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An anxious Moses Weiler, second left, arrives at Park Station in Johannesburg on 8 August 1933. Greeting him are community leaders Dr Louis Freed, Jerry Idelson and Max Franks, the congregation chairman

Rabbi Weiler and the founding

of the Reform movement in SA

Profile of Rabbi Moses Weiler, whose charisma and drive built a viable Reform movement in South Africa despite strong opposition. The text and pictures below were from a speech delivered to Limmud Johannesburg in August 2019. 


n August 20, 1933, one of the largest Jewish gatherings, many hundreds strong, took place in the Langham Hotel in central Johannesburg. The crowd overflowed out of the doors on to the street. Most were there only out of curiosity, because there had been so much controversy in the press over the past few weeks. The speaker was a young man of 26 who had only arrived in South Africa 12 days before. He was addressed as rabbi, although, clean-shaven, he did not look anything like a traditional rabbi, and many in the audience did not regard him as one.

The topic was The Essence of Judaism, although his opinion of the essence of Judaism was by no means the same as those in the audience. There were some who were impressed by his eloquence and learning, but many others who were hostile and showed it. Hecklers in the audience tried to force the meeting into uproar. The speaker remained unruffled. He told the crowd that he had arrived with a mission, and he intended to fulfil it.


Hebrew Union College in Cincinatti in the early twentieth century

The speaker’s name was Rabbi Moses Cyrus Weiler. The mission he was on is that he had a six month contract, at £40 per month, to introduce an entirely new concept, Reform Judaism, to South Africa.


He had only qualified as a rabbi two months earlier, at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he had been told that there were no jobs for him in the United States, only one at the bottom end of Africa, to introduce Reform Judaism to a deeply conservative community, an improbable task at which few expected him to succeed.

Hebrew Union College in Cincinatti in the early twentieth century

If Reform had some doubts that he would succeed, Orthodoxy had fears that perhaps he would. It was hardly surprising then, that news of his imminent arrival, which had been proudly announced in the Zionist Record, caused panic. Hurried strategy meetings were held over how to deal with the oncoming menace. Angry letters appeared in the Jewish newspapers, accusing Reform Judaism of being an infantile form of Judaism, a soft form of atheism, a threat to established tradition, anti-Zionist. Prominent people who had been invited to meet the rabbi were advised that it would not be in their interests to accept. The HOD hall which had been booked for services was pressured into cancelling.

People looked over their shoulders to the United States, where the same kind of Jews, often immediate family of Jews in this country, had emigrated in large numbers, and where Reform Judaism had grown into far and away the most popular Jewish institution. There were real fears that Orthodoxy might be on its way to extinction. It’s worth noting, by the way, that in the United States today, which houses the largest Jewish population outside of Israel, 59% of Jews are either Reform or Conservative, 30 percent are unaffiliated, and only 10% are Orthodox.


Religious observance in decline

Who was this Moses Cyrus Weiler and what business did he have coming to South Africa?

Moses Weiler was born on 23 March 1907, in Riga, Latvia. His father was a rabbi, his grandfathers were rabbis, his great grandfathers were rabbis, his great-great grandfathers were rabbis, and illustrious rabbis at that. His father Zalman Dov Baer Weiler, a rabbi and a lamdan at age 16, emigrated to Palestine, where it seems there was a glut of rabbis. So instead he went into business, finding a gap in the market. Chocolates. There were no chocolates to be found in Israel. He founded a chocolate factory which imported coffee beans from Brazil. Young Weiler meanwhile was sent to school at the Herzlia Gymnasium in Tel Aviv, the modern world’s first Hebrew-only school.

He was enough of a scholar to attract the attention of Dr Cyrus Adler, a leading American Jewish scholar, who offered him a bursary to study at a university in the USA. He graduated with a BA from the University of Delaware, and taught Hebrew at a local school. Then comes a puzzle. This descendant of multiple Orthodox rabbis went on to study at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. If you’ve not heard of Hebrew Union College, it was and still is the intellectual hub of the American Reform movement. Why would Weiler have done that?

Let’s put this in context. From around the eighteen eighties to around the nineteen thirties, a span of about sixty years, some three million Jews leave Eastern Europe to escape pogroms or poverty or just to find better opportunities. They move from oppressive conditions not much changed since the medieval period, into the centre of modern industrial societies. There was for the first time some approximation of gender equality, and for the Jews, an unprecedented level of personal freedom. You could, more or less, think or say or go anywhere you liked.

