The Jewish Community of Cape Town
Founded in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company as a victualing station at the Cape Of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of Africa, on the sea route to India and the Far East. The town had Jews among its early settlers. The rules of the company, however, allowed only Protestants as settlers; two Jews were converted to Christianity in Cape Town as early as 1669. After the British occupation of the Cape in 1806, a steady flow of Jewish immigrants came from Central Europe and England and later, in larger numbers, from Eastern Europe.
As the oldest Jewish community in South Africa, Cape Town’s organized communal life provided the pattern for the future development of South African Jewry. The Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, the first in South Africa, dates back to 1841. The first synagogue, which still stands, was built in 1849. It was called Tikvath Israel (“Hope of Israel”), a reference to “good hope”. Isaac Pulver was the first minister (1849-51). He was succeeded by Joel Rabinowitz (1859-82), Abraham Philip Ornstein (1882-95), Alfred Philip Bender (1895-1937), and Israel Abrahams (1937-68). As the Jewish community grew, other congregations and synagogues were established. The present great synagogue, a beautifully situated synagogue, was inaugurated in 1905.
For many years, Cape Town was the principal centre of Jewish communal life in South Africa. With the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and the rise of the Witwatersrand gold fields, however, there was a northward shift in the population, which played an active role in the development of trade and industry in the country. In 1904, the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies was formed at Cape Town, a year after the corresponding body was created for the Transvaal and Natal. The two organizations merged in 1912 to establish the South African Jewish Board of Deputies. Among its most prominent Members was Morris Alexander. From the early days of the Zionist movement in South Africa, Cape Town was a center of Zionist activity. The Bnei Zion was formed in 1897 and was followed by the Dorshei Zion Association (1899) and the Bnoth Zion (Women’s) Association (1900). One of the outstanding personalities in the Zionist movement was Jacob Gitlin.
Jews have made large contributions to the cultural and civic life of Cape Town. These include the Max Michaelis Art Gallery, the De Pass collection in the South African National Gallery, and the Mendelssohn Library, one of the most important collections of Africana, presented to the nation and stored in the houses of Parliament. Hyman Liberman was the first Jew to become mayor of Cape Town (1903-07); others were Louis Gradner (1933-35), his son Walter (1965-67), Abe Bloomberg (1945-47), Fritz Sonnenberg (1951-53), and Alfred Honikman (1961-63). In 1969, Cape Town was the second largest Jewish Centre in South Africa (after Johannesburg), with a Jewish population of approximately 25,000 (out of a total population of 750,000).
Cape Town was the seat of the provincial branches of national organizations with headquarters on the Rand. These included the Cape Council of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, the Western (Cape) Province Zionist Council (representing the South African Zionist Federation), and the Union of Jewish Women. Although both the Cape Committee of the Board of Deputies and the Western (Cape) Zionist Council were a part of their national organizations, they preserved a considerable autonomy. Organizations situated in Cape Town, such as the Cape Board of Jewish Education and the United Council of Orthodox Hebrew Congregations, were entirely independent. This emphasis on Cape Autonomy from the more dominant Johannesburg Jewry characterized much of the later history of Cape Jewry but has diminished.
The Cape Board of Education in 1969 supervised 31 Hebrew schools and was responsible for a fine Hebrew secondary day school (Herzlia), three Hebrew primary day schools, and a hostel.
In 1969, there were 12 orthodox congregations in Cape Town and its neighboring communities and two reform congregations under a council of progressive Judaism, with its own school. Among the welfare institutions were a Jewish orphanage and old age home. The Zionist movement, especially among the youth, was strong. The main charitable organization was the Jewish Board of Guardians. Apart from the Jewish Museum based in the old synagogue building, various cultural Hebrew and Yiddish societies functioned.
Between 1970 and 1992 some 39,000 Jews left South Africa, while in the same period approximately 10,000 Israelis moved into the country.
In 1997, there were 106,000 Jews in South Africa. Cape Town was the second largest Jewish centre and had a Jewish population of 21,000 as compared with Johannesburg’s 59,000. The Jewish population is mainly affluent, well educated and has a strong traditional and Zionist bent. Individual Jews were among the most vocal opponents of Apartheid. The Jewish community maintained good relations with the South African Government.