Jewish Affairs



(Author: Shirley Zar, Vol. 78, #2, Winter 2023)


Recently, I read the book Kabbalah in Art and Architecture by Alexander Gorlin, which opened my eyes to my understanding of a building with which I as an architect am familiar, but which remains an enigma.

The Chassidic shul in Yeoville is a unique and extraordinary piece of architecture, the collaboration of architect, sculptor, artist and artist-artisan. Like an archaeological site it evokes layers of memories. But the key to its masterly creation lies in the building’s expression of Kabbalistic precepts, in particular the conscious use and application of ‘Divine Light’ as construed in the Jewish mystical tradition. The concept of sacred space is inherent in Jewish life and thought, but for Chassidim it is linked indelibly with the mystic tradition of Kabbalah, which goes back 3500 years.

Chassidism, which began in Eastern Europe in the middle of the 18th Century is claimed to be the greatest revivalist movement in the history of the Jewish people. The father of the movement, the Baal Shem Tov, stressed joyful celebration of religion and devotion through intense prayer and taught that Hashem’s blessings were accessible to all, even the simple man.

Much has been written about this distinctive Chassidic shul building but appreciation of the architecture is at best superficial without an understanding of the transcendental essence which drove its creation. In 1963 the building received the prestigious Institute of Architects Award for the best ecclesiastical building. In her book A Guide to Architecture in South Africa (Howard Timmins, Cape Town, 1971), Doreen Greig describes the building as consisting of “an enclosure by screens of different density and transparency” and “the element of mystery… comes with a dappled amber light through the grillwork”. All of this is extraneous detail, so in this discourse I try to explore the real meaning, the inspiration, the spiritual raison d’ètre, without dwelling particularly on the practical details of the built structure.

The forces which underlie this creation are clear. Firstly, those of spiritual significance which encompass the architect’s commitment and love of his Jewish heritage, which I believe embraced the mysticism of Chassidism. Secondly, there is a collaborative spirit and passion of the artists and skilled artisans who interpreted and synchronously executed the architectural vision. The process of making this building signals the extraordinary engagement of its makers.

Chassidim shul, Yeoville, Johannesburg: //

The context

In the early 1960s, Jacques Morgenstern, architect, was commissioned to build a new shul to replace the Doornfontein Chassidic shul, built in 1930 and designed by Saul Margo, architect, which had served the community for 25 years. The Johannesburg City Council had expropriated the building along with several other properties in order to construct the Harrow Road overpass. The vibrant former immigrant settlement, the shtetl Doornfontein, once the crucible of Jewish religious and social life, declined in popularity as demographic migration to northern and other locations escalated. The densely populated urban environment of Yeoville and its environs had become the new hub of Jewish life. It was in this context that the Chassidic community, partially funded by the expropriation pay-out, sought out a new location for their proposed shul. Stand 913 Yeoville on Harrow Road, now Joe Slovo Drive, corner Yeo Street, presented a unique opportunity to build a special new house of prayer for Chassidim which would be a cogent memory of their past and a celebration of its continuity. Le dor vador is ingrained in our psyches.

The early Chassidic community comprised in the main simple, hardworking tradesmen and hawkers, members of the Doornfontein Baal Agoleh industry who would park their horses and carts on the vacant area in front of their shul as they rushed every afternoon and evening to attend services. “They were known to the community as ‘triers’, involved in a variety of endeavours – transport, hawking, trading, chicken and vegetable selling, ice delivery and we’re experts in dealing with secondhand clothing, the shmatter trade”. For these immigrants, the Chassidic shul was “not merely a place of worship but a place of sanctuary, a meeting place for someone like yourself, a stranger in a foreign land” and a place of shared sorrow and celebration where the unofficial motto was See Neto Cain Shlechteh Branfyn (“There’s no such thing as a lousy brandy” (Jack Shapiro, The Streets of Doornfontein, 2010).

By the 50s and 60s, the community had changed and also considerably declined in numbers. No longer the simple congregants of the past, they nevertheless still retained their loyalty and devotion to Chassidism. The proposed new school in the vibrant new venue of Yeoville was embraced as a new beginning.