But the downside was a generational divide. Old people, who were by and large well educated religiously but poorly educated in secular terms, still spoke Yiddish and tried to behave much as they had done back in Der Heim. Their children, poorly educated religiously but well educated in secular terms, spoke English and behaved much like their gentile peers. The combination of all this, an onslaught of new technology, culture, ideas, largely obliterated traditional ways of thinking. There emerged a sense that human ingenuity was capable of changing society for the better, that science would trump superstition, that what was new was exciting, what was old was stale.

Down here in Johannesburg, we were not exactly at the cutting edge of global innovation. But the same pressures applied, and the effects were similar.  Orthodox Jews, often teenage boys migrating to Johannesburg on their own, slackened off in their religious observance, became once a year Jews. They became, in the much-quoted phrase of the late Professor Jocelyn Hellig, the unobservant Orthodox.

The Jewish demographer Louis Hotz calculated that in 1911, less than 16% of South African Jews formally belonged to a congregation, and that the figure for the Transvaal was the lowest, at just 10%. Later he analysed the 1936 census to reveal that out of a 90 645 Jewish population, 17 684 said Yiddish was their home language or less than 20%. Ten years later in 1946, out of a population that had grown to 103 435, the Yiddish speakers had dropped to 14 044, or around 13%.


A whirlwind arrives in Johannesburg

I give you all that background so as to return to Rabbi Weiler, making that speech in August 1933. What he told the audience was that in a changing world, the great danger to Judaism is that traditional religion was failing to draw the young. He said there were 30 000 Jews living in Johannesburg, of whom a mere 2 000 were paid up members of congregations.

Reform’s grand ambition: capture the disinterested

Reform’s grand ambition: capture the disinterested

What Reform Judaism aimed to do was attract the interest of at least 7 000 of those unaffiliated Jews, by offering Judaism in a style and language that would speak to the concerns of the young and modern. In other words, Reform Judaism was a form of evangelical Judaism, which much like Chabad today was concerned with the drift of the young away from Jewish practice – only, the solution it offered was the polar opposite to Chabad’s. But that’s why Rabbi Weiler, fifth generation rabbi, had turned to Reform Judaism: he saw it as the best way to keep young people inside the tent.

It was as if a whirlwind had arrived in Johannesburg. The young rabbi developed a reputation as an extraordinarily fine public speaker, in multiple languages including English, Hebrew, Yiddish and German as required by the audience. The Zionist Record, which despite seeking to distance itself from Reform by announcing: “We hold no brief for Reform Judaism” nonetheless described one speech of his as “the most outstanding literary lecture that has ever been delivered in Johannesburg”. Not a week went by when he was not speaking somewhere: Kroonstad, Klerksdorp, Benoni, Germiston, Pretoria. The Zionists in particular were thrilled by the fact that he could not only talk theory, he had actually grown up in Palestine and could talk about facts on the ground.


Making Reformism into Weilerism

He was set up in a small flat overlooking Joubert Park in Hillbrow, which in those days, overlooking the only patch of green in central Johannesburg, was quite a delightful place to live. Since the congregation had no offices, all meetings were held on chairs grouped at the foot of his bed, and the secretary was installed at a desk alongside the bathroom.

He announced a set of principles, all of them a break from local practice. Men and women would sit together. For some families, this proved one of the biggest drawcards. For others, it was a major reason why they were put off by Reform. There would be no hierarchies of importance and no reserved seats. First come, would be first served. There would be a choir, men and women. It’s worth noting that mixed choirs were not unusual at the time, in fact some of the choristers were refugees from the nearby Yeoville shul.

The choristers were accompanied by an organ, an instrument which once again, attracted some people and put others right off. There would be no snoddering, meaning announcements of payments for honours in the synagogue. This too, appealed to many people, but also cut off a significant source of funding. Women would be allowed to sit on any management committee. It would be decades though, before women would be given honours or allowed to read from torah. A children’s service would be held each Shabbat, at which the older children would be expected to supervise the younger, and to run their own full service.

