80 years of Yekkes in Joburg

Celebrating the anniversary of Addas Yeshurun


By Chandrea Serebro

When Yeoville became known affectionately as “Jewville”, it was not without reason. Yeoville was the thriving scene of the frum South African Jews, which in its heyday boasted much of the Jewish infrastructure that we find in the shtetl of Glenhazel today, if not even more. Two Orthodox day schools, eight shuls, Jewish bookshops, kosher bakeries and restaurants, as well as the head office of the South African Beth Din. And so, says David Saks, Associate Director at the SAJBD and former secretary of the Adass Yeshurun congregation, “It scarcely even caused a stir in the wider South African community” when in 1936 three men, who were married to three sisters, Sam Loebenstein, Dr Fritz Homburger, and Jonas Emanuel, fresh off the boat from Germany, decided to start a new minyan shortly before Rosh Hashana. Almost twelve years after the very first minyan in the house at Fortesque Road, Adath Jeshurun acquired its own premises at 41 Hunter Street, and these humble beginnings lead to what is today Adass Yeshurun in Glenhazel, which celebrated its 80th anniversary last year and still remains steadfast to the ideals upon which it was founded.

Adath Jeshurun, as it was then known, was underpinned by the traditions of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, ztz”l, the intellectual founder of the ‘Torah im Derech Eretz’ school of thought, which advocated living fully within the world without deviating or compromising religious observance in any way. These pioneers and the people that soon followed them, most of whom were of German origin, truly did embody the Torah life driven by derech eretz that Rav Hirsch espoused, while finding themselves in a country that was staunchly traditional yet somewhat lax in religious observance. David explains that while the majority of South African Jewry hailed from Lithuania, with their own customs and ways of doing things, “Yekkes”, as German Jews are known, “are somewhat renowned for their resistance to change” and their commitment to their traditions. “The Adath community was an unassimilated, almost entirely autonomous branch of South African Jewry at a time when it was rare to find people openly displaying their commitment to a Torah lifestyle.”

“A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the time that you were able to know every person in Johannesburg who wore a yarmulke,” says Rabbi Yossi Salzer. “To give some perspective on the growth of Yiddishkeit in Johannesburg: one year, when I was a child, we visited every sukkah in the entire Yeoville, Observatory, Berea area – and beyond – a grand total of only 48!” Cookie Feldman (nee Ruth Cahn) still recalls seeing her Jewish counterparts standing outside the bioscope on Saturday mornings while walking with her family to shul. Ellen Reuben, granddaughter of one of the original founders, Jonas Emanuel, and daughter of long-serving Adath Jeshurun President, Walter Seliger, (Adass Yeshurun is today formally named after Walter and his wife, Bella), recalls that her grandfather was appalled to be going to shul with businessmen, where the men discussed weekday matters on Shabbos and carried coins in their pockets, so he sought to start a shul that would better uphold his own sense of religious observance and decorum. Adath Jeshurun was “prim and proper”, says Ellen, with a reputation from the outset for being a place of stern rules and strict adherence. Yet, at the same time, she says, it managed to convey a warm atmosphere, inviting and welcoming. She remembers the quiet and decorous nature of the services, yet for all its discipline, particularly on the young children like her, it still felt like “one big happy family”.

“Everyone was required to be at shul,” recounts Cookie; women, men, and children alike, and you were never late. One congregant, explains David, used to joke that when it was the time of year when an extra prayer for rain (consisting of an extra two words being added to one of the usual prayers), he would warn his wife to expect him home a little later than usual and not call the police. Cookie recalls a story that happened to a member who stayed late for a tikkun leil on Shavuos, a practice which they ended at 11pm sharp. Quietly he removed himself to use the facilities, and when the clock struck eleven, the shul closed and locked its doors. He returned only to find himself locked in for the night.

“It was a closed society in many ways, with its members deliberately keeping themselves apart from the non-religious elements within the Jewish establishment,” says David. “They carried their traditions with them, without dropping anything from their religious observance,” says Ellen. They kept their German traditions with an unwavering commitment, and then Rabbi Yaakov Salzer, ztz”l, (father of Rabbi Yossi Salzer), took the position of the first official rabbi. He was a talmid chacham and was to become South Africa’s foremost halachic authority. So strong was the Yekke identity that Cookie recalls the “stir” caused by the fact that the very first official rabbi to lead the shul, despite strong familial connections and prestigious education at the Pressburg Yeshiva under the famed Rabbi Akiva Sofer, was born in Czechoslovakia rather than Germany. But under his guidance, he gently “but with an iron will” led them to “introduce important changes in their daily lives”, and in doing so, the community spearheaded many religious institutions we still have today.

In 1954, Rabbi Salzer succeeded in securing freely available chalav yisrael milk, cream, and cheese for the first time in Johannesburg. Many observant families throughout Johannesburg chose to send their children to the Adath’s after-hours Talmud Torah, as well as to Yeshivas Toras Emes, the Torah day school established by the congregation in 1966, and which continued operating until well into the present century. Adath Jeshurun members also played a decisive part in establishing the Kollel Yad Shaul, a learning centre which was the pioneer in kiruv (outreach) in Johannesburg and rapidly expanded into a thriving community of families returning to strict Torah observance.

“Much of the growth of Judaism in Johannesburg – both in quality and quantity – is to the credit of those devoted founding members of the Adath and to all those who continued and continue in their footsteps,” says Rabbi Salzer. They were leading the way in an “ongoing teshuva (return) revolution”, says David, which would in many ways become the start of the flourishing ba’al teshuva movement we see here today. “Adath Jeshurun instilled deep and lasting values in us, it gave us a way of life that I still lead to this day and which I brought each of my children up with too. And the knowledge that I gained there, both through the lessons we received from our teachers, rabbis, and parents, and also organically by living this life, is unparalleled,” says Cookie. “The vibrant shul that we have today with regular minyonim, a wide range of shiurim, in addition to an afternoon Kollel has become a welcoming landmark in Glenhazel,” says Rabbi Salzer.

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