For architect Jacques of Morgenstern and Morgenstern, whose busy practice at this time was mainly involved in commercial buildings in the city, this was not just another architectural brief for the community, but a deeply felt emotional commitment to his roots. His understanding and motivation lay in the belief that his religious heritage could serve to empower his creation of such a sacred space.

Connections to Chassidism

The Morgenstern family were intimately connected to Chassidism and the family’s ‘yichus’ lay in their being descended from the great rabbinical dynasties of Eastern Europe. To begin with Jacques was a descendant, the great-great-grandson, of the famous Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1939), known as the Chasam Sofer. He was born in Frankfurt on Main and was chief rabbi of Pressburg (today, Bratislava, capital of the Czech Republic), for 33 years. His yeshiva pre-World War II was regarded as being amongst the greatest of the yeshivot in Eastern Europe.

Jacques’ mother Wikta was the grand-child of the renowned Chassid Yoel Sofer-Schreiber, son of the Chief Rabbi of Krakow Rabbi Shimon Sofer-Schreiber. An intimate friend was the renowned second Rebbe of the Chassidic dynasty of Ger, known as the Sfas Emes, after the treatise which he wrote. The source of the many marriages which took place between the Morgenstern and Schreiber families, several of whom were Ger Chassidim, lay in these connections. One such family luminary was the Kotzke Rebbe Mendel Menachem Morgenstern. Jacques’ father Leibish had himself received a blessing from his childhood friend and chavruta the famous Rabbi Israel Alter (1895-1977), subsequently the 5th Rebbe of Ger, whose sanctification was seen as a portent of the Morgenstern family’s miraculous survival and continuity. In Johannesburg the Morgenstern family was intimately connected with the Gedolim of the time, in particular Rabbi Yitzchak Kossowsky, head of the Beth Din and Rav of Beit Hamedrash Hagadol, as well as Rabbi Irma Aloy, Chairman of the Chassidic congregation.

The influence of Rabbi Yitzchak Kossowsky

On arrival in Johannesburg after the Morgenstern family’s escape from war-torn Europe, an influence which probably left an indelible imprint on the young Jacques was the mentorship of Rabbi Yitzchak Kossowsky (1877-1954), whose scholarship and Chassidic wisdom was profound. Rabbi Kossowsky’s empathy and concern for his fellow human beings stemmed from his personal tragedy of his daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren having been murdered in the Holocaust and his heartfelt despair at the decimation of the communities and rich Jewish life of which he had been an integral part. This famous rabbi who had come to South Africa in 1933 to head the Beth Din with its affiliated congregations, was himself renowned throughout Eastern Europe. Chief Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein described him as “a towering rabbinic figure, a leader closely connected to the Gedolim such as the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (From the Desk of the Chief Rabbi, #2, Pesach 5767/April 2007).

Rabbi Yitzchak Kossowsky (1877-1954)

The Morgenstern family, consisting of mother Wikta, father Leibish and their children Ann and Jacques, having fled Antwerp, Belgium, managed to reach Lisbon. From there they boarded the Portuguese ship, the João Belo headed for Mozambique. In 1941, they arrived in Lourenco Marques, where they anxiously awaited entry visas to South Africa. Jacques wrote, “We had almost abandoned the hope of leaving that place, when the lucky news came that my father could be allowed to enter the Union as a diamond cutter”.

Finding refuge and friendship

It was during that year of anxious displacement that Leibish corresponded with Rabbi Kossowsky, who sent him seforim, tzitzit and tefillin in Laurenco Marques. Thus began an enduring friendship between the Morgenstern family with Rabbi Yitzchak and his son rabbi Michel Kossowsky, who came to South Africa in 1941. Eventually the refugee family arrived in Johannesburg and were accommodated in an apartment in Buckingham Court, Joubert Park, provided by Nathan Malkin, a Polish landsleit of Leibish. The 17-year-old Jacques was impressed: “If I tell you that the highest building in Europe is in Antwerp, and that we were so proud about its 27 floors, you can imagine my impression at the sight of so many skyscrapers, modern streets and a mode of living even more up to date than that in Europe” he wrote.