Rabbi Weiler concocted his own local form of Reform Judaism, which he shaped to local tastes and would come to be nicknamed Weilerism. Unlike the United States, where some Reform congregations had abandoned the wearing of yarmulkas and talleisim, he made these compulsory, and he also expected women to cover their heads. Kashrut was not compulsory, but was encouraged. Most important, there was a heavy emphasis on Zionism. These were the first local services to emphasise Israeli-style Sephardic pronunciation rather than Ashkenazic. Hatikvah was sung in the shul, alongside God Save the King.

There were several other principles he was keen on, and which failed to take off. One was that membership should be free. In New York, there were free synagogues, entirely funded by the city’s wealthy men, and in a city like Johannesburg, full of men grown rich from mining, he saw no reason why the same could not apply. Unfortunately, it turned out that the richest Jews – they approached Ernest Oppenheimer for example – had no great interest in Judaism, reformed or otherwise.

Moses Weiler as a young man in Johannesburg

Moses Weiler as a young man in Johannesburg

Secondly, he wished to end the barmitzvah farce. Barmitzvahs were a topic in which he found himself in full agreement with the Orthodox rabbis, who constantly complained that boys would study until age thirteen, at which point they had barely grasped the rudiments of their religion. Their parents would hold excessively large barmitzvah parties, mainly to celebrate their own arrival among the bourgeoisie, and the boy would not be seen again. Weiler wanted to introduce the American Reform system, in which study continued to the age of 16, for both boys and girls, followed by a ceremony called Confirmation, which required the class to pass an exam and then run an entire service, usually on Shavuot, between them.

The upside was that Reform-educated children in the USA, ironically, received far better Jewish educations than their peers in that era. But in South Africa, the notion of a ceremony with the Christian-sounding name of Confirmation horrified the local community. And barmitzvahs were so ingrained as the fundamental rite of passage for a Jewish boy, that there was an instant backlash. The rabbi was forced to climb down and allow barmitzvahs. But for the more dedicated children, he retained the confirmation at age 16, but disguised it under various Hebrew names, for example Bnei Emunah.

One of his earliest innovations was to introduce a partial form of gender equality. Twelve days after he arrived, Weiler summonsed the few women members and instructed them to form a Sisterhood, which would be in charge of catering, care of the sick, and charitable outreach. They would also be entitled to elect two women to the management executive. “Any of you women could become the chairman,” he told them, although that would not happen for another sixty years. He also insisted that Friday night services be held at 8.15pm, a strange time indeed, but the reason was that preparations for Shabbat invariably prevented women from attending services, and this would allow them to attend after the meal.


A temple on the hill

Weiler’s first major obsession became building his own synagogue, or Temple which he was convinced would be a public symbol of arrival. He inspanned one of the women to chauffeur him around town – he himself was an appalling driver – so that he could buttonhole the wealthy personally to raise the funds. He hired Herman Kallenbach, Johannesburg’s most prominent Jewish architect at the time, but more famous today as the Jewish companion to Mahatma Gandhi. They bought a large stand on Empire Road, immediately below what is today the Constitutional Court.

Herman Kallenbach, friend of Gandhi

Herman Kallenbach, friend of Gandhi

Kallenbach was soon very sorry to have agreed to work with a committee because they demanded so many revisions and changes of strategy, but finally there emerged from his drawing board a rather grand building surrounded by lush gardens. Just as building work was to begin, a petition circulated in Parktown, objecting to a synagogue in a residential area. This was of course a period of heightened anti-semitism, with the Nazis rising in Europe, and no great sympathy from the local English. The committee decided to meekly back off without a fight.

The stand was sold at a loss, and a much smaller stand bought on Paul Nel Street in Hillbrow, where the same design, but squeezed down to fit on its smaller location, was built with great haste in just nine months. When the opening ceremony was held in August 1936, with Deputy Prime Minister Jan Hofmeyr as keynote speaker, everyone pretended that the building was finished, even though it very obviously was nowhere near completion. But by a miracle, a month later it was ready for use on Rosh Hashanah in 1936. The building’s major innovation was that the metal structural girders were welded together using a new technology invented by a University of the Witwatersrand professor, supposedly much stronger, and certainly much discussed in the engineering journals of the day.

Kallenbach’s original grand scheme for Temple Israel would need to be drastically reduced

Kallenbach’s original grand scheme for Temple Israel would need to be drastically reduced

Why did people sign up for Reform?


