Africa, facing a form of apartheid, they (and their Landsleiten) formed their own Bund, with the formation of the Polish and Russian Union in Kimberley. They were referred to as the PARUs. It was not long before this was corrupted to Peruvians, which became a derogatory term, applied to anyone not quite as cultured, sophisticated or educated as the 'upper class' Jews. A female Peruvian was pejoratively referred to as a Yente.
Since those early days, however, we Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Liberal Jews have intermarried. We are one People with slightly divergent religious viewpoints and practices. All groups demonstrate an overriding loyalty to Jewish unity, klal yisrael, which transcends all differences. Why? Because even some of our best friends belong to other congregations! One of the sages once said, "The very strong racial affinity among us causes us to love our Jewish Race, but to dislike individual members of our faith." This is just the reverse of what the other nations feel about us. Although they dislike our race as a whole, they do not actually dislike, in isolated cases, an individual Jew. Here one must exclude the antisemites who proclaim "Some of my best friends are Jews." Regrettably, the recently published, otherwise excellent 100 year History of the East London Hebrew Congregation, so ably compiled by Mr S Weintroub, omits the members of the Reform Community.
The records in the Archives of marriages and bar and bat mitzvoth, as well as the list of dearly departed will remind us, and future generations, that our members also contributed to the development of this City, its environs, its various cultural activities, and its communal life, both religious and secular.
We must not forget the industrialists, merchants, professionals, sportsmen, farmers, servicemen, theatrical and other artists etc., merely because they chose to belong to the Reform. As part of the total Jewish Community, they too, need to be remembered. It is with this in mind that this record is published, to act as an addendum to the very fine effort pioneered by the East London Orthodox Hebrew Congregation, thereby encompassing the entire Jewish population of East London and the Border Region.
2. History of the Reform Movement in South and Southern Africa
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The first steps toward establishing a Reform Movement were taken on 11th September 1929. While in South Africa on a visit to family, Prof A Z Idelsohn, of Cincinnati, urged his brother Jerry (of Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra fame ) to try to introduce Reform Judaism into Johannesburg. This informal group met in 1930. The SA Jewish Religious Union for Liberal Judaism was established on the 26th June 1931 and commenced holding services. On 8th August 1933, Rabbi Moses Cyrus Weiler, responding to a call, arrived in Johannesburg and took steps to establish the first Reform congregation in Southern Africa - the Johannesburg Jewish Reform Congregation, founded in 1933.
Forty years later, a commission of enquiry was set up to determine who founded the Progressive movement in Johannesburg. In Dr. Freed's view, this was not easy to answer, as it was necessary to distinguish between the founder, the initiator and the first rabbi.
It was agreed that the 26th June 1931 should be considered as the date when the Progressive Jewish movement was formally established. It was known as the SA Jewish Religious Union for Liberal Judaism until the name was changed, in 1940, to the South African Union of Reform Judaism. By the end of 1944, the movement had grown from one congregation to three, and therefore assumed the name The SA Union for Progressive Judaism. A year later, the Central Ecclesiastical Board was established, followed in 1950 by the SA Council of Progressive Jewish Education. A year later, the SA Union of Temple Sisterhoods was formed. In 1957 the Progressive movement became known simply as SAUPJ.
Founding dates of some of the earlier congregations:
Johannesburg, Jewish Reform Synagogue 1933 (Temple Israel)
Cape Town, Greenpoint, 1944 (Temple Israel)
Springs and District, 1944
Johannesburg, North Eastern District Jewish Reform Synagogue 1945 (Temple Shalom)
Durban, Progressive Hebrew Congregation 1948 (Temple David)
Johannesburg, North Western Districts Jewish Reform Synagogue 1953 (Temple Emanuel)
East London, 1954 (Temple Hillel)
Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, 1951
Bulawayo, 1956 (amalgamated with the Orthodox, 1977)
1965 Beth-El Johannesburg, (amalgamated with Emmanuel, 1979)
1965/79 Beth El (independent) nationally
1977 Youth Movement Magiddim established nationally
3. History of the Reform Movement in East London
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As far back as 1932, the Western Road Synagogue in Port Elizabeth had allowed the use of an Organ in some services - probably the first orthodox synagogue in South Africa to do so. Their spiritual head was the enlightened Rev. A Levy, father of B A (Ronnie) Levy.
Almost fifty years ago, the heads of three families approached Mr Oscar Cohen to establish the Progressive movement in East London. Mr Cohen, after consultation with Rabbi Weiler, agreed to start forming a Reform movement for the Border Area. It is probable that the three who first approached Mr Cohen were Kurt Weil, Bert Schwarz and B A (Ronnie) Levy and that they were soon joined by Theo Blumberg. Mr. Cohen has not, however, revealed who they were.
Prior to settling in East London, Mr Cohen as an active member of the Reform congregation in Cape Town and a councillor, had gained a working knowledge of the reform movement. On the 14th September 1955, under his chairmanship, an inaugural meeting of the East London Progressive Jewish Congregation was held at the Carlton Hotel Cellar. Rabbi Ungar, together with Mr A Bergman (the secretary) came from Port Elizabeth. In an interesting and informative address, the Rabbi explained the meaning, in this modern day and age, of Progressive Judaism.
