Farewell Stan Abrahams, ten times chair of Beit Emanuel

Tribute by Irwin Manoim

Stan Abrahams

A younger Stan Abrahams, centre, presides over the farewell party for Rabbi Arthur Super in 1975. His wife Sally is on the right.

Stan Abrahams’ career at Beit Emanuel began, so he told me, right at the bottom, bailing buckets of water, along with his good friend Dickie Lampert.

On the first High Holy Day service at Temple Emanuel in 1954, the roof leaked, as it would continue to do for the next 66 years. Unfortunately, it was leaking right on to the Bimah, which is why the rabbi inspanned two nearby teenagers to bail water while the service proceeded.

The rabbi made a good choice. Dickie Lampert later became rabbi of Temple Emanuel, and Stan Abrahams became one of its most prominent lay leaders: by my count, he was chairman ten times and that leaves out all the other committees he chaired.

The Abrahams family were remarkable in that he was the third generation to be prominent in the Progressive movement. His grandfather Isaac Abrahams had already been a Reform Jew in England when he was brought out after the Boer War, first as principal of the Hebrew school in Oudtshoorn, then of the Commercial High School in Johannesburg. He also became secretary of the Zionist Federation and founding editor of the Zionist Record newspaper.

Stan’s great uncle, AM Abrahams, who immigrated to South Africa at the same time, became principal of Johannesburg’s first Jewish school. The two of them were founding members of Rabbi Moses Weiler’s fledgling Reform movement in 1933, and for decades afterwards, their printing firm produced all the movement’s publications and even its prayer books.

Stan’s father, Arthur G Abrahams was one of three men who raised the money to buy an abandoned high school and convert it into Temple Emanuel, in 1954. That’s one of many reasons why there is a garden in his memory right next to the synagogue front door, which Stan continued to look after for many years.

Grandfather, father and son were heavily involved in Jewish education, all three serving multiple stints as chairs of the School Board, an institution which in its heyday taught both cheder and post-bar mitzvah classes to a thousand pupils in Johannesburg, and employed a principal and 34 teachers.

At age 27, Stan followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming the youngest chairman of the school board. Five years later he was chairman of Temple Emanuel for the first time. Little known – particularly down the road in Sandton – is that he was also a founder of Temple David, and its chairman in 1977.

Stan became president of the United Progressive Congregation of Johannesburg, the umbrella body of all the Johannesburg congregations, during the era of Rabbi Arthur Super, and he can be spotted in various photographs of the era, seated at top tables at important functions, the youngest man amidst the greying eminences. Later, he became chairman of the national body, the SA Union for Progressive Judaism; indeed, there were very few posts he did not hold.

When Temple Emanuel began fund-raising to build what is now the main synagogue building, Stan played a central role. The synagogue was particularly lavish and expensive, intended to seat 1200 people, during a golden era of great optimism. And Stan too, was a great optimist. I found an article in the Jewish press in which he predicted that the movement was poised to go from strength to strength: unfortunately he made that prediction shortly before the Soweto Uprising of June 1976, after which the movement all-but imploded due to emigration.

According to his close friend Leonard Singer, who would follow Stan as chairman several times over, Stan was passionate and proprietary about Temple Emanuel and its community, indeed “almost fanatical”. He had the charm of a good negotiator. He was also steely, and when he decided on a matter of principle, nothing would shake him from it.

That would explain why Stan was a central figure in more than one of Temple Emanuel’s civil wars – and there have been plenty of those. Most famously, he was a key member of the Temple Emanuel Survival Committee, a group of former chairmen who battled against the regime of Rabbi Ady Assabi in the early 1990s. Despite losing an expensive court case, they eventually forced the rabbi’s departure. The issues were too complicated to summarise here, but perhaps personality was part of it: Assabi was flamboyant, dictatorial and a rule breaker; Stan represented an old-guard, cautious and conservative, determined to preserve tradition.

If one day we are allowed back into the Shul, look out for a board above the Janks Hall door listing all the chairmen from that moment onwards, with Stan’s name the first on the list. Temple Emanuel was down to 80 families in 1993 and had no rabbi or money. It is a significant tribute to Stan and those around him that within a few years, they had a rabbi and more than 500 families.

Stan had a reputation as the man to manage crises. When a stormy special meeting ended the Temple Emanuel career of yet another rabbi in 2008, and a number of members quit, Stan was brought back for his last term as chairman, as the person most likely to restore calm. Less publicly, he was a regular and generous donor to the congregation and all its causes. In between all this, he was an equally fanatical runner and cyclist.

Stan was one of only two men to be awarded the title of honorary vice president of the congregation, the other being the much older Jack Jankes. Perhaps the greatest honour though, was one he would never know about. The Chevra Kadisha buried Stan in the “Gedolim” section of West Park, reserved for illustrious celebrities of the Jewish community. I can think of no other example of a leader of Progressive Jewry being given such an honour. But as of this week, there lies Stan, alongside Donald Gordon.

Stan is survived by his wife Sally, married to him for 58 years, three children, and eight grandchildren. Ailing for a long time, he died on Tuesday, aged 83.


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