What kind of people joined the Reform movement? How did they differ from their neighbours who did not join the Reform movement and indeed detested it. Was it a matter of social class, secular education, Anglo German family rather than Litvak origins? To an extent, the answer to all of those is a partial yes. Reform did not attract the poorer Jews, it did attract those who were educated to matric or beyond at secular schools, and was more likely to attract Anglo-German Jews – although there were indeed a good few observant Litvaks including of course Weiler himself.

But consistently the real answer was: those people, or their parents or grandparents, who had somehow encountered Rabbi Weiler, were bowled over by him. It was his personal charisma that built the movement. The world was divided into those who had met him, and those who had not. Benny Stalson, who would become Weiler’s right-hand man, was a religion student at Wits from an Orthodox family, intent on becoming a rabbi himself. A single encounter with Weiler, who wanted him to give Hebrew lessons at his cheder, changed his life.

The same story about Weiler’s appeal came from people who had been indifferent to religion, or merely had gone to see him because they wanted to get married. They did not switch to Reform because of some sudden theological epiphany, the way you always hear of Christians suddenly finding Jesus. They switched from the rabbi they had, to the new rabbi Weiler, because somehow, in just a few minutes, he blew their minds. His daughter Arnorna told me that his technique was to buttonhole people on the streets, start up a conversation, and persuade them to visit his synagogue.

Benny Stalson as a young man

Benny Stalson as a young man

What this tells us as well, is that although rabbis perceive a huge theological gulf between Orthodoxy and Reform, ordinary people saw none at all, and treated their shift to Reform as not very different to buying a new model of car.

The flip side to his charisma was a certain authoritarianism. He insisted that people arrive for services fifteen minutes before the starting time, after which they doors were closed as if it was a concert hall. People had to sit in silence until he made his entrance, at which point the entire congregation rose as if they were pupils and he was headmaster of a school. His sermons, whose topics were advertised in advance in the newspapers, could last half an hour, and he would storm down the aisle to collar any children who dared to giggle or whisper while he was speaking.


A whirlwind courtship

We learn something of his character from his courtship, if one might call it that, of his wife Una Gelman, 13 years younger than him. In 1941 he had been sent to Bulawayo to drum up support by the Zionist Federation, and in the course of a lecture he noticed a honey-blonde girl in the audience and decided then and there to marry her.

The girl, recently returned from studies in Britain, was 21 years old, and not interested in either religion or Rabbi Weiler. He engineered an invitation to the Gelman family farm in the hope of making her acquaintance over Sunday lunch; instead she hid in a haystack until he had left. How this romance proceeded from that unpromising start is a mystery, but we do know this: three months later, an engagement notice appeared in The Star, and five months later the bride was chaperoned to Johannesburg by her mother, where a wedding was held. It was so low-profile that no mention of it appeared in the congregational records, other than a thank you to the Sisterhood for providing the flowers.

The Weilers occupied a rambling eleven room house on Main Road Riviera, within spitting distance of where the rival Oxford Synagogue would soon rise, which Una rapidly filled with a brood of six children. Una, who seldom set foot in her husband’s shul, and was never seen at his side at any public event, was her own person, riding about Killarney on a Vespa motor cycle. Her interest was children and education, she ran one of the first Montessori Schools out of the back rooms of their house.

 A terse engagement notice appeared in The Star on 5 November 1941

A terse engagement notice appeared in The Star on 5 November 1941

Launching a school in Alex township

But Una did have a brief influence upon what was perhaps the Reform movement’s most important contribution. In 1944, she took her husband on a tour of Alexandra Township, then a long way out of Johannesburg, to show him the hundreds of small children who were running about the streets, apparently unschooled. Weiler immediately instructed the Sisterhood to raise funds to build a primary school in the township.

Initially called Jabulani, it began a few months later as a single room shack with 20 pupils and developed into a school with a principal and teachers and some 800 pupils. What most concerned the Sisterhood was that it be more than a school: it also provided daily meals to the children who were often malnourished, as well as medical and dental services, clothing and blankets. Indeed, they had hardly begun the school when there was a smallpox epidemic in Alexandra and the entire area was quarantined.


