A new Old Shul

In Bonny’s Beat, on page 3 of this issue, we talk about the need to preserve the memories of previous years held by older family members. It’s a sentiment with wide application, and there are strong motivations to preserve cultural icons too. 

This is true of buildings, such as the St John’s Street Synagogue, described by South African Jewish Museum Director (SAJM), Gavin Morris, as a “remarkable building”. This building, known fondly as the ‘Old Shul’, stands on the property of the Gardens Synagogue in Cape Town, another architectural treasure, which towers above it.

Dating back to 1863, the building is the first purpose-built synagogue in Southern Africa, and  the oldest existing shul in Sub-Saharan Africa. It represents the strong desire of immigrant Jews who settled here in the early and mid-19th century to set down roots at the tip of Africa and establish a community of Jews in the region.

According to Gavin, “The 160-year-old building is architecturally unique, having been built in the Egyptian Revival architectural style popular among new synagogues at the time. In 2021 it became the recipient of a U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP) grant, valued at over R1.2 million, mostly to support the restoration of the Old Shul.” 

The building needed a great deal of maintenance work. As Gavin explains, “The Old Shul was built above underground streams, and water has been its constant enemy.” The project involved repairing the building’s roof; restoring original timber windows; remaking window frames because some of the wood had rotted; lifting the wooden floor, waterproofing the concrete beneath it, and replacing the original floorboards which had been sanded and cleaned; restoring the mosaic work; painting the entire building — and more.

Quite obviously, this was a major project, and required a substantial financial commitment. The SAJM, acknowledging the cultural and historic value of the building, decided to put in a proposal for an AFCP grant. Gavin explains that, “The funding is a U.S. State Department-funded programme designed to ensure the maintenance of places of international cultural significance.” It is quite a feat to qualify for a grant: over 170 proposals were submitted for the finance in 2021, and the Old Shul was selected as one of only 32 projects across the world to receive funding.

After many months of construction work, the Old Shul was finally reopened in its new, pristine state on 24 May. At the opening event, the U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, Reuben E Brigety II, commented that the renovation project is an example of Tikkun Olam (to heal the world). “To repair the world. Just as we repaired the roof, not only to stop the rain from destroying the building, but to ensure our humanity and our stories are not lost,” he concluded.

• Published in the July 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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