Unity in the face of adversity: how a fire brought the community together

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    By Tali Feinberg

    It was a year that began with a drought and ended with a fire. Flames filled the night sky, roof beams collapsed in on themselves, and seven Sifrei Torah scrolls burned in the inferno when a devastating blaze ripped through Beit Midrash Morasha (Arthurs Road Shul) on 4 December. 

    If anything, 2018 demonstrated that we are at the mercy of the elements, but also that our community is strong and unified enough to work together to rebuild in the face of disaster. 

    The response to Morasha fire was the ultimate example of the Cape Town Jewish community’s cohesion that is renowned the world over. Even that night, it was the community who came out in the dark, helping in any way they could.

    Cape Board Chairman Rael Kaimowitz describes arriving at the scene as traumatic. “There was a sense of disbelief and helplessness as community members gathered outside. The spontaneous prayers, tehilim and communal singing together with a deep sense of mourning was incredibly powerful. It highlighted, in such a real and tangible way what a special community we have,” he said. 

    “It is so essential, as has been demonstrated, that all South Africans stand together to overcome challenges when they arise,” he added. “The appropriate response by Jews throughout the ages is to shine a light during times of darkness. How much more so during the eight days of Channukah? The fact that the shul did not skip a beat and conducted its Shacharit service in the courtyard the very next morning is testament to the resilience and power of our community.”

    As dawn broke, community members from across the spectrum converged in the Beit Midrash Morasha courtyard, with Torah scrolls brought in from the Shul of the West Coast across the peninsula. While they prayed, they were drenched with a strange summer rain — a belated gift after the devastating drought. 

    It was there that Morasha committed to writing a new Torah – “a shul should not be without a Torah for one minute,” said its rabbi, Sam Thurgood. In the space of a month, over R5 million was raised towards this goal and other costs.

    Morasha was assisted in every way by many Cape Town congregations, especially the Sephardi Hebrew Congregation, and it was hosted in the Herzlia Weizmann School Hall. They never missed a service, there was always a minyan, children’s programmes ran on track and the Channukah carnival went off without a hitch. 

    Volunteers cleaned and catalogued books that had been saved from the flames, food and funds flooded in, videos and messages of support filled Facebook and circulated around the city. The firefighters who battled the blaze were warmly hosted over Shabbat, and many people fasted in mourning for the lost Sifrei Torah. 

    Indeed, replacing of the precious Torah scrolls was the top priority. The Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation (Marais Road Shul) loaned the Ichikowitz Family Tefillin Bank Torah, known as ‘Kevin’s Torah’, indefinitely for Morasha’s use.

    A Sefer Torah from the Lichtenburg community in the North West Province was also delivered to Cape Town in time for Shabbat. This Torah was entrusted to the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) for safekeeping when the community closed down many years ago, has been on loan to the Ohr Sameach community in Sandton. United Herzlia Schools started the process of writing a new Sefer Torah as a gift from the Jewish children of Cape Town. Less than a week after the fire it hosted a ‘unity assembly’ for all learners from Herzlia, Phyllis Jowell Pre-Primary, Cape Town Torah High and the Sinai Academy. 

    A thousand children came together to watch sofer Rabbi Avi Shlomo inscribe the first pasuk, and each child was able to contribute R18 towards a letter of the new Torah. Those who could not be there joined the emotional event via a live video link up. This Torah will be completed in Israel over the coming year.

    “It is a tribute to our Cape Town community that in times of adversity, we rally together to assist and offer whatever help can be given,” said UHS Director of Education Geoff Cohen at the event. 

    He added that he knew Rabbi Sam Thurgood has been deeply touched by the incredible letters of support and solidarity that he received from Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities – demonstrating that the unity that emerged from this tragedy extended to all the people of Cape Town. 

    Indeed, it was Rabbi Sam Thurgood and his wife, Rebbetzin Aviva, who remained the calm in the centre of the storm. Their quiet and stoic strength was the leadership that the community needed at such a time of crisis. From video updates to taking the time to talk to the media, they ensured that everyone was always informed and involved. 

    There were many miracles — no one was in the shul at the time of the fire, there were no injuries or loss of life, and many parts of the shul complex remained untouched, including Cape Town’s only mikveh. 

    What caused the fire? Rabbi Thurgood assured that although it was the third night of Chanukah, the candles are never left out. Assessors have found that it was most probably caused by an electrical fault in the roof of the building, which is over 100 years old. 

    “The reason they say this, was that if you look at the epicentre of the fire, it was in the roof, and the Aron Kodesh,” he explains. “We can rule out anything like foul play, but we still remain in this sad situation of spiritually homeless. And yet as I have said, our community is blessed with strength and courage, and we are moving forward.”

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