Yesterday I visited the Doornfontein Shul — commonly known as the Lions Shul — in downtown Joburg. The shul, built in 1905, is featured in Hidden Johannesburg, which I blogged about recently in my post about the Lemon Squeezer Church. I’m pleased to be one step closer to visiting all the sites in the book (16 down, 12 to go).

Gold-painted lions outside the shul
The shul is named for the two cast-iron lions, representing the Lions of Judah, standing on either side of the entrance.
Lions Shul outside
Please excuse the distortion in this photo — the shul is surrounded by a security fence that makes it difficult to photograph.

The Lions Shul is the oldest synagogue in Joburg and a designated Johannesburg Heritage Site. The text on the shul’s blue heritage plaque reads:

The Synagogue, an impressive souvenir of Jewish Doornfontein, was built in 1906 to serve the growing Jewish community. The architect was M.J. Harris, son of Johannesburg’s first rabbi, M.L.. Harris. The architecture is eclectic, combining western Mannerist columns with Lithuanian domes thus evoking memories of the homelands of this immigrant community. The Lions represent the Lions of Judah, whose name signifies Praise of God, while the young lions indicate strength, courage and vitality.

Johannesburg Heritage Foundation

I visited the shul with Anthea Pokroy, an artist working on a project about synagogues in downtown Joburg. Throughout the 20th century there were thriving Jewish communities in Hillbrow, Yeoville, Doornfontein, and other parts of the Joburg inner city. But over the past several decades Joburg’s Jews have scattered to other parts of town — mainly to the northern and eastern suburbs. Many of the inner city’s shuls, some of which had hundreds or even thousands of congregants, have been closed and demolished, or turned into churches or commercial businesses. A handful of others, like the Lions Shul, are holding on.

Inside the Lions Shul, Doornfontein
Inside the Lions Shul. The beautiful stained glass window above the bimah (pulpit) displays the Ten Commandments in Hebrew.

The Lions Shul sits on Siemert Road near busy Joe Slovo Drive, on the border of Doornfontein, Hillbrow, and Berea. It’s a “hectic spot”, as the South Africans say — a spot where anyone from Joburg knows to stash valuables out of sight and watch their back. It is remarkable that the shul has survived in this location for so long.

Apparently one of the main reasons the shul has managed to stay open is its early service time. Unlike most other synagogues, which hold their services at 9:00 or 10:00 a.m. on the Sabbath, the Lions Shul holds its service at 6:00 a.m. — great for early risers who want to make the most of the day. The early service time also means that the rabbi, Aron Ziegler, has to leave well before dawn on Saturday mornings to walk more than two hours each way from his home in Cyrildene. Religious Orthodox Jews don’t drive on the Sabbath, which is another reason why nearly all the downtown shuls — so far from where the majority of Joburg’s Jews now live — have closed.

A Visit to the Lions Shul

Anthea and I went to the shul to meet Hymie Brest, who has been a member of the congregation for the past 17 years.

Hymie Brest looking for a prayer
Hymie looks up a prayer to read to us.

Hymie is totally charming and told us everything we wanted to know about the shul and his experiences growing up Jewish in Joburg — he was born here in 1940 to Lithuanian immigrant parents. Hymie, who lives in the northern suburb of Melrose, started attending the Lions Shul after his daughter died, when he decided to rekindle his spirituality and was attracted by the shul’s early services.

Anthea interviewed Hymie while I wandered around the shul taking pictures.

Tefillin in the shul
Myron Michel, another congregant, was praying in the shul when we arrived — he likes to stop in on weekdays after dropping his daughter off at the University of Johannesburg campus in Doornfontein. These boxes and straps are called tefillin; the boxes contain tiny scrolls with verses from the Torah. Adult Jews (usually men) wear tefillin on their bodies during weekday morning prayers.
Shul seats
The shul’s wooden seats are really beautiful.
View of the shul from the women's section
Looking down from the women’s section of the shul. Apparently there aren’t any women who regularly attend services anymore, but this is where they sit when they do come.
Another look from the other side of the women’s section.
Hymie reading prayers
Hymie patiently read prayers over and over while Anthea and I took pictures of him.
Curtain at the Lions Shul
I love this curtain and its beautiful golden lions.