In 1949, the school was renamed the MC Weiler School. It was the first example of a permanent Jewish outreach project to work inside the townships, and it encountered considerable opposition, which Weiler chose to defy in a long newspaper article attacking the narrow chauvinism of his opponents. “There are of course many timid Jews who have been consistently against this scheme and who have refused to give it either financial or moral support. I shall never forget a truant member of my congregation, an ex-Mayor, the “Dominion Party” type of Jew … accosted me in the street and spoke violently against the school, contending that the establishment of a native school by our Synagogue would contribute to anti-semitism … I argued that his escapist and attenuated form of Jewish affiliation might cause much more anti-semitism than a good deed …”

The history of the school is a rather complicated one, because it had hardly got off the ground when the National Party took power, determined to stamp out so-called “black spots” like Alexandra, and to end private schooling for black children. All teaching was taken out of the hands of the Sisterhood, the Bantu Education syllabus, a deliberately dumbed down form of schooling, was implemented, and the Sisterhood’s role limited to building and maintaining classrooms and to extra-curricular activities like the medical, feeding and clothing schemes and taking the children on tours.

The school, heavily overcrowded, was shunted from one property to another, often to buildings in appalling conditions.

Crowded conditions at the school, one of very few in Alexandra

Crowded conditions at the school, one of very few in Alexandra

The women protested and resisted in so far as any resistance was possible. During periods of unrest in the seventies and eighties, bullets would come flying in through the school windows, and the Sisterhood women had to smuggle themselves illegally into the townships through back routes, always at risk of arrest. Nonetheless, those pupils who managed to receive an education from the MC Weiler School were aware that they were a privileged minority, hugely grateful for the chance.


Clashes with the Orthodox

The government were not the only ones to oppose Weiler’s projects. Only a month after Weiler arrived in South Africa, another rabbi arrived to an equally enormous reception. He was Rabbi Isaac Kossowsky, who would take up a new post as Moreh Hara’ah or chief judge of the combined Beth Din of the Orthodox congregations of the Transvaal, making him the most powerful man in the rabbinate.

Rabbi Kossowsky, one of the rare Litvak rabbis to reach South Africa, was described by an admirer as a man of unbending Orthodoxy, who gave fiery drosha in Yiddish at the Beth Hamedrash Hagodol in Doornfontein, and who never did understand the laxity he encountered in Johannesburg Jewish life. The arrival of two powerful rabbis simultaneously from opposite ends of the ecclesiastical spectrum would inevitably lead to conflict.

And that conflict began six months into their time in South Africa, in the Brixton cemetery, over the seemingly minor matter of an unveiling. Mrs Esther White had died some months before Rabbi Weiler arrived in South Africa, and had never encountered Reform Judaism. But her rather headstrong son-in-law, Mr Charles Davis, had met Weiler, been impressed, and insisted that Weiler preside over the unveiling.

The Chevra Kadisha responded that they had a list of ministers permitted to preside over funerals and Rabbi Weiler was not on it. Davis, a lawyer, made mincemeat of their arguments, citing their constitution which said the minister of any Hebrew congregation could conduct funerals. Panicked, the Chevra asked for a postponement of three weeks until Chief Rabbi Landau returned from abroad. Rabbi Weiler agreed, but Mr Davis insisted that the unveiling go ahead on the appointed day, which it did.

On the Sunday morning, two small armies marched upon Mrs Esther White’s grave, from the one side Rabbi Weiler, Charles Davis and his party of supporters; coming from the other side, the massed ranks of the Chevra Kadisha intent on blocking them off. A shouting match took place around the tombstone, which had not been veiled for the unveiling. Just as a punch-up was about to begin, Mrs Davis swooned into a faint upon her mother’s grave. The symbolism of this was too much for the Chevra, who backed off, allowing Rabbi Weiler to conduct a hasty unveiling minus the veil.

Religious foes. Rabbi Moses Weiler, speaking, and Rabbi Isaac Kossowsky seated awkwardly at his side, at a Zionist Federation conference

Religious foes. Rabbi Moses Weiler, speaking, and Rabbi Isaac Kossowsky seated awkwardly at his side, at a Zionist Federation conference

What followed over the next fourteen months was a ding-doing battle over Reform’s rights of entry to the cemetery. The key player was Rabbi Kossowsky, who, realising that Reform could not function without access to a cemetery, refused to allow the slightest compromise. Reform was in fact merely a proxy in a different battle, between the liberal and traditionalist factions of Orthodoxy, with the liberal faction headed by Chief Rabbi Julius Landau, who was willing to make concessions.

