A Walk Through the Old Jewish Neighborhood of Doornfontein With Ancient Secrets

If you have already been following my blog, you probably know that I am a big fan of Ishvara Dhyan’s Ancient Secrets walks. As still a relative newcomer to Joburg, I really enjoy getting to know the fascinating neighborhoods that Ishvara has chosen for his walking tours. This has given me the opportunity to learn about many places that I probably previously would never have thought to step foot in. Doornfontein was the third walk we have done with Ishvara after the Troyeville Walk and the Jeppestown Walk.

What I find especially captivating about these walks is that each neighborhood is packed with a varied history and Ishvara is a master at relating the path of evolution these neighborhoods have taken through the years. It is often said that Johannesburg is a city that is constantly reinventing itself and I found this to be particularily true of the Doornfontein neighborhood.

Ellis ParkEllis Park

Our group met in front of Ellis Park, a large venue hosting rugby and soccer matches as well as concerts. When the Jewish people moved into this area back in the late 1800’s, this was a large open space and there was even a man-made lake where families would picnic during Jewish holidays. This was also the site of the Jewish Workers’ Club, a social and cultural center for working class Jews.

Ponte CityPonte City in Hillbrow, often seen in many Jozi skyline photos, is very close to Ellis Park.

Rugby StatueRugby Statue outside of Ellis Park

Our walk passed the now-closed Alhambra Theatre. While the exterior seems to be in good repair, it is said that the inside is extremely run down. I found an article on the Joburg Heritage Portal stating that the building was for sale in Nov 2013 for R7,500,000, that’s about 750K USD. I haven’t seen any more current news on this, hopefully this theatre will be bought and saved from ruin.

Alhambra TheatreAlhambra Theatre

Continuing up Beit St we see some former Jewish shops. These are no longer Jewish run however, some of the original signs are still present such as the Tailor sign in the photo below.

Former Jewish StoresFormer Jewish Stores

Cafe MuralCafe Mural – I don’t think this was present in Jewish-run days

The oldest standing synagogue in Johannesburg is the Lions Shul, built in 1906 and services are still held here. We were able to go inside and explore this splendid synagogue, which was particularily interesting to me that I can’t recall ever entering one previously.

Lion ShulLion Shul

Lion ShulLion Shul

Lion ShulLion Shul

Lion ShulLion Shul

Lion Shul - really, really old booksLion Shul – really, really old books

Lion Shul - women's seating in the upper levelLion Shul – women’s seating in the upper level

Lion ShulLion Shul

We were lucky to be able to enter a former traditional Jewish home, see photo below. Sadly the interior was in very poor condition. The house is currently for sale and can probably be had for a real bargain.

Jewish HouseFormer Jewish House

Jewish HouseFormer Jewish House

Our walk continued to the University of Johannesburg Doornfontein Campus. Here we passed more former Jewish homes that are now University offices. In the photo directly below, you can see a building that had been divided into 2 separate homes. This was done as the entire structure was often too expensive for one single family.

University of Johannesburg Doornfontein CampusFormer Jewish home divided in 2

HillbrowLooking into Hillbrow from the campus

Beit Hamedrash Hagodel or the Sherwell St Shul is also located on the Doornfontein campus. It is mostly restored but not currently used. The building has wonderful acoustics and we enjoyed listening to a tape of Latvian Cantor Berele Chagy. It must have been truely amazing to hear him in person.

Beit Hamedrash HagodelBeit Hamedrash Hagodel

Beit Hamedrash HagodelBeit Hamedrash Hagodel

Beit Hamedrash HagodelBeit Hamedrash Hagodel

Exiting the campus, we continued toward neighboring Hillbrow to visit the Great Synagogue on Wolmarans St. While the streets in the first part of the walk were virtually deserted, we now were entering into a very lively neighborhood where the majority of people were coming or going from Sunday church services.


Rea Vaya Bus StopThe modern Rea Vaya Bus Stop


Former Hebrew High SchoolFormer Hebrew High School

Streets of HillbrowStreets of Hillbrow

The Great Synagogue on Wolmarans St is now used by an African Healing Church. We arrived in-between services and this was unlike any church I have ever been in before. Food was being prepared and distributed both outside the church and inside the entry and many of the congregation were seated in the church having lunch while waiting for the service to begin. We were allowed to walk around and were greeted by many church goers with a warm Sawubona (Hello in Zulu). I think it would be fascinating to see a service here.

Great SynagogueThe Great Synagogue is now used as a church but many Jewish symbols are still present. The leopard skin is not Jewish.

Great SynagogueThe Great Synagogue

Our next stop was at the first Greek Orthodox Church in Joburg from 1913, which still functions to this day.

Greek Orthodox ChurchGreek Orthodox Church

Greek Orthodox ChurchGreek Orthodox Church

Greek Orthodox ChurchGreek Orthodox Church

Continuing on, we stop at the Former Jewish Government School, now the IH Harris Primary School and still being used.

Jewish Government SchoolCeiling of the Former Jewish Government School, now the IH Harris Primary School

Our walking tour concluded at the Former Ottoman Embassy. While the building still contains many Ottoman features, it now houses a plumbing business.

Former Ottoman EmbassyFormer Ottoman Embassy

Former Ottoman EmbassyFormer Ottoman Embassy

An optional lunch (not included in the tour price) was held at the Troyeville Hotel. As we have been wanting to try this restaurant for its well-known Portuguese cuisine, we were very much looking forward to this and we were in no way disappointed. Service was friendly and attentive and the food just as good. Vegetarians will find a few different options, much welcomed in a highly meat-based culture. The Troyeville Hotel is also THE place to be for Ellis Park Rugby pre-game festivities, we will certainly be back.

Grilled HaloumiGrilled Haloumi

Chourico SausageChourico Sausage


Veg CurryVeg Curry

I have said it before, and I will say it again (and again!), I highly recommend Ishvara and his Ancient Secrets walks. Check out his facebook page for all the details on upcoming walks, hope to see you on one soon.

8 thoughts on “A Walk Through the Old Jewish Neighborhood of Doornfontein With Ancient Secrets

  1. Pingback: Family stories: Louis Feinstein from Libau – Ari's Ancestors

  2. Pingback: New lease on life for the Alhambra Theatre | Parktonian Sectional Title

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