Exterior View (2005), 15” x 11” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker
Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation (Founded in 1894) Synagogue (First Building Completed in 1899; Second Building from 1911; Addition in 1962. The synagogue was heavily damaged by fire in 2003 and sold in 2005.)
Interior View (2005), 15” x 11” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker
Jews have lived in Bulawayo, today a mid-size and well-planned modern city in southwestern Zimbabwe, since the ox and wagon days of 1880s before the railway line reached it. The Jewish contribution to early Bulawayo came in many forms — from trade and commerce to culture and local politics. In fact, Bulawayo was the first city in the country to have Jews and where the earliest organized Jewish congregation was founded in 1894. It was then that a group of Jews met on an August day in a tent belonging to two fellow Jews (conjuring up wonderful images of the wandering Jew and the ancient Court of the Tabernacle), and from that eventful meeting the Bulawayo Jewish community was formally established.
The Bulawayo Jewish community’s first prayer services were held in the dining room of the Charter Hotel in the city center as well as at the Meikles Store, Stock Exchange Hall, and the Williams Building. In time, the community received a government grant for property for a Jewish cemetery as well as a plot of land on Abercorn Street for the construction of a synagogue on the edge of the downtown area.
The synagogue’s cornerstone was laid on June 21, 1897 by the Administrator of Matabeleland (the southern region of Zimbabwe), Captain Arthur Lawley. Yet not enough money had been raised to complete the building, so construction was halted for a time until the balance of the funds had been raised. This building, completed in 1899, served the congregation for only a short period until a larger synagogue for a swelled congregation was needed. Its corner stone was laid in 1910 by Emanuel Basch, the then-president of the congregation and the mayor of Bulawayo, and this much bigger synagogue was completed the following year. Called the Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation, it was located north of the central business district on the corner of Third Avenue and J. Moyo Street. Across the street, and now a part of a local college, are two well-maintained buildings that once served as a Jewish school and guild (social) hall. The guild hall was the site of the 1899 synagogue before it was demolished once the 1911 building opened. MacGillivray and Grant, a local design firm without any Jewish connection or synagogue experience, were the architects of the synagogue, and Sellick and Company served as its contractor.
While a somewhat stately building, the synagogue could be criticized for its odd proportions — the width of the front pylon-like massing being too great in relation to its height. This front area was designed to contain a recessed porch set behind a row of classical columns, the foyer, a memorial room, and other accessory spaces. This ill-portioned space was due in part to the fact that the sanctuary space behind was essentially a wide gabled shed-liked structure, and the street façade was intended to screen this bulky block behind. The façade includes a central bay with a gabled parapet and Magen David (Star of David) in the shallow pediment in turn flanked by two squat square tower-like end pieces finished in stucco.
During the first decade of the twentieth century, due in part to the boom in gold mines and agriculture, Bulawayo’s Jewish population grew rapidly and a religious school was founded. From WWI through the 1930s, the community stagnated, only to grow once again in the late 1930s as World War II approached and began. Jews remained as shopkeepers, but there was a new tendency for the younger generations to enter various professional careers available to them in town.
By 1939, the synagogue was already too small, but deliberation on how to extend the structure went on for years. The congregation has grown substantially in post-war years of the 1940s and 50s, but it took some time for the addition to be planned and realized to accommodate a congregation desperately needing more space. Finally by 1962, an addition in the Modern International aesthetic that more than doubled the size of the 1911 synagogue was carried out. This expansion seemed to collide with the old in a less than sympathetic and successful fashion — the two parts, however potentially interesting a combination of things old and new could have been – never quite coming to terms with one another or establishing a dialogue as per the building’s overall planning and blending of details.
The rendering of the interior of this synagogue is an exception from the rest of this collection of watercolors of sub-Saharan African synagogues and other Jewish architecture presented in this website in that is was generated not based on conditions at the time of the artist’s visit but from an earlier photograph provided to him by a descendent of a local community member. When the artist first traveled to Bulawayo in 2005 as a Fulbright Scholar, the synagogue had burned in October of 2003, and the double-height interior space was nothing but a ruined shell open to the sky. Since Waronker felt it was important to include this building belonging to Zimbabwe’s first Jewish community and one of sub-Saharan Africa’s earliest, photographs taken only a short time before the fire were obtained from a young gentleman with a familial connection to the building and used to generate this rendering.