Ironically, there were times when Landau seemed closer in his opinions to his supposed rival Weiler, than to his supposed colleague Kossowsky. Indeed, Weiler and Landau became privately friendly. In the end, a compromise was agreed, not one that Reform was entirely happy with, which gave them a separate section of land in the corner of the cemetery. Many on the Reform side wanted to continue the fight on the grounds that a separate section, in a country famous for providing separate and second-class amenities to blacks, would signal inferiority. But Weiler accepted.

Nonetheless, nobody was willing to have a relative buried in that stigmatised soil for another eighteen months. Finally, the first burial was of a man who had died suddenly while in Paris and been cremated there by the civil authorities. His ashes were shipped back to South Africa. The Orthodox authorities refused to bury cremated ashes in a grave, but Weiler was willing to do so out of compassion for the family. The upside was that the man’s grateful son, Victor Brasch, became one of the most important lay leaders of the movement for forty years.

Moving south to Cape Town

Brasch was to play a central role in the next controversy, which was about expanding the movement to Cape Town. Rabbi Weiler had been tasked with setting up a national Reform movement. But for ten years, he resisted setting up any congregations outside of Hillbrow Johannesburg, insisting that not until he had built up a substantial presence in Johannesburg could he think of expanding elsewhere.

He passed up repeated opportunities to start satellite congregations around the country, Finally, only after threats to go it alone without him, did he agree to help set up in Cape Town at the end of 1943, where to his own considerable surprise, the congregation grew far more rapidly than in Johannesburg. Indeed Reform in Cape Town reached just under 25% of the local community, whereas in Johannesburg it never quite reached 10%.

As anyone who lives in this country for more than a month would know, there is an unbridgeable political and cultural divide between the two cities a thousand miles apart. Cape Town had hardly settled in when the arguments began. Victor Brasch went down to Cape Town as Weiler’s emissary, to tell them of the need for strong central control, based in Johannesburg of course, with Rabbi Weiler as the Chief Rabbi, making sure that every congregation followed the same recipe.


Brasch met with resistance. Cape Town wanted a loose federation in which each city operated autonomously and made its own decisions. They refused to countenance the position of a Chief Rabbi, saying that it ran counter to the democratic principles of Reform Judaism. The feud bubbled and spluttered along for five years, over such issues as who paid for shared expenses, whether to take a hard or soft line in negotiations with Jewish communal organisations (Weiler wanted soft, Cape Town wanted hard), and how much leeway there was on matters of ritual. Weiler was discovering that while he was the unchallenged emperor of Johannesburg, his name counted for little in congregations far away, among people who barely knew him. Other smaller congregations which had now begun in Durban, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria, Springs and elsewhere, played the two big cities off against one another, choosing one side or another as suited them. Finally in 1951, Cape Town quit the SA Union for Progressive Judaism, refusing to return for some 12 years.

Victor Brasch was Johannesburg’s emissary to the South

Victor Brasch was Johannesburg’s emissary to the South

A sudden decision to quit


The feud caused more damage than Cape Town might have expected. It was a key factor in persuading Weiler to quit. In 1956, he announced to his astonished congregation that he would be going on Aliyah at the end of the next year, which gave them one year to find a successor. They begged him to stay, even the leaders of non-Jewish organisations begged him to stay. His explanation was that he had achieved his mission in South Africa, that he had always been a Zionist and the time had come to return to Israel.


But reading the minute books, his letters and articles from the mid-fifties, one gets the unmistakeable impression of a man exhausted, depressed and defeated. The Cape Town issue deeply upset him. So did the ugly rise of apartheid, and its damaging effects on what he had dreamt for with the MC Weiler School.

When he left at the end of 1957, the local organisation had yet to find a suitable replacement, and indeed, four more years would pass with no-one in charge. One of the key reasons for the decline of the Reform movement in South Africa is that it was built around the charisma and drive of one man. And when he went away, the energy dissipated. On the eve of his departure, the Reform movement had established 25 congregations and a number of other institutions like holiday camp sites for the movement’s children, a sports club in Morningside and a conference and study centre in the Magaliesburg. In the next 50 years, it would establish only two more congregations, and lose more than half of those it had.


The Weiler family in Israel

The story doesn’t quite end there. He would spend another 43 years in Israel. The family settled on Kibbutz Usha. Five days a week Weiler spent in Jerusalem, where he had enrolled in advanced Jewish studies, of the kind he had been unable to do while in day-to-day charge of a movement in South Africa. He returned to the kibbutz on Shabbat, where he played the role of unpaid Ba’al Keriah or torah reader at the local Orthodox shul.