After the tea break, Mr Cohen asked that prospective members remain to elect a Committee. About 75 people elected the following to serve: Oscar Cohen (president), Jack S Albert (secretary), Bert Schwarz, Kurt Weil, Marcus Gell, Theo Blumberg, Paul Hoffman, Ronnie Levy, Bertie Bowman, H. Landau, Sigi Landauer, Arthur Wolf, Harry Flash and Dr Elkon Jammy.
As early as the 16th November 1955, Mr Cohen called on the ladies to establish a branch of the Sisterhood. No sooner said than done! There and then, the Ladies formed their first committee and got down to fund raising. They have been the backbone of the community ever since.
On 5th January 1956, at the offices of Louis Arenson, a meeting was held to consider and adopt a constitution for the Congregation for Progressive Judaism in East London. The first temple name considered, and apparently rejected, was Shalom. The name Hillel was adopted at a meeting of 1st June 1956. During March 1957, a site was purchased from the East London Municipality for £400 stg (R800). Rabbi M C Weiler consecrated the ground on 26th November 1957. Building of the Temple commenced early in February 1958 with Messrs B Shapiro and Kaplan as the architects and W van den Bos as building contractor. His contract was accepted at a council meeting on 12th January 1956.
While the Temple was being erected, services were initially held at the M.O.T.H. Hall  in St. Georges Road, and then, when that building was demolished, at the residence of the Leventhal family in St. James Court. The first and second Rosh Hashanah Services were held in the SOE Hall in Belgravia Crescent. On 31st August 1958, the foundation stone of Temple Hillel was laid by Mr Cohen, now president of the congregation. The then mayor of East London, Abe Addleson, was invited to unveil the stone commemorating the 1957 consecration of the ground by Rabbi C M Weiler. Temple Hillel was one of the earliest temples in South Africa. Rabbi Meyer Miller, chairman of the Central Ecclesiastical Board of the Southern African Union for Progressive Judaism, conducted the consecration service. At the Rosh Hashanah Service that year, the turnout was such that the curtains were drawn aside and the adjacent hall was used to accommodate the multitude of worshippers. This practice continued for several years.
During 1958, members were advised to withhold donations from the Tahara House Fund, pending burial facilities, etc., becoming available for the Reform Congregation. It was not until 1961 that the Chevra Kadisha was established. The Reform Tahara House in Porter Street, together with all necessary equipment, was bought for £700 sterling and paid for through donations. Several years later, the Schmahman family donated the cemetery gates in memory of their husband and father, Sasha (who, incidentally, had, as a youth, fought on the side of the Boers in the Anglo-Boer War, one of many Jews who had done so).
The early presidents were O Cohen, followed by J S Albert, J Cunard, H Cooper, M Gell, B A Levy, B Schwarz, K Weil, A Wolf and G Weisinger. The current president is George Schlachter (who has already so ably served the Congregation in various capacities for many years). Among the other congregants who served on the committee during the first twenty five years were: F Baer, B Belonsky, R Belonsky, S Benjamin, H Bergman, T Blumberg, S Blumenthal, Dr Cohen, H Cowan, M Garb, M Gell, H Gell, M Gersowitz, J Gluckman, M Goldblum, L Goldblum, M Hirshberg, I Jacobson, Jellin, R Kann, Koppel, Kozer, A Laden, S Landauer, D Leventhal, S Leventhal, I Lipworth, L Lucka, Jos Lurie, M Mann, Michaelson, P Norman, J Paradise, G Schlachter, I Schmahman, A and M Schneider, M J Schwartz, E Schwarz, J Schwarz, Stamreich, J Theron and M Weil. Regrettably, several of the original committee have passed on - J S Albert, a founder member, passed away early in 2003 in Israel - while others have emigrated or left East London.
In the early years there was a vibrant, enthusiastic, dedicated and large congregation. From a perusal of the records in the archives, the usual few people carried the administrative burden. Their achievements and efforts to organise the great number and variety of social and cultural events and activities were without parallel. The intriguing fact emerges that each successive decade brings a new band of willing and dedicated individuals who keep the congregation together, interested and committed. Over the dozens of years, numbers have fallen drastically, but there is, fortunately, still an enthusiastic and loyal congregation. It goes without saying that there is, as previously, an active and unselfish small band of do-ers. Comes the hour, comes the man.
At the May 1959 council meeting, final figures of the cost of building were disclosed. As the total was a fraction under twenty thousand pounds, donations in cash or kind were requested in order to finish equipping the temple. Carpets, lamps, sefirim torah, kitchen equipment, chairs, curtaining etc were required Initially, at each and every meeting, the same few members would come forward, offering and constantly delving into their pockets. These displays of kindness, generosity and unselfish sacrifice (not everyone was affluent even then) must be remembered, for future generations to recall and honour these wonderful people. Perhaps some future historian might study the minutes and highlight the tremendous effort made by these open-hearted members of the early congregation. Now, 45 years later, with fewer members to carry the burden, it is probable that their individual efforts might have greater value even than those of earlier periods, and certain that they will shoulder more than double the workload.
