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