South Africa's Oldest Reform Synagogue Is a Place Where Few Jews Dare Venture

Once South Africa’s top model, Reeva Forman now leads a model Reform synagogue in the hardscrabble Hillbrow neighborhood — and she has no plans to abandon her community

Worshippers, including Reeva Forman, right, at Temple Israel synagogue in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, during a Shabbat service in May 2019.
Judy Maltz

JOHANNESBURG — Financially speaking, it made no sense to maintain a synagogue in a neighborhood virtually depleted of Jews and notorious for its high crime and poverty rates.

True, the historic Art Deco building was home to South Africa’s first Reform congregation and is a treasured relic of Jewish history here. But with fewer and fewer Jews willing to brave the trip to this inner-city slum, and those too poor to live elsewhere unable to afford the annual dues, putting the building up for sale seemed like the most logical choice.

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But Reeva Forman wouldn’t even consider it. Twenty-five years ago, not long after she had taken over as chairwoman of Temple Israel in Hillbrow, the former top model-turned-prominent businesswoman learned that the Reform movement was planning to put the building on the market. “It didn’t make sense,” she recalls. “That’s because to me, the perfect place for a house of worship is where there are poor members of a particular religion and others who need help and support.”

The Temple Israel synagogue in Hillbrow, the only shul in Johannesburg to be granted heritage site status.
Ilan Ossenfryver

And so she resolved to fight the move, lobbying members of the local Reform community ahead of a planned referendum. When the results were announced, it turned out her side had just barely prevailed, earning a one-vote majority. But she won, and that was the important thing.

Twenty years later, in 2014, Forman was able to claim another important victory in her campaign to preserve Temple Israel when it was officially named a Johannesburg heritage site — the only synagogue in the city to earn such status.

Inside Temple Israel-Hillbrow, South Africa

To mark its 80th anniversary three years ago, the Temple Israel Heritage Centre — which serves as the repository of the archives of the Reform movement in South Africa — was opened in the same building, with an A-list of Jewish and non-Jewish dignitaries present at the gala affair.

Currently on the table are various proposals for using the stately premises for other types of social action projects and outreach work. “One of the things we’re looking at is what we might do here to help refugees,” says Forman.

‘My motley crew’

On a recent Shabbat, about a dozen or so worshippers were in attendance at Temple Israel for the weekly morning service. Because the main sanctuary, used in the old days, is now far too big for a group this size, the congregants gather in a side room down the corridor. “Good Shabbos, darling,” Forman greets each and every one of them, making sure to offer her cheek for a kiss.

Reeva Forman at Temple Israel in Johannesburg: "The perfect place for a house of worship is where there are poor members of a particular religion and others who need help and support."
Judy Maltz

Many of those awaiting her welcome — she refers to them affectionately as “my motley crew” — are poor and feeble. They are the last remaining white residents of Hillbrow, once a center of Jewish life in Joburg. Some of them can barely walk. Most arrive alone because they have no family. This Shabbat morning trip to the synagogue is often their only opportunity to get out and socialize.

One of three Reform congregations in Johannesburg (which is South Africa’s largest Jewish center), Temple Israel holds services every Friday night and Saturday morning, as well as on all the Jewish holidays. Its communal Passover seder, which typically draws more than 50 participants, is the highlight of the year for many of the congregants.

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On the High Holy Days, says Forman, the entire membership of the congregation — about 70 people — is typically in attendance. By contrast, on Friday nights, hardly a handful turn up. “Many people don’t think twice about walking around here during the day, but are scared to be out at night,” explains Forman.

But if they do happen to show up on a Friday evening, they can count on finding 89-year-old Hillbrow resident Bill Hoffman leading the service. He has been doing it for years, and according to Forman will continue doing it “as long as there is one Jew who wants to come through that door.”

The congregation no longer has a rabbi, but it does have a lay leader who regularly conducts Shabbat morning services. Marion Bubly, the 69-year-old who fills this position, likes to refer to herself as a “rookie rabbi.”

“My parents were married in this shul and I was named in this shul,” she says. “Before I retired, I didn’t spend as much time here. But now that I have more time on my hands, I just love coming. It’s like a family affair.”