Recently the Committee was approached with an offer to sell the Temple building and property. After much consideration, the offer was turned down.
4. The South African Union of Temple Sisterhoods
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A large and important section of the congregation, actually more than 50% of the membership, consists of women. Many take a very active interest in the Sisterhood. It has long been said that, if you want something done, make sure to ask a busy person to do it, for they always 'manage to manage' their time, and get the job done (without excuses). Similarly, if something important and urgent needs doing, the fact remains that it will be the woman (more than the man) who will get down to it, and successfully and competently complete the task. This has been borne out repeatedly, over the decades, in our congregation.
Perusal of the documents in the archives was a most gratifying experience. The glimpses into the distant past, through the mists of time, disclosed the many and varied efforts and activities conducted by the ladies of the Sisterhood, mainly in the area of fund-raising. Throughout the minutes there is the repetitive theme of shortage of funds, and constant exhortations to generate sufficient income. To even attempt to enumerate and classify the events which the women organised would fill volumes.
Amongst the ladies who served on the early committees were:
M Albert, P Alswang, D Arenson, R Baer, M Behr, C Bergman, R Blumberg, D Blumenthal, E Blumenthal, U Braak, T Cohen, M Cooper, L Denfield, Fels, K Frankel, H Gell, L Jammy, E Kerbel, S Landauer, D Leventhal, B Levy, L Lucka, Mankowitz, Miller, R Schmahman, E Schwarz, C Solomon, H Stern, D Sunn, J Theron, K Weil and A Wolf.
5. List of Burials and Cremations
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We record, in proud Memory and Respect, our members who have passed away. May Their Dear Souls Rest in Peace Everlastingly.
Robert Rubinstein 1881 - 1962,
Max Schmidt, d 08/05/1962, 74 years old,
Eric Fels, d 05/01/1963,
Dolly Blumenthal, d 02/06/1963,
Iisdor Cooper, d 24/11/1963, 36 years old,
Josef Max Slade, 27/04/1964,
August Stuhler, 16/05/1881 - 06/01/1965,
Hedwig Stuhler, 23/11/1887 - 17/04/1972,
Max Alperstein 28/08/1915 - 12/03/1965,
Lenchen Rosendorff, d 21/01/1965,
Morris Kazerson, d 13/05/1996, 64 years old,
Louis Goldblum, 01/09/1900 - 13/07/1965,
Sarah Goldblum, 23/06/1908 - 20/03/1975,
Alfred Hoffman, d 08/07/1966,
Joseph Denfield, 15/12/1911 - 30/06/1967,
Aaron Toubkin, d 24/09/1970,
Annie Cowen, d 15/06/1972,
Ralph Bernstein, 06/02/1917 - 08/08/1972,
Rozel Schmidt, d 21/01/1973 75 years old,
Solly Solomon, d 30/06/1973, 78 years old,
Sigi Landau, 18/07/1910 - 29/09/1978,
Sofie Landau, d 1995,
Jacob Maurice Sunn, 18/08/1974,
Marquis Durbach, 25/12/1907 - 18/08/1970,
Katherin Bernstein, d 25/05/1975,
Freda Leah Ogus, 13/10/1913 - 25/01/1977,
Dot Cowen, d 22/05/1977,
Samuel Zacker, 19/10/1897 - 03/07/1977,
Miriam Kellman, d 19/08/1978,
Mossie Wainstein, d 08/09/1978,
Ann Norman, d 13/06/1979,
Eileen Blumenthal, 10/11/1979,
Isaac Kurt Weil, 19/07/1904 - 17/09/1989,
Minnie Schneider, d 24/02/1984, 63 years old,
Louis Koppel, d 22/03/1985,
Isobel Hirshberg, d 11/06/1991,
Monte Laden, July 1908 - July 1993,
Molly Bryden, d 29/06/1994, 82 years old,
Maurice Hirshberg, 05/04/1917 - 25/09/1997
Barney Rubinstein, 1887 - 1963,
Bengy Hyman Woolfson, d 07/07/1963,
G.B. Berlyn, d 10/10/1964, 90 years old,
David Gersowitz, d 15/06/1965,
Harry Edelstein, 15/08/1880 - 04/10/1968,
Bertha Slade, d 24/12/1974, 77 years old,
Alex Schwartz, d 17/09/1977, 81 years old,
Sally Blumenthal, d 17/08/1980.
 Rabbi Walter Blumenthal, Golden Jubilee Commemoration Journal, (1981), celebrating 50 years of Progressive Judaism in South Africa.
 M.O.T.H. Memorable Order of Tin Hats
From the web-site of the HMS Barham Survivors Association:
Those who served Britain in the Armed Forces in South Africa in WWI formed an association in 1927 called the "Memorable Order of Tin Hats," and those who served in WWII also became members. All members proudly wear a miniature "tin hat" in their buttonholes as a sign of their membership.