South African synagogue celebrates
90th anniversary of its consecration
by Moira Schneider
CAPE TOWN, Dec. 29 (JTA) — If not for timely interventions, a synagogue in the South African coastal city of Port Elizabeth might have joined the scrap heap.
Instead, the Port Elizabeth Orthodox Hebrew Congregation has just marked its 90th anniversary.
The celebration, which took place during Chanukah, included a 90-year-old member of the community kindling one of the lights on the shul’s menorah.
The menorah had been missing for many years, then found by chance in a derelict state and restored to service.
Its fate mirrors the path of the shul itself, which has been restored to its former glory, functioning as a repository of Jewish life in the city dating back to 1820.
The congregation was formed in 1908, catering mainly to Eastern European Jews who had escaped pogroms and persecution in the Russian Empire.
Its synagogue, located on Raleigh Street, was consecrated on Dec. 12, 1912, during Chanukah.
The architect was Orlando Middelton, an exponent of the Art Nouveau style, which he incorporated into the facade of the Byzantine-design synagogue, with its turrets and keyhole windows. Its unique architectural features later ensured its protected status as a national monument.
In 1954, the congregation joined with the Western Road Hebrew Congregation, with the resulting Glendinningvale Synagogue becoming the main house of worship in the city. While the Western Road Synagogue was sold and later demolished, a group of concerned congregants bought the Raleigh Street building to ensure it did not suffer the same fate. It stood vacant for many years. Its windows were broken, fires broke out, and brass fittings — including its magnificent chandelier — were stolen.
Fate stepped in, however, when the discerning eye of a passing architectural student led him to write a thesis about the distinctive structure. With the assistance of the University of Port Elizabeth, the building was declared a national monument, ensuring that it can never be demolished, nor can its facade be modified. Gradual restoration followed. And in 1986, it began housing the Jewish Pioneers’ Memorial Museum.
Among its exhibits are memorabilia of the Greyshirts Trial, in which Abraham Levy, who ministered to the Western Road Hebrew Congregation for 42 years, was the plaintiff. The Greyshirts were a group of Nazi sympathizers active in South Africa during the 1930s whose members wore swastika-emblazoned uniforms.
A member of the organization, H.V. Inch, alleged that he had broken into the synagogue and found a document expressing anti-Christian sentiment and signed “Rabbi.” The allegation was later proved false.
Levy sued for defamation and won his case, with Inch being sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for perjury.
The organization had been publishing in its newspaper, Patria, extracts from the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” In what is believed to be a legal first, this notorious anti-Semitic tract was declared a forgery during the trial.
Denzil Levy, 85, who is the last surviving child of Abraham Levy, now serves as the museum’s chairman. The museum doubles as a Jewish information center, with honorary curator Effie Schauder conducting regular tours for adult groups and schools as part of their religious instruction program.
The 90th anniversary celebration was attended by some 240 people from the Orthodox, Reform and non-Jewish communities. Among them were 10 descendants of the original shul committee.