Later the family moved to Jerusalem where he was instrumental in setting up and chairing new, independent congregation, Mevakshei Derech, not affiliated to Reform, which was traditional in its ritual practice, but egalitarian in its gender relationships. This seemed an odd mixture at the time, but 50 years later, it is a much-copied formula. Ironically, only after Weiler’s death in 2000, did the Reform movement in his own country begin edging towards precisely that kind of style of service. His career path became rather more complicated, but among other things he lectured at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, was an emissary abroad for the Jewish National Fund and the United Jewish Appeal, and he accompanied Menachem Begin when he made his historic peace trip to Egypt in 1979.


Tragedy strikes – twice over

Weiler’s youthful Zionism had been of the more gentle sort. He had been a great admirer of Achad Ha’am and Martin Buber, both of whom advocated a Jewish religious society rather than a secular state, one which lived in harmony with its Arab neighbours. That ideal ended in 1948, if not before, and he now became much more nationalistic. He insisted that his sons sign up for long-term military duty, training as officers in the leading military academies. For this he won praise from Chief Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz, who wrote a long article in the Zionist Record commending his former opponent for his commitment to Israel’s safety.

Army officers Gideon, left and Adam Weiler, both killed in Israel’s wars

Army officers Gideon, left and Adam Weiler, both killed in Israel’s wars

During the Six Day War, his second son Adam, then studying in England, had jumped on an El Al plane minus a passport to rush back to Israel to join his unit. In March 1970, Adam Weiler, now a major in the tank corps, was killed while leading a reconnaissance patrol in the Sinai desert. He was 25-years old. Three years later his younger brother Gideon, also a major, also in a tank, was killed on the opposite side of the country, the Golan Heights, on the fourth day of the Yom Kippur War, aged 23.


He had married only a few months before. Army rules were that sons of families which had already lost one member would not be sent to the front, but he insisted upon it. The double blow to the family completely shattered their mother. Their sister Arnona was still unable to speak about it when I interviewed her a couple of years ago. But their father, according to Arnona, believed in mechinat mitzvah, a necessary sacrifice for one’s people. “He was able to summons immense inner strength and hold himself together.”


A bomb-blast at the Temple


When the South African Reform movement celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1983, Rabbi Weiler flew out from Israel for the ceremony at Temple Israel. Lavish, week-long celebrations were planned at multiple venues, beginning with a Saturday morning service at Temple Israel, to be attended by the State President, Marais Viljoen, invited perhaps to echo the fact that 50 years earlier the temple had been opened by the deputy Prime Minister, Jan Hofmeyer.

Either way, it turned out not an ideal choice, because in the early hours of Saturday morning, a landmine planted in a lane behind the building exploded with such force that the blast could be heard and the tremors felt several kilometres away. No-one was hurt or killed, but the blast destroyed walls, ripped out windows and seats and turned cupboards and furniture upside down. That the entire structure did not come tumbling down was considered a miracle, but may be attributed to the excellence of those steel girders welded into place in 1936. No explanation was given for the blast, but in an era of frequent bombings, it was assumed to be a protest against the presence of Marais Viljoen. Rabbi Weiler, looking very old and tired, was photographed in front of the ark, intact and completely undisturbed while chaos lay on all sides. The inscription on the curtain read: “But the Word of our God stands forever”.

His final visit to South Africa came in 1995, aged 88, a much happier one: as guest of honour at the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the MC Weiler School in Alexandra, at which newly renovated premises with 25 classrooms were opened. A large crowd of dignitaries gathered for the event, which received handsome coverage in the local and daily press. “Weiler’s wonderful work pays dividends” said one headline.

Rabbi Weiler contemplates the ruin of his study following the blast

Rabbi Weiler contemplates the ruin of his study following the blast

The school had endured extraordinary adversity over those fifty years, from government hostility to gunshots and sabotage, yet here it was still, the name MC Weiler emblazoned in large letters across the front, a stronger institution than before, a fitting symbol for the man himself. But perhaps the happiest moment came when he was returned to his hotel after the ceremony. One of the men working at the hotel spotted him. He had been a pupil at MC Weiler. He quickly gathered some others, also graduates of MC Weiler. And then, they surrounded the old man, and began singing the school anthem in his honour.

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