While Jewish places of worship were being destroyed, looted and burned by Muslims in the Gaza Strip, gentler Muslim hands were carefully crafting a new synagogue in the picturesque South African town of Somerset West.
Waleed Arnolds, a respected Muslim building contractor in the Heldeberg area of the Western Cape and his Muslim construction crew toiled for three months to get the new Strand-Somerset West Hebrew Congregation Synagogue ready in time for Rosh Hashana, so that his Jewish clients would have a place of worship for the High Holy Days.
A few years ago, community leaders realized they would eventually have to move out of their city-center shul, situated right next to a large taxi rank and shopping mall, as the area became busier. Working out that they could not afford to build a new shul, the Jewish community leaders found some property in a quieter area of Somerset West, and started making plans to convert the building into a synagogue.
Last week, the 14 Jewish families and their guests in this corner of the Cape of Good Hope inaugurated their new synagogue at a ceremony which brought pride, and not a few tears of joy, to this tiny community.
Waleed also took pride in this particular project. The Muslim community in this part of the Western Cape [Bo-Kaap] numbers in the hundreds of thousands, and relations with the Jewish community have traditionally been very strong. Waleed himself grew up with some of the people for which he was building a synagogue.
That shared history, says Cedric Miller, one of the Strand-Somerset West Jewish community leaders, is the secret to the coexistence between Muslims and Jews in the Heldeberg area. A coexistence, Miller feels, may eventually be threatened by the absence of a shared upbringing, and tight community relations, as increasingly, Muslims and Jews become polarized the world over. Miller grew up in the Strand area, "playing with them [the Muslims], working with them, eating in their homes. The respect to one another has been shown through all the years."
Several dozen kilometers towards the coast, in Cape Town, relations between the two religions are not as good as they are here.
"We know there are some imams [Muslim preachers] who are not so tolerant in Cape Town. I know there are some of them who will say to their flock that the Jews are no good, that they must be punished for their actions against the Palestinians. Our mullah in Somerset West-Strand area is not like those, and he instructs the local imams preach tolerance. Our imams here also speak of the things that happen to Muslims in Palestine and other places, but the difference here is that the imams try to find the spiritual reasons why these things are happening, and not just laying the blame squarely on others," Waleed says.
Local Jews believe that relations between Muslims and Jews in Cape Town have suffered over the past five years of intifada, but there has not been a similar trend in the Somerset-West area, where ties are deeper.
"The bonds between Jews and Muslims of the older generation are very strong. I don't know what will happen with the younger generation. I'm not sure that closeness will continue, but I hope it does," Miller says.
Waleed is more to the point, saying relations between Jews and Muslims in Cape Town and Somerset West are different because "the people are different. People in Cape Town, on both sides, are not as open-hearted as the people here in this place."
Despite the warm relations, Jewish community leaders here were not taking any chances, and decided, after consulting the Community Security Organization, not to place a Star of David, or any Hebrew writing, on the outside of the building on Lorensford Road.
Much of the planning and design that went into the new synagogue in Somerset West was a collaborative effort on the part of Waleed and a committee of the Jewish community, who met once a week to discuss the progress of the synagogue's construction, which took place from June to October. Miller says all of those involved in the project felt that the essence of the new synagogue was already in the structure an old nursing home and just needed to be discovered in the proper manner.
"Like a sculpture, whose essence is there and the artist removes the superfluous layers to reveal the heart of the thing. This place was just waiting for us," Waleed says.
The old nursing home was carpeted, and the ceiling was plastered over with prefabricated boards. Under both the carpet and the ceiling was old Oregon pinewood, which Waleed brought back to life. Waleed's crew spent weeks scraping off the glue compound the previous builders had used to stick plaster over the pinewood on the ceiling. Slowly, the synagogue's new feel started coming to life, and several artifacts and the windows from the old synagogue were brought into the new. Light fixtures were inserted into the ceiling once it was revealed and varnished. The carpenter who built the Aron Kodesh [Torah Cabinet] was a Christian man from the Strand area, an experienced ship-builder by trade.
The synagogue also has a function hall and kitchen. The remaining part of the old nursing home will be renovated and rented out to private individuals or a business concern, since the community is too small to need a permanent rabbi living on the premises. The community is not expected to grow much, as younger Jews are more likely to settle in Cape Town, which has a much wider possibility of finding work.
Miller says Waleed's company was chosen to carry out the construction because "he had practically grown up in front of us." Miller's ties with the Arnold family go back many years, and some of Waleed's family had worked in Miller's clothing store for many years. Miller's Muslim seamstress wove the fabric that covers the Torah cabinet in the new synagogue.
Miller said he recommended Waleed to the Jewish community. "I have a builder," Miller told the building committee. "They had the faith in me, and I introduced Waleed to them."
Waleed's initial reaction to being given the project was one of practicality. "Work is work, and a job is a job," the Muslim builder says. Waleed never had any hesitation in taking on the project. Miller says one the area's Muslim leaders came to see him soon after and expressed dismay that the Muslim community could not agree among themselves so easily on building projects for their own needs.
"He said to me, here you sit with 14 families and you've built this beautiful little synagogue," Miller says.
One of those present at the inauguration last week was one Aubrey Katz, who was born in that building when it was a nursing home.
Miller says that the construction of the new synagogue "sparked the spirit of the community," and not just for its beauty the synagogue is covered from tip to toe with newly varnished wood but for the pride in knowing that as small Jewish communities all over South Africa are vanishing and their synagogues are closing, Somerset West is building a shul.
Going back 100 years, the majority of businesses in the Strand-Somerset West area were Jewish-owned, a testament to the large and thriving Jewish presence in South Africa at the turn of the century, many of whom came from Lithuania.
"When it came to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the town kind of died, all the stores were closed," Miller says, retelling the story from personal memory and family tradition. "Even during the dark apartheid years when the colored community was urged to boycott white businesses, leaders of the Muslim community never stood up against the Jewish-owned businesses," Miller recalls. "Their attitude was that when they were in need for things during their religious festivals, there were Jewish businesses that supported them," adds Miller. According to the latest count by the US-based Islamic Research Foundation International, there are just over 300,000 Malay [descendants of East Asians] Muslims in the greater Cape Town area.
One last hurdle Waleed won't be able to help the Jewish community with is that the synagogue has not obtained a license from the local municipality to operate as a place of worship. "Some errors were made initially in our communications with the municipality and the neighbors, in which they thought the new shul would create a traffic problem, and would attract a large number of people, so that was miscommunicated to them. And so they have rejected our request. But this is merely a bureaucratic problem and should get sorted out sooner rather than later," Miller says.
The problem arose due to the fact that the synagogue was converted from a house, and so consent is needed from the people living in the immediate area. "Perhaps we didn't present the fact correctly to the municipality: that there would only be 14 families using this synagogue. They were concerned about hundreds of people going in and out, with weddings and funerals and the like. Weddings and funerals don't happen here," Miller says.
"I like to do things like this for people," Waleed Arnold, the builder, says. "If they're satisfied then I'm satisfied.
"Sometimes I used to come inside, when the guys were working on something outside, and I sat here to relax. This place gives you that relaxing feeling."