While Jacques pursued his secular studies at Parktown Boys High School, his father sent him to learn with Rabbi Yitzchak Kossowsky. The Rabbi, impressed with the youth’s keen mind, proclaimed he had the potential to become ‘hagadol hador’ if he were to devote himself to religious studies. However, the artistically talented Jacques, on matriculating, enrolled at Wits University intent on qualifying as an architect, which he achieved in 1950. The close connections with the Kossowskys, Rabbi Irma Aloy and other community stalwarts resulted in Jacques, together with his wife Riva (who was also an architect having qualified at the same time as him) receiving important community commissions.

These were the Chassidic Shul, the Beth Din building in Yeoville and Yeshiva College, Glenhazel, whose establishment was largely driven by Rabbi Michel Kossowsky, the first Rosh Yeshiva of the school.

Jacques Morgenstern (left) with Rabbi Michel Kossowsky, Rabbi David Hollander, Mrs. Chiene Kossowsky and Mrs. Hollander in front of the newly completed Yeshiva College premises in Glenhazel, 1961. The school was named Yeshivat Beit Yitzchak in memory of Rabbi Yitzchak Kossowsky.

The influence of Kabbalah

Was a further influence on Jacques perhaps Gershom Shalom’s book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (first published 1941)? The author, a great Jewish scholar of the Hebrew University, presented ideas and concepts relevant to the design of shuls. The publication “opened the eyes of many artists and architects to the provocative visual mysteries of the Kabbalah” (Gorlin, A, Kabbalah in Art & Architecture, Thames & Hudson, 2014) and suggested that Kabbalah serve as a source of inspiration for contemporary works. Did Jacques have a deep-seated understanding of the concepts in Kabbalah or was his response purely intuitive?

I suggest that the physical manifestation of Morgenstern’s manipulation of form and light in the Chassidic Shul shows a conscious desire to interpret the tenets of the mystic tradition in order to achieve the heightened sense of spirituality which he desired for the building. He realized that the experience of places which have been sanctified for greater holiness allow for a deep connection to Hashem. How then to achieve this aim?

A building can be read in light of the circumstances of the particular time and the influences which impacted on its design. Shul architecture is replete with historical precedents, yet Morgenstern rejects references of the familiar conservative models. He might have taken his cue from the earlier well-loved Doornfontein Chassidic shul of 1930 by Saul Margo, who referenced Gottfried Semper’s Dresden Synagogue, but as a modernist he wished to embrace new forms unrelated to traditional buildings. He was surely familiar too with Le Corbusier’s groundbreaking sculptural Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, built in the early 1950s. For Jacques, the new Chassidic Shul represented an opportunity to create a unique building like a freestanding piece of sculpture with a soaring butterfly slab roof. Nonetheless, decoded memories are embedded in the modern structure. A whole world of significance of the present and of the past is encapsulated in a single building.

Ancient shul at Capernaum

Israel and in particular the power of our history as represented to us by Jerusalem, was and remains central to the lives of the whole Morgenstern family. Constant themes of spiritual continuity and of deliverance made possible through the miracle of having regained our homeland and returned to Zion were intrinsic to their lives. Remarkably their destiny in life and even in death was an affirmation of their identity and the realization of their dreams. Miraculously, Jacques and Reeva were ultimately buried right next to the graves of parents Leibish and Wikta on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, and that today all the Morgenstern children with their families live in Eretz Yisrael.

Application of the Kabbalah’s concepts through transforming beams of light:

Above all, the Chassidic Shul building is concerned with the transference, transfusion, diffusion and radiance of LIGHT. This Kabbalistic theme animates the interior space, where the building is conceived as a “Vessel of Light”. Parallel with this is the theme of theme of tzimtzum – of withdrawal where G-d contracts himself creating a vacuum. Light beams separate, pull apart and are refracted into the 10 ‘Sephirot‘ (structure of the Divine usually portrayed as a geometric treelike diagram of interconnected points of light) as they filter into the sanctuary. The space is now conceived as a “Broken Vessel of light”, wherein light is restored and glows, symbolizing the restoration of the community. That invocation of repairing, of renewal post the Shoah had enormous power. The concept in practice had unforeseen but profound consequences at the Chassidic Shul, where s declining membership of the elderly community was spiritually reinvigorated in the 70s and 80s by Chabad emissaries sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. In 1972, Rabbi Mendel and Rebbetzin Mashie Lipskar, supported by Rabbi Koppel Bacher, arrived in Johannesburg. They spearheaded a revival of religious life wherein the Chassidic Shul became the ‘Mother Shul’ of Chabad, a place of inspiration and religious celebration which continued the Chassidism traditions of its founders.

