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     by Shelley Lasker

    December 7th, Bulawayo

    On the 10 November 2003, at 5.30pm, The “Combined Faith Memorial Service” was held outside the burnt shell of the synagogue in Bulawayo.  The service was held to pay tribute to the synagogue ruined by fire on the eve of Yom Kippur a month before.

    The Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation tasked me with the organization of the memorial service and I was honoured by their choice.  We felt it was essential to hold this special meeting to thank the incredible people who rallied around our small community in our time of grief and it also gave the opportunity to provide closure for our members. The local press gave some rather disparaging publicity at the time of the burning of the synagogue, with their absurd speculations that we were hording fuel as well as foreign and local currency in the building, hence our distress.  This meeting took place with extreme pathos, dignity and respect despite the cynicism of the ill informed.

    It was an extraordinary gathering to mark the passing of a very special religious, spiritual and civic landmark.  The greater Bulawayo community’s response to the fire that consumed the synagogue proves that the city is committed to the greatest bonds of humanity, surpassing all faiths and differences.

    The service started with Carmel School Choir singing "Yedid Nefesh" (Beloved of my Soul) and “Love in any other Language”.

    The notable dignitaries, spiritual leaders and some 500 members of the Bulawayo public were welcomed by the President of the Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation for over twenty years, Mr Allan Feigenbaum.  In his address he reiterated the insurmountable loss of the synagogue to the Jewish community and the city as a whole.  He reaffirmed that the fire was an act of G-d, not arson, and that he was overwhelmed by the response of people all over the world to the tragedy. 

    The Chief Rabbi of Southern Africa, Rabbi Cyril Harris, has not only made great contribution to Jewish religious life but he has also played a pivotal role in civic responsibility in the region and, indeed, around the world.  In a review on his published diary it was said of Rabbi Harris, “His message is that of humanity’s concern for one another.” Rabbi Harris has played an important role in the new, transforming and reforming South Africa and he made time in his busy schedule to honour the passing of the synagogue and reminded people that even though the building is gone, it does not mean it is the end of the road for the community.  His emotional address brought tears to the eyes of all gathered, recalling the time he spent in prayer at the devastated shul. But he ended with optimism, giving hope for continuity and accentuating the commitment of all present to the future.

    The combined Christian churches were represented by Rev Noel Scott, a greatly respected spiritual leader, committed to community and its highest ideals and he read from the psalms.  Unfortunately, Pastor Ray Motsi of the Baptist Church was to make an address, but he could not make it.

    The Muslim community has played an integral and vitally active part in building the city of Bulawayo to its great strength.  They were represented by

    Mr Kebalker, President of the Muslim Society, who read from the Qur’an and extended his and his community’s deepest regret, stretching out the hand of friendship to the Jewish community in their time of need.

    The next part of the service was dedicated to lighting candles in memory of the almost one hundred year old great and proud sanctuary.

    The Deputy Mayor of Bulawayo, Ald Charles Mpofu, was not able to come, so

    Mr Eric Bloch, a well known figure in Bulawayo’s civic community, stepped forward to light the first candle in honour of the synagogue’s home,  the “City of Kings”.

    In the Bahai writings there are words which match the motivation to hold the memorial service. "It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world.  The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens." 

    Mrs Iran Sohaili and her colleague both read prayers focused on the significance of unity and community.  A special visitor from overseas, Mr Stenberg, lit the next candle in the name of the Bahai community.

    Father Odilo is known by many in Bulawayo, his warmth and humour making him a special friend to all.  His relationship with the Jewish community spans many decades and on behalf of the Catholic Church he was invited to light the fourth candle at the memorial service.

    Candle lighting is a significant element of Hindu practice and to honour Bulawayo’s Hindu Community  Mr J Desai, its president, came forward to light the third candle and he too spoke about the importance of communities working together in times of distress.  Bulawayo’s religious communities have always worked on a basis of mutual respect and following the destruction of the synagogue, a Hindu doctor, who tends to the needs of many in the Jewish community came to the make shift synagogue at the Sinai Centre to end the Yom Kippur fast.  This gesture is one of many that has proved the united front found in this city.

    The fifth candle was lit by Raj Yoga representative, BK Bhaviksha who also read a prayer highlighting world peace and the significance of compassion in today’s world.

    Duncan Sibanda has taken care of the Bulawayo synagogue for sixty one years. Starting his loyal service and friendship at the age of 19 in 1942, he is an integral part of the community’s life.  He raised the alarm over the fire, then he and his wife managed to save some of the library of irreplaceable religious books.  He came up to light the next candle.

    Reb Laizer Abrahamson, know to most as Uncle Laizer, was chosen to stand for the Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation as its oldest member.  At 104 his life began in 1899 in Russia, and even now in the 2003 he is still one of the community’s most active religious members, often conducting Shabbat and other services.  He was accompanied by some of the community’s youngest members to light a candle in the name of continuity.

    The last candle was lit by the nine Jewish children of Carmel School, aged from seven to twelve.  This was lit to validate hope for the future.

    Bulawayo has recently been privileged with the arrival of a young and dynamic Rabbi. Rabbi Natan Asmoucha has with him with his wife Katy and their three young boys to make a meaningful contribution to the community with their spiritual leadership. 

    Rav Natan recited a memorial prayer for all who have passed on in the community and spoke about the significance of the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem, calling attention to the fact that life does go on and pointing to the importance of rebuilding, perhaps not the synagogue itself, but to rebuild the life of the community.                

    The final address and vote of thanks was made by Rodney Lepar.  On the day of the fateful fire it was Rodney and Raymond Roth who made the monumental decision to brave the smoke and flames in the burning synagogue to save the Sifrei Torah.  He is a man who values tradition and community based on the strong foundation of family.  He spoke of the importance of tradition and ended the service with a profound sense of dignity.

     I thanked all present for sharing in the day’s service.  We ended with Carmel School singing the Zimbabwe National Anthem.

     Following the service some went into the synagogue to daven Ma’ariv, to recite the evening prayers.

    Thank you all who made the day so special, those of you in Zimbabwe and beyond.  The fate of the old synagogue is yet to be decided, services are now held at the Sinai Centre and last week a bar mitzvah was celebrated there.   Life does go on…………

     for additional photos of the prayer meeting and memorial services held in the burnt out Shul - visit the Bulawayo Shul album in the Telfed Online Album section


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