Ruth Leveson at Temple Israel synagogue in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.
Judy Maltz

The congregation does not have a choir these days, either. But there is a choir leader: That role is filled by Ruth Leveson, a frail, elderly woman. Her voice might not be what it was, and she may no longer have any singers to lead, but she is here every single Saturday morning and takes her job darned seriously.

Congregation treasurer Jacob Hurwitz is another of the Saturday morning regulars. As always, he’s here with his partner Serona Reitzik, who lived in Hillbrow until seven years ago.

“I feel very much at home in this shul,” says Hurwitz. “For me, it’s especially important to take care of the people who come because they have nowhere else to go.”

Jacob Hurwitz and Serona Reitzik at Temple Israel synagogue in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.
Judy Maltz

‘Glamor and sass’

Also in attendance this morning are about half a dozen black converts, some of them originally from Nigeria. The number of black people who have converted to Judaism in South Africa since the end of apartheid, or who are in the process of doing so, is estimated at several hundred. The Reform movement oversees a disproportionately large share of these conversions.

Michael Jerome, who converted more than 20 years ago after migrating from Nigeria, also serves as the custodian of the synagogue and sleeps on the premises. His son was recently bar mitzvahed here. Samuel Moses, another convert from Nigeria, attends services every Friday night and Saturday morning with his 6-year-old daughter, Angela.

Michael Jerome at Temple Israel synagogue in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.
Judy Maltz

A teeny thing with a big powerful voice, Angela knows every single word of the prayer service by heart and jumps up eagerly when she is summoned to help cover the Torah scroll after the weekly portion reading. (Much to her delight, she will also be asked to recite the kiddush after the service is over and be in charge of handing out pieces of challah and cake to congregation members.)

Tracey Korsen, who lives nearby, has been attending services at Temple Israel for three years. “I did try out other places,” she says, “but I ended up choosing this one because of Reeva. I love her glamor and her sass.”

Tracey Korsen at Temple Israel synagogue in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.
Judy Maltz

Since you don’t ask a single and never-married woman like Forman to disclose her age, let’s just say that most of her high-school classmates are probably well into retirement by now. She was South Africa’s top model by her late teens and, despite the many years that have passed, still hasn’t lost the ability to turn heads with her stunning outfits and long wavy tresses. A psychology graduate of the city’s University of the Witwatersrand, Forman founded her own cosmetics company, Reeva, back in 1980. She is still involved in the firm, which was once a well-known brand in South Africa.

Orthodoxy has always been the country’s largest Jewish movement, even if many who identify as Orthodox are not necessarily observant, with Reform Judaism trailing far behind. (There is no active Conservative movement in South Africa.) Forman herself grew up in an Orthodox home and did not embrace Reform Judaism until much later in life. In addition to her position at Temple Israel, she also sits on the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and is honorary vice president of the South African Zionist Federation.

When it was inaugurated in August 1936, Temple Israel’s first rabbi was Moses Cyrus Weiler, who was born in Latvia and ordained in the United States. Forman never met him but says he was “the type of human being I adore — a real humanitarian activist.” In 1945, while visiting the township of Alexandra, located north of Johannesburg, he was struck by the sight of black children running around barefoot in the street while their parents were at work, and resolved to set up a school there.

That school, which still bears his name, is also a South African heritage site. Weiler and his family moved to Israel in 1957, where he became active in the Reform movement. Tragically, two of his sons were killed fighting in Israel’s wars.

After South Africa held its first democratic election 25 years ago, former Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris — known for his close ties to President Nelson Mandela — helped found Afrika Tikkun, an organization that promotes social outreach and assistance to black communities.

One of its first projects was opening a nursery school on the Temple Israel premises. “For me, this was especially meaningful,” says Forman, who ran the project, “because once again we were doing something to promote education in the black community.”

Marion Bubly and Angela Moses at Temple Israel synagogue in Hillbrow, Johannesburg.
Judy Maltz

The upkeep of Temple Israel and its heritage center is expensive, and Forman says one of her biggest challenges is financing it. She’s able to pull in some revenues by renting out a section of the building that once housed a heder to a nursery school and one of the halls to a church.

She vows that, as long as she is around, this shul will never be shuttered. “If there is one Jew who needs us, this door will be open,” she says.

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