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Negotiations in South Africa Keep Large Orthodox Shul Within the Fold

March 31, 2003
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One of South Africa’s largest Orthodox congregations has settled a dispute with the country’s Union of Orthodox Synagogues that almost led to its withdrawal from the umbrella organization.

South Africa’s Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation — also known as Marais Road — has had an acrimonious relationship for years with the UOS, which culminated in a special meeting last August in which the shul considered leaving the governing body.

The primary points of contention were the so-called “quickie” conversions performed in America, facilitated by the congregation’s American-born rabbi, Elihu Jacob Steinhorn, that were not recognized by the local Beth Din, or religious court.

However, a decision in August to give the parties six more months to negotiate paid off.

A joint statement read out at the congregation’s annual meeting last week announced that the differences between the shul and the UOS over Steinhorn have been “amicably resolved” in full accord with halacha, or Jewish law.

It also said that after Passover 2004, Steinhorn would retire and become rabbi emeritus.

South Africa’s chief rabbi, Cyril Harris, told JTA, “We are all very pleased that the Green and Sea Point Synagogue is remaining in the family of Orthodox congregations. Every effort will be made to find a really suitable successor to Rabbi Steinhorn. We look forward to an era of full co-operation with the religious authorities.”

Clive Rabinowitz, Marais Road’s new president — who had proposed withdrawing from the UOS last August — said congregants felt “general relief” that the matter had been settled.

“We must go forward,” he said. “We can’t have our energy stuck in in-fighting, and must do what is best for the congregation.”

Judge Dennis Davis of the Cape High Court, who was involved in the settlement negotiations, said that not having Steinhorn in a synagogue as significant as Sea Point — the largest in the southern hemisphere, by some estimates — was a “very, very major loss to Jewish life in South Africa. With all the difficulties, he remains, in my view, the one singularly modern Orthodox rabbi in this country.

“I would really hope that” as an emeritus rabbi “he continues to make a serious contribution to Jewish intellectual life in this town,” Davis said.

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