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s_africa exteriorExterior View (2011), 11” x 15” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker

south africa

Lions Synagogue (Completed in 1906)
120 Beit Street / Harrow Road
Johannesburg, South Africa 76 and 77


s_africa interior

Interior View (2011), 11” x 15” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker



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The so-called Lions Synagogue, named after the two small cast iron lion statues outside the building that flank its front steps, is the oldest functioning Jewish house of prayer in Johannesburg.  Up until the late 1880s, there were no synagogues in Johannesburg, so prayer services were held such places as the Rand Club, the town's largest venue at the time, and private homes and other temporary facilities.  As the city’s Jewish population continued to rise and become more organized during the closing years of the 19th century, it soon became clear that dedicated synagogues were needed. 

Although not the first to be built – synagogues on President and Park Streets were earlier – the Lions Synagogue completed in 1906 represents an early response to the city’s emerging Jewish population.  When it was completed for mostly Lithuanian along with other European Jews who settled in Johannesburg once gold was discovered here and the city began to grow and prosper, the Doornfontein district to the north of the city center became home to many Jews.   Doornfontein’s Beit Street developed into the commercial hub of this Jewish enclave, crowded with kosher butcheries, food markets, shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, carpenters, and barbers.  In the early days the suburb was a vibrant part of the town where hawkers, peddlers, pedestrians, horse drawn carts, and early automobiles crowded the street and sidewalk.  Here and nearby, Jews also lived.  Whereas the composition of the street as a result of political and social changes in South Africa during the late twentieth century was transformed dramatically once the Jews began moving away, it remains a lively and crowded thoroughfare.     Of the seven Jewish houses of prayer that once thrived across Doornfontein over much of the twentieth century, only the Lions Synagogue is still operational.

The synagogue was designed by Morris Jacob Harris (1875-1950), a Jewish architect who ran a practice in Johannesburg at the time.   Harris had experience in designing important civic and community buildings, and as a Jew he was particularly sensitive to the needs of the synagogue community.  After the congregation had purchased a plot of land, construction of the synagogue as per Harris’s design began in 1905.   Constructed out of buff-colored stucco and brick, the handsome building’s most prominent features are its domed towers at both ends and its bowed façade.  Stylistically, the Lions Synagogue cannot be neatly categorized and labeled, and so it is much its own building.  It features elements from a variety of influences and periods, including Moorish (or Orientalizing) domed towers that are oddly solid, Romanesque revival-esque squat columns flanking the entrances, Corinthian pilasters along with façade that edge especially-large windows, red corrugated metal roof common to local building of this period, roof overhangs supported by delicate brackets, and heavy quoins throughout .  All these highly varied elements are combined in a way to make the building a hodgepodge and individual if not quirky work of architecture.   

The interior of the Lions Synagogue contains a tight foyer, off which a stair leading to the women’s gallery and support spaces are accessed.  This anteroom also connects to the sanctuary.  The sanctuary is a fairly large and narrow space with impressive features.  It is a double-height room well filled with fixed stained wooden pews on the ground floor for the men, and a U-shaped gallery with the same pews for the women.   To the end of the room near the entry is the free-standing wooden bimah (table where the Torah is read) positioned very close to the pairs of entry doors, and to the opposite wall is the ark set in a niche.   The details of the room are eclectic and indicative of its period:   stylized squat medieval-period columns, brass chandeliers with globe shades, and windows containing some stained glass.   The walls of the sanctuary are plaster and mostly painted a pale yellow, and these walls are decorated with plaster trim pieces and panels.   The most prominent feature of the sanctuary is its ceiling, which is designed with three squares bordered in plaster trim that transition to three glass domes with delicate teardrop patterns popular to early 20th century architecture.  These variety of influences and periods are combined in a way that make the interior rooms of the building a somewhat hodgepodge and individual if not quirky work of architecture.   However the inside of Lions Synagogue can be described, it is well-maintained and lovingly used.

As a well-positioned and large building, for years the Lions Synagogue was well attended for its regular prayer services, Jewish education, and communal activities.   In 1932, a fire heavily damaged the building, but it was rebuilt soon afterwards.  It continued to serve the needs of the congregation for the next four decades until the synagogue began to experience a decline.  During the South Africa’s apartheid period 1970s and 80s, many Jews along with other white South Africans emigrated from South Africa at a time of significant turmoil in the country.  With this, Lions Synagogue’s membership fell sharply.  While this period saw the closing of a half a dozen synagogues in this area and hundreds of others throughout all of South Africa, this synagogue remained opened.  Today its congregation may be small and come from other areas of town, its program schedule less active, and the maintenance of the aging and costly building difficult, but Lions Synagogue remains operational and endures as a proud symbol of Johannesburg’s long and substantial Jewish history and presence.
Today services are held here three times a week, led by Rabbi Ilan Herrmann.   For a typical Saturday Shabbat service, around sixty members may be in attendance, yet during the High Holidays some two hundred, including guests, fill the sanctuary.  In the late 1950s, an extension to the synagogue immediately next door was completed, and it was used for educational, social, and administrative functions.   When these were no longer viable for the diminished congregation beginning some decades back, the building was sold.  Lions Synagogue today attracts the fourth-generation descendants of the original founders of the congregation who continue to come to this out of the way, less –than-ideally-placed synagogue (now surrounded by a security fence) in tribute to the long history of the building and their proud family associations. 

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