Southern Africa Jewish Genealogy SA-SIG
Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation
Editor: Dr Saul Issroff
Copyright © 2003 Saul Issroff, Mike Getz, SAfrica SIG
and Jewishgen Inc.
Date: 13 October 2003
Bulawayo Shul - 100 years of Jewish history goes up in smoke
'Miracle' saves torah scrolls
By Ronit Loewenstern, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
More than 100 years of Jewish history went up in smoke yesterday on Shabbat
Shuva (October 4 2003) when the historic Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation
synagogue burnt to the ground. Although priceless sidurim, Hagadot and
other Jewish books and relics were destroyed, no one was hurt in the blaze.
Even so, said a tearful Beilah Bloch, it was a "miracle that our torahs were
saved". Had it not been for the quick thinking of congregants, Rodney Lepar
and Raymond Roth, six old torahs and numerous smaller ones would have
perished as well. Also saved was the Arc curtain made in 1725. According to
eyewitnesses, Mr Lepar and Mr Roth were looking in through a window of the
burning building when they each "saw" a torah near the Arc. Although each
saw a different coloured one through the flames that was the 'sign' Rodney
needed. Despite protests from firemen and heedless of the burning beams and
thick smoke, he ran into the building. The steel doors of the Arc were
locked by a strong padlock, yet Mr Lepar some how managed to kick them in,
away from the concrete pillars. He then grabbed anything he could lay his
hands on and passed them out of the building. Damage estimated in the
millions (Zimbabwe $) came on the eve of Yom Kippur, as the congregation was
making ready to gather with their new rabbi, Rabbi Nathan Asmouch, newly
arrived from Israel. He ran three kilometres from his home, as it was
Shabbat, to be with the grieving community. Most poignant of all was Rev
Laizer Abrahamson, who this year celebrated his 104th birthday, (born April
2 1899). After the flames were doused, with water dripping from the rafters,
he could only stand and stare, walking stick in hand, Yarmulkah askew as he
wiped tears away.
The Bulawayo Hebrew Community, which now numbers only about 170 souls - down
from more than 3000 at its zenith in the 1960s - has a long and proud
history. The 'shul' as the city's landmark is known, began in a canvass tent
in 1894 and grew over the years into a magnificent stained-glass structure.
Its inaugural meeting of 21 pioneers in then Rhodesia was held shortly after
Bulawayo was proclaimed a town. Emanuel Basch, Bulawayo Mayor and
Congregation President, laid the foundation stone on May 17 1910 and the
building was consecrated in April 1911. Years later, this synagogue was not
big enough to contain the growing community and overflow services were held
in nearby buildings. So in 1945 Leonora Granger, a well-known local
architect, drew up plans for a more 'modern' building. By the 1960s the
building consisted to two facades - the front a magnificent Cape Dutch style
originally designed through a competition and the stylish red brick and
stained glass modernist Granger side. Both are now gone.
The small-standing community is justly proud of its record - not a day
missed in its history whereby a minyan was not formed, then and now. Said
the rabbi in 1929, Rev M I Cohen, "Since the beginning (1898) we have never
held a single meeting outside our own buildings." Despite the tragedy, by
Sunday morning, the congregation was flat-out cleaning the torahs, their
silver templates, washing the white Yom Kippur clothes and gathering their
strength from each other. Services would now be held in make shift premises.
Said David Lasker, "The façade can be saved."
Perhaps the community can build again.
Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation web-site: http://www.bulawayo-shul.com/