As soon as you enter the SAJM, you travel back in time. This is because the entrance to the museum is no ordinary one; it is the oldest synagogue in sub-Saharan Africa. On 13 September 2023 this beautifully proportioned building, known as the Old Shul, marked 160 years of existence.
Though no longer used as a synagogue, the Old Shul is of immense historical significance: firstly, because it is the only major relic left of early South African Jewry, and secondly, because it is one of only three buildings in the country displaying its architectural style.
In 1855 there were 170 Jews living in Cape Town, primarily of English and German descent. They held religious services in a small, converted house in Bouquet Street, Gardens. The congregation experienced a downturn, due to internal conflict (its founder, Benjamin Norden, had become involved in a political controversy), but also due to loss of members: some had died, some had left the Jewish faith and others had gone to other South African towns to try their luck.
The reverend who revitalised his community
Then along came Reverend Joel Rabinowitz from England. At just 31 years old, the new minister was enthusiastic, energetic and charismatic. He had a gift for fundraising for the needy, forming the Jewish Philanthropic Society which is now the Jewish Board of Guardians. His outstanding efforts inspired his congregation and he rallied Jews and non-Jews to contribute to its rejuvenation. By 1861 his flock was bursting out of the cramped Bouquet Street shul. Reverend Rabinowitz convinced the shul committee to buy a property for the first custom-built synagogue in sub-Saharan Africa. They chose a site in St John’s Street, not far from the Bouquet Street house. On 13 September 1863 an overjoyed Reverend Rabinowitz formally consecrated the St John’s Street Synagogue (its original name).
A unique design
James Hogg was the name of the architect chosen by the committee to design the synagogue. His design recalls the Temple of Solomon but also combines neo-classical and Egyptian Revival styles. Classical elements to look out for include the colonnade of six columns and pediment. You will see hints of Egypt in the side windows and entrance door. Inside the shul, an unusual feature is its double apse (an apse is a semi-circular recess covered by a half dome).
The smaller apse forms the wooden ark where the Torah scroll was kept. This ark is a copy of the one from the Obbene Synagogue in the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. The bigger apse above the ark holds magnificently colourful stained-glass windows. These were installed in 1884 as a tribute to the eminent British philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore. To quote DJC Radford, it is “a very novel building, to say the least” (1979, The Architecture of the Western Cape, 1838 – 1901: p.191).
The Old Shul today
The St John’s Street Synagogue served the congregation for the next 42 years, until the congregation had grown so much that the Great Synagogue was built next door in 1905. The first-born shul became known as the Old Shul and is cherished as a symbol of the commitment of early settlers to build a Jewish community in South Africa. It is perfectly positioned to be a multi-dimensional starting point for a visitor’s journey through the SA Jewish Museum.