Exterior View (2005), 15” x 11” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker
HONEN DALIM SYNAGOGUE
Avenida Tomas Nduda (formerly Rua General Botha, and also once known as Telegraph Avenue)
Interior View (2005), 11” x 15” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker
Maputo’s Portuguese Baroque-revival synagogue is the only synagogue ever realized in the southeastern coastal African nation of Mozambique. Whereas Jews came to live elsewhere in Mozambique, particularly in the central coastal city of Beira, only in Maputo was there a Jewish community large and sustainable enough for a synagogue. The building was constructed in 1925/6 during the Portuguese-colonial period on prime land along Avendia Tomas Nduda, a relatively quiet street near Maputo’s center and not far from the city’s most important civic, religious, government, residential, academic, and cultural buildings.
Although a handful of Afro-Portuguese families of partial Jewish descent had lived for centuries in Mozambique as large plantation owners, trading in ivory and slaves, it was only after the Anglo-Portuguese boundary agreement was signed in 1891 that European merchant capitalism arrived in the Portuguese colony state and became an economic force. By the late 1890s, a small Jewish community as part of this movement was established in Maputo, called Lourenço Marques at the time, with the help of Reverend Dr. Joseph Herman Hertz from South Africa. When Dr. Hertz was exiled from Johannesburg in late 1899 by President Kruger’s government on account of his pro-British positions, he found haven in Mozambique briefly before resettling in British-controlled Durban. Although he was in town for only a week, Dr. Hertz’s short stay in Maputo produced impressive and lasting results. He called a meeting of all Jews to discuss communal matters, and from that gathering a community was formally founded.
Maputo’s Jewish community, always a small yet particularly diverse group, was made up of emigrants originating from the width and breadth of Eastern and Western Europe and beyond, including Morocco and Palestine. For more than two decades these Sephardim and Ashkenazim Jews, who numbered only a few dozen at the time, conducted prayer services and organized community events in private homes or temporary facilities. In time, the congregation rented a small house on Rhodes (now Chitepo) Avenue, and it served as its base for some years.
Once a Jewish cemetery had been established in Maputo in the early years of the 20th century, and spawned by a momentum within the community in the years after World War I, on April 25, 1921 an organization named Honen Dalim (Helping the Poor) was launched. With officers elected and a general assembly selected, it set out to promote all means and get funds for the acquisition of a plot of land to build a synagogue and school as well as the maintenance of the cemetery. The committee also sought to help Jews already living in Lourenço Marques, assist those in transit, and to repatriate the indigents to the nearest port.
The first step towards the actual building of a synagogue took place on September 23, 1921, when a building site on the north side of Avenida Tomas Nduda (formerly Avendia General Botha and Telegraph Avenue) near the intersection with Avenida Vinte e Quatro de Julio to the east was purchased from Delgoa Bay Land Syndicate. Located in the Centro Polana ‘B’ section of town, the synagogue property, encompassing an area just under a quarter of an acre, was registered with the Camara Municipal, or municipal government, through a verbal concession and plat dating from December 19, 1927. The newly acquired property was listed under the name Associação de Benevolência Israelita Honen Dalim.
Although there is no inscription on the building, the architect of Maputo’s synagogue according to surviving archives was Mr. Couto Martins, of the local Public Works, and its contractor was Mr. Raimundo Moreira of Lourenço Marques. While both were apparently competent, neither gentleman, European and Christian, had previous experience with the synagogue as a project type. There is no record why Mr. Martins was selected, and it is unclear what guidance and direction the synagogue’s board and community at large gave the architect. As a result, it remains curious why the building, designed in an aesthetic more associated with Portuguese churches and colonial buildings vs. synagogues, ended up looking the way it did. Perhaps the congregation, made up a hybrid group of Jews, had agreed on a building aesthetic that connected to its colonial context.
The construction of Maputo’s synagogue was largely facilitated by the generosity of the trustees of the estate of the late John Henry Muller, who loaned a third of its cost through an interest free bond. Another important financial contributor was a local non-Jewish Greek tobacco manufacturer, A. E. George. The work of organizing the fundraising effort was led by community leaders Louis Rygor, Z. H. Muller, and Leon Cohen. All three gentlemen went on to serve the congregation for years to come. The synagogue cost about 1,500 libras, and it comfortably sat eighty people – more than large enough to accommodate the community.
Maputo Synagogue is very much a Portuguese Baroque-revival building, a style known for its exuberance and dramatic tendencies. With its white-washed chunam (polished lime) pla
ster walls, the synagogue is a symmetrical composition containing liberal use of classical features, deep setbacks, swooping lines, angled walls, vertical projections, planar relief, and pronounced shadow lines. The building is also notable for its incorporation of scrolls, profiled brackets, incorporation of towers crowned with cupolas or domes, medallions, and bold use of trim. The absolute emphasis on the façade in the theatrical, stage-set tradition is another distinct element of Baroque-Revival architecture, and the Maputo Synagogue very much follows this tradition.