Rabbi Mendel Lipskar with Chassidism Congregation chairman Rabbi Irma Aloy

The practical INTERPRETATION: applying Kabbalah – how did Jacques Morgenstern interpret these mystical themes in his building? The envelope of the structure is made up of two layers through which light filters and is transformed. The external layer of the enclosing wall consists of intricate three-dimensional faceted sculptural blocks through which light is fractured as it permeates the interior and encounters a transparent second layer. Now the filtered light is transfused through the second layer consisting of stained-glass windows. The brightly colored geometrically patterned panes of glass illuminate the interior. Radiant light suffuses the space giving a sense of spirituality and celebration of the sanctuary, which are the very tenets of Chassidism. The interior glows as a vessel of light.

Colour too plays a central part in Kabbalah, referencing the highly coloured curtains and closing the precinct of the Mishkan in the desert. The most sacred object in Jewish life is the Torah, so the Aron Kodesh and the Bima receive special attention in the shul architecture. In the Chassidic Shul, the Aron Kodesh is within the unadorned, seemingly freestanding stone wall of which once presided the bronze sculpture of mystic lions holding the tablets of the law. That sculpture created by Edoardo Villa has disappeared.

The monolith of stone housing the Aron Kodesh intrudes into the curtain wall of stained glass, which surround it and serve as the receptor of diffused light from the external grill of sculptured reconstructed blocks. The two layers transforming and illuminating the light or a clear manifestation of Kabbalah’s precepts. In front of the Ark, the concrete butterfly roof dips and rises to accentuate the visual focus of the Aron Kodesh and over the Bima clear shafts of light illuminate the space from where the holy Torah would have been unveiled and read.

The collaborative partnership

The sculptural reality of Jacques Morgenstern’s vision could only have been achieved by working together in a synchronistic partnership, primarily with the acclaimed sculptor Edoardo Villa and artist-craftsman Luigi Lupini who was responsible for the fabrication of the precast blocks of the enclosing walls and the precast panels. These Italian immigrants were themselves vested in a tradition of great artistry. Born in Bergamo, Lupini had studied there and at the Carraro Academia to become a capo maestro. The Lupini brothers came to South Africa in the 1930s at the behest and with the support of Morris Cowen of Cook and Cowen architects to set up a factory to fabricate the reconstructed precast concrete artworks which adorned their buildings. The architects were prominent in Johannesburg, having built more than thirty buildings in the city alone. Buildings such as Broadcast House, His Majesty’s Theatre, Dunvegan Chambers, Shakespeare House and Roehampton Court showcased the sculptural art produced by the Lupinis. During the war the young Italian sculptor Edoardo Villa was captured and imprisoned at Zonderwater, the POW camp near Pretoria. He was befriended by the Lupinis and after the war he stayed with them at the Lupini Brothers Terrazzo Factory premises in Kew.

Villa’s practice included architectural commissions from well-known architects, commencing with his St. Apollinaire panel adorning Wits School of Dentistry designed by Professor Fassler in 1948. From the 50s artwork adorning significant buildings experienced a revival as a mark of the buildings’ prestige. Villa’s work became increasingly popular and his output prodigious. In the milieu of a major building boom in Johannesburg, architects such as Morgenstern, Monty Sack, Sid Abramovitz and others extended their patronage to Villa, who had achieved much fame as a sculptor. His abstract geometric forms closely reflected the aesthetics of the Modern Movement in architecture as well as the urbanity of the city. Morgenstern’s friendship with Villa and admiration for his work resulted in many commissions where the buildings are visually distinctive largely due to Villa’s sculptural contribution. Yet in none of his architectural engagements is Villa’s sculpture integral to the design of an entire building as occurs with the Chassidic Shul, where it exists as a critical component rather than of a mere adjunct.