The congregation of the Lions Shul is shrinking, and there’s no telling how much longer it will continue as a functioning synagogue. I’m really grateful I had the opportunity to visit when I did. Thanks again to Hymie for hosting us, and thanks to Anthea for inviting me along.

Anthea in the Lions Shul
Anthea’s hair really matches the shul.

Hopefully this is the first in a series of reports from Johannesburg’s historic shuls.

30 Comments

  1. Albert

    Great article as always Heather. So happy to see it so well preserved and still in use. I think the alumni of this shul reads like a who’s who of early Jo’burg.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks Albert. Will read the article you sent.

      Reply
  2. stephen

    Perhaps swing past the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Wolmarans Street – similar story!

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yes, I’ve also been wanting to go in there for years!

      Reply
    • Larry Levin

      I was three years old when my late father took me to this shul on the chagim ,and to this day I remember the heavenly voices that came out from the choir room above the ark.

      Reply
      • 2summers

        That’s a lovely memory – thank you.

        Reply
  3. Rosemary

    Thank you so much. Lovely story. I still harbour a deep desire for South Africans to return….

    Reply
  4. Mark

    Marc Latilla has a couple of articles on his website about old churches which includes info on old synagogues.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Yes! I’ve actually got his post about the Lions Shul open in my browser right now.

      Reply
    • 2summers

      It is — the city is really lucky to have this building. Apparently there are plans in place to make the building a national monument, which will create even more heritage protections.

      Reply
  5. Peggy Laws

    I visited this Shul probably about 7 years ago and thought it was magnificent.

    Reply
  6. dizzylexa

    Gee you got this one out fast, great photos. There is also a very interesting one in Riviera – The Oxford Shul with an interesting Hall of Remembrance.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Haha yes, I was excited to do this one!

      Reply
  7. Stephanie Ephron

    This shul was the center of the Jewish World and all the holidays for my husband’s family. (The Ephron family). All 5 brothers, their wives, children and grandchildren went there for every single holiday over a period of at least 40 years or more. Most of us have either emigrated or some have passed on. I have been in the USA for 27 years now, so am not sure if any of the remaining family in Joburg still go there. Thanks for this fabulous, nostalgic article.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks for sharing, Stephanie. You’re welcome 🙂

      Reply
  8. Janine

    My grandfather Isaac Orlin was one of the big contributor to the start of the shul. Would love to visit next time I am in South Africa

    Reply
    • 2summers

      That’s really cool!

      Reply
    • Malora Keevey

      Hi Janine, we are busy piecing our family tree together and have a family link with Isaac Orlin (literally just Googled his name and this article with your comment came up!)- would you be willing to get in touch for me about the Orlin family tree? Thanks so much. This was a great article and glad I stumbled onto both! Kind Regards, Malora

      Reply
      • 2summers

        I hope the two of you are able to connect!

        Reply
  9. Steve Winston

    Great article.
    Beautiful shul.
    What ever became of the Berea shul?
    I was married there in 1992.
    I remember the Aron ha’Kodesh had these beautiful golden wings surrounding it

    Reply
    • Allan Blecher

      My ex boss and mentor Morris Mirrels was on the committee for many years. I know he donated a lot to the shull over the years. I used to go there a lot to work on the plumbing issues there back in the day.

      Reply
        • Michael Stanger

          I grew up in this Synagogue and the Rabbi then was Rabbi Neifeld. The Chazzan was Badash, who had three sons who sang with him over the High Holidays. The congregation was vibrant, as was the community life in Doornfontein.
          Two Badash sons went on to be Chazzanim, one at historic Gardens Synagogue in Capetown and the second at the Yeoville Synagogue

          Reply
          • 2summers

            That’s very cool, Michael. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Andrew

    Charming piece. Wow. Lovely narrative, pictures, descriptions. A close-up of the stained glass window would have been a bonus.

    Reply
    • 2summers

      Thanks! I only had wide lenses with me so I couldn’t do a closeup, unfortunately. Will try to remember next time.

      Reply

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