Compared to the highly decorated neo-Baroque tripartite exterior façade with its urns, scrolls, brackets, pilasters, rustication, bands of trims, and other ornament, the interior of Honen Dalim Synagogue is more restrained and understated. Some features of the building as designed were never realized, including the rabbi and cantor’s pulpits and the entry doors along the rear wall. Instead, members of the congregation and visitors have always passed through the pair of front doors into a foyer, chose to pass through one of two matching vestibules to either side, and arrived in the main sanctuary immediately adjacent to the Ark. The Ark, with its pediment, engaged pilasters, and carved and gilded details, is the only element of the space that continues the neo-Baroque aesthetic of the exterior.
The Honen Dalim Congregation synagogue was consecrated on August 23, 1926, when its total membership numbering some thirty people was joined by non-Jewish clergy in town, government officials, various local community leaders, and members of the diplomatic corps who had been invited to the formal yet festive ceremony. Chief Rabbi Profess Dr. J. L. Laudau of Johannesburg was presented a key to the building. Among prominent guests in attendance was Z. H. Muller as president of the Camara Municipality, the consul general for the United States, and the consul commercial of Norway.
Honen Dalim Congregation continued to use their synagogue regularly for half a century. After the departure of the Portuguese in June 1975, and ensuing into the 1980s, when anti-communist factions alongside pro-white regional elements based in South Africa waged a long and bloody civil war against the country’s new Marxist government, organized religions were not tolerated. The Maputo Hebrew Congregation Synagogue was taken by the government when then-President Samora Machel nationalized all privately-owned buildings in early April 1976. The actual acquisition of the synagogue was not so much a physical seizure as commonly reported but more as a matter of default since, during these bad political times, most members of the small Jewish community from Mozambique fled. In the spring of 1975, the synagogue’s Sefer Torot were sent to South Africa for safekeeping along with the keys to the building. During that period, the building was used for a host of activities and functions, including a Red Cross relief center and a place reportedly for prostitution. The synagogue’s original ark, furnishings, and fixtures were removed or stolen during Maputo’s long civil war. When the building was returned to Jewish hands in 1989 and resumed being a house of prayer, for two decades the small and not particularly active or organized community made do with the building as was. It was during this period that these watercolors were painted.
As a result of political and social changes in Maputo after its civil war, including the influence once again of A. E. George, the local Christian Greek businessman, the synagogue building was returned to Jewish hands in 1989. At that time it reopened as a Jewish house of prayer after a nearly twenty year lapse. Yet it was not until 2011-13 that the functioning yet derelict building and grounds were lovingly restored by the small local community made up of native and long-residing white Jews along with more recent arrivals from South Africa, USA, Israel, France, and a handful of other countries. Jay A. Waronker, the author of this text and artist of these synagogue renderings, served as an advisor to the effort and its project historian.
Honen Dalim Congregation can be described as a condensed basilican plan, with its central wide nave flanked by narrower side aisles, associated with religious architecture for millennia. The sanctuary space measures 25’ x nearly 40’. It features a 20’ high ridge line, and the gabled ceiling slopes down to upper walls that would seem to contain clerestory windows but are solid. From here the ceiling begins to slope down again to white plaster 10’ high walls containing small wooden casement windows. An exposed wooden truss system and a ceiling finished in wood strips detail the upper area of the sanctuary. The trusses and ceiling strips were replaced during the 2011-13 restoration and are mostly match the original design except they are now natural versus painted. On the rear wall of the sanctuary is a circular stained glass window that is detailed with a Star of David. It matches the window at the front façade. Until the building restoration, this front window was blocked from view in the foyer because of a dropped ceiling. Albeit a change from the original design, the foyer ceiling was raised to allow the window to be enjoyed in the arrival space. And at night, light from the foyer now shines through this Star of David window, enhancing and embellishing the synagogue’s façade.
In 2011-13, the derelict interior was restored by the local Jewish community who had seemed to undergo a classic resurgence. The conservation entailed the entire removal of the aged and deteriorated roof, roof framing, and ceiling, and all rebuilt. A new stone floor with border was laid over the original concrete for years painted vermilion red, the exterior walls were repaired and reinforced to support a new corrugated metal roof and wood ceiling, new trusses were prefabricated and installed, small columns were added to support the trusses, period-appropriate brass sconces and chandeliers were installed, a wooden bimah was fabricated and positioned centrally in the space, and the pulpit and Ark were returned to their near-original state. Although the original Ark was maintained and restored, new doors decorated with a Star of David were added in the same new wood used for the ceiling, trusses, doors, windows, and bimah. Existing wooden pews were returned to good condition along with some new seating. On the exterior, the path from the street to the building was redone, the grounds spruced up, and exterior lighting was added. While some liberties were taken during this conservation effort with the original materials or the architectural and spatial features of the building and the property, the sanctuary was brought back to form and is today in a glorious and beloved state.
A formal rededication ceremony for the restored and updated building was held in May 9, 2013 and attended by the community, various non-Jewish Maputo clergy, national and foreign government officials, and several private guests. At that time, a Sefer Torah procured after the civil war yet taken back to South Africa in 1997 by Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the spiritual leader of the southern African communities, at the request of Chief Rabbi Cyril K. Harris of the Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa when the synagogue had no minyan (quorum), was ceremoniously returned to service. Since its rededication, the sanctuary has been used not only for regular Shabbat services but also for holiday celebrations and special occasions. This includes Maputo’s first Bar Mitzvah in decades, which took place in the rejuvenated space in late 2013.