Amando Baldinelli was also a great friend of Morgensterns and had executed stained-glass windows in their own home on Linksfield Ridge. A celebrated artist in South Africa and beyond, his numerous public and private commissions included mosaics and murals as well as stained-glass windows such as his 1962 windows for St George’s Presbyterian Church in Wolmarans Street.

In the Chassidic Shul, Baldinelli’s windows are restrained, subservient to the architecture, integral with the architect’s vision. There is no flourish of intrusion of the artists dominance but rather the sense of his creating a radiant screen, geometric in design, where the brilliance of the illuminated light is the overriding consideration. The prescribed role of the artists’ contribution to the building was clearly understood, so that their work played a complementary role to the whole, rather than that of the prima donna. It is a collaborative effort wherein the whole is celebrated.

Luigi Lupini’s son Ittore, who studied architecture and later worked in Morgenstern’s office, made telling comments regarding the relationship of Morgenstern, Villa and his father. He recalled how when Jacques, Villa and Luigi Lupini would meet at the premises of Lupini Brothers to discuss the work at hand, they interacted as equal partners with utmost respect for each other’s contribution. So too was the Mishkan built, with Bezalel the architect-artist not simply directing the project but engaging in support and close collaboration of others to create that wondrous sacred space for the glory of Hashem.

Epitaph for the Chassidic Shul

After the Chassidic Shul was deconsecrated in the 1990s, Chabad continued to operate in Highlands North, Savoy, Hyde Park, Sandton and in other sub6urbs of greater Johannesburg and further afield. Its impact was and remains far reaching. Now, in the adjacent Chassidic Shul Hall where community brachot and celebrations once took place is a nursery school. It resonates with song and joy of the immigrant children who in the main come from other African states. This too serves as a cogent reminder of our past, as we were once also immigrants engaged in life in these very same places. The sanctuary, still owned by the community, is currently used as a bakery for bread. Gone are all references to its religious function, except for the metal Magen David symbol prominent on the exterior stone wall and the remaining Foundation Stone celebrating the shul’s establishment on 1 December 1963. That stone, a relic of the Chassidic Hebrew community is a precious testament to their aspirations and dedication in the fulfillment of their dream. It was laid by Henry Baynes Jacobson in honour of his parents, who were long standing members of that community. One recalls too the personalities who are intimately involved in the shul. Rabbi Alter Hilewitz, a renowned Talmudic scholar of Chassidic descent headed the congregation while Rabbi Irma Aloy was chairman. Rabbi Koppel Bacher, Shaul Bacher and Mitzie Yachad were all prominent members who were instrumental in its realization.

Within the volume which was once a sanctuary a holy ambience lingers. The ‘sacred space’ as crafted by Morgenstern is indestructible. On a visit there I was overwhelmed by the air of sanctity that remains intact, contained perhaps by the diffusion of colored light that illuminates the space. On leaving, the gift of a loaf of freshly baked bread was offered to me. I was strangely moved to feeling the need for a blessing – Hamotzi lechem min Haaretz seemed appropriate. On sharing these emotive reactions triggered by this place with Jacques’ daughter Omi Morgenstern Leissner, who lives in Israel, she reminded me that attached to the Temple in Jerusalem and other ancient shuls, bakeries may be similar to the one in this shul would have provided bread, the staff of life, to pilgrims. We are forever connected to our past.

In his book The Experience of Place (Knoff, 1990) Tony Hiss comments: “A place is a mind altering substance”. It is a reminder of how this serves as a psychological anchor which gives a sense of rootedness to our lives. Such a place is the now defunct Chassidic Shul, a repository of our memories which are aroused by the persistence of its sacred space. To have achieved this phenomenon within this gem-like building is a lasting tribute to its maker Jacques Morgenstern and to his talented co-workers.

Concerning the nature of architecture Louis Kahn wrote, “A great building in my opinion must begin with the immeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is designed and in the end be immeasurable”. That praise seems relevant to the Chassidic Shul, where what is immeasurable is its creative spirit, in all probability inspired by Kabbalah.


Shirley Zar studied Architecture and Town Planning at Wits University, going on to work with some of Johannesburg’s most eminent architects. She later lectured in architecture at the University of Johannesburg and founded its Town Planning Department.