This interior view shows the generous pulpit, ark and cantor’s station that are attractively finished in glass mosaics, marble, and other well-crafted materials. This space was part of the 1962 addition to the synagogue. The original areas of the synagogue, dating to 1911, included the building’s front façade that mostly survived the fire along with a covered entrance, foyer, and a memorial room that were all heavily burned.
The 1962 addition included a new and much-enlarged sanctuary featuring fixed theatre-like upholstered seating and wood-paneled side walls lined with stained-glass windows carried out by the artist Leonora Kibel. The new sanctuary space contained a ground floor where seating for the men was located, and a generous gallery level where the women sat separately as per Orthodox Jewish custom. In Sephardi tradition, the freestanding bimah (table where the Torah is read) was located to one side of the room towards the entry doors, and to the far end was the pulpit and ark.
Within just a couple of decades after the synagogue’s 1962 expansion, Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation began to experience irreversible decline. As a result of the uncertainly surrounding post-colonial and newly- independent Zimbabwe, many white that included the Jews moved out of the country to South Africa, England, the USA, Canada, Australia, Israel, and other places. Despite the significant decline in membership in the 1980s, 90s, and early years of the twenty-first century due to emigration, the synagogue managed to remain operational. In October 2003, a fire said to have been accidently started by vagrants in an adjacent alley (yet with questions remaining about the incident since the heart of the fire was away from the alley) severely damaged the synagogue, and the building with its collapsed roof and compromised walls and floors became unusable. Its 1911 façade, however, survived the fire mostly intact. During the fire, the visiting rabbi and members of the congregation managed to salvage the Sefer Torot, yet the severity of the blaze settled the fate of the already-troubled synagogue.
Soon after the massive fire, prayer services were shifted to the suburban Jewish center originally built by the Progressive Jewish Congregation in 1971. In 2005, the ruined synagogue was sold to a local black African evangelical church. While in transition, the sale allowed for the continued use of the synagogue mikvah (ritual bath) not damaged by the fire, yet at the time of this painting that arrangement had been compromised. After over a century of being well-served by a physical building here or just across the street, Bulawayo’s Hebrew Congregation no longer had its own home.
During the late nineteenth century, Ashkenazi Jews mostly from Russia and Lithuania yet from other Eastern European countries came to settle in Zimbabwe, then called Southern Rhodesia, after the territory had been colonized and established as a trading post by Britain. These were joined in the late 1930s by German and neighboring Western European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. By 1943, the Rhodesian Zionist Council and the Rhodesian Jewish Board of Deputies were established, and shortly after World War II Jewish immigrants arrived from the United Kingdom, South Africa, and a handful of other countries. During the 1950s, the Jewish population of Zimbabwe continued to rise, and by 1961, it peaked at between seven and eight thousand people, which included a sizeable chunk living in Bulawayo.
Rhodesia’s Jews became mostly assimilated into Rhodesian society, yet the community remained devout and loyal. In 1965, the white minority government of Southern Rhodesia declared independence as Rhodesia in response to British demands that the colony be handed over to black majority rule. Rhodesia then became subject to international sanctions, and Black Nationalist organizations began an insurgency which lasted until 1979. By the time the so-called Rhodesian Bush War ended, most of the country's Jewish population had emigrated along with many whites. Whereas some Jews chose to stay behind when the country was transferred to black majority rule and renamed Zimbabwe in 1980, emigration continued. By 1987, only twelve hundred Jews remained. Once social and economic matters deteriorated further during the 1990s, more Jews immigrated, joining those that had earlier relocated to mainly South Africa, the United States, Israel, England, and Canada to seek better economic conditions and Jewish marriage prospects. Today less than one hundred fifty Jews remain in all of Zimbabwe, with less than half of them in Bulawayo.