PIONEERING Johannesburg architect Herman Kallenbach, close friend and supporter of Mahatma Gandhi, was remembered at the unveiling of a heritage plaque at Temple Israel synagogue in Hillbrow – a building he designed in 1936.

Kallenbach, who also designed a number of important churches in Johannesburg, was a Jewish idealist and activist who supported Gandhi’s satyagraha programme, gave the movement the land on which to build what was called Tolstoy’s Farm, shared a house in the suburb of Orchards with Gandhi and even went to jail with him.

The unveiling ceremony on Saturday, 22 November was presided over by former Johannesburg Development Agency MD Lael Bethlehem, who spent her childhood at Temple Israel. She conducted the entire Sabbath service herself, in Hebrew and English, with three rabbis looking on from the pews.

The plaque was dedicated by Eric Itzkin, an expert on Gandhi and the City’s Deputy Director for Immovable Heritage, whose own parents were married at Temple Israel. Itzkin said the reasons the City had chosen the synagogue for the heritage honour included:

  • It was the “mother synagogue” of the Progressive Jewish movement in South Africa, being both its first synagogue and for many years the movement’s headquarters and driving force. The synagogue houses an important Jewish library and the archives of the Progressive movement.
  • The founder, Rabbi Moses Weiler, was extraordinarily far-sighted, among the first to adopt a gender equality policy, and a pioneer of social inclusion programmes. His monument is the MC Weiler School in Alexandra township, founded as a Temple Israel outreach programme just as the official apartheid era was beginning, to provide proper schooling as an alternative to so-called Bantu Education. The school, praised by Nelson Mandela in his collection of speeches and writings, No Easy Walk to Freedom, still operates.
  • The synagogue is an example of Kallenbach’s ornate Art Deco style, which he helped to make the dominant architectural style of Johannesburg between the two world wars.

Also speaking at the ceremony, Flo Bird, Johannesburg’s best-known heritage activist, praised the work of Lael Bethlehem during her tenure as head of the Johannesburg Development Agency.

“Lael’s work at the JDA put the mark of heritage on the city. When Lael came in and decided to respect the heritage of the city, it made a huge difference to inner city preservation,” Bird said, adding that the good work continues today.