Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

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16 Tammuz 5760 - July 19, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Reform Jews In South Africa Withering Away

by Yated Ne'eman South African Correspondent

Recent demographic surveys of South African Jewry show the non-Orthodox grouping -- particularly in Johannesburg where two-thirds of the entire Jewish community lives -- to be aging and steadily diminishing in numbers.

Once an active and aggressive movement that grew steadily from its founding in 1933 until it comprised between 15% and 20% of the total of religiously affiliated Jews in South Africa by 1960, Reform Judaism had clearly begun losing ground by the mid-1970s and has continued to decline in the years that followed. The latest statistics on brissim, marriages and burials reveal the South African Reform movement outside of Cape Town to now be an increasingly irrelevant fringe group with few young adherents.

In 1999, burials in the non-Orthodox community amounted to roughly 18% of all Jewish burials countrywide. By contrast, only 8% of marriages took place under non-Orthodox auspices and a high proportion of these are likely to have been mixed marriages in which the non-Jewish partner had undergone a Reform conversion. Reform in South Africa insists on some "conversion," unlike Reform in the United States.

An even more revealing statistic was the number of births, in which the ratio of children born to Orthodox-affiliated parents compared to Reform and Conservative parents was around 30 to 1! In 1998, the last Reform kindergarten in Johannesburg was forced to close down and Netzer, the Reform Jewish youth movement, had to cancel its annual end-of- year camp in 1999 because of insufficient registration.

There are three Reform temples in Johannesburg and one small Conservative congregation. The latter broke away from the mainstream Reform movement in 1992 in order to introduce more traditional Jewish practices but was subsequently forced to relocate to a converted house because of diminishing numbers. Many former members have since joined Orthodox congregations. Reform is more vigorous in Cape Town, comprising about one- quarter of the community there which in turn comprises about one- quarter of South African Jewry as a whole. The overall community is also in a decline, falling from 130,000 in the 1970s to between 80,000 and 90,000 today.

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