Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Adar 5764 - March 18, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Shema Yisrael Torah Network











Changes in South African Jewry
by D. Saks

The dramatic demographic shifts in the South African Jewish community over the past half-a-century were underlined in the latest national census findings. Conducted in 2001, the census put the Jewish population at just under 75,000, down from a high of 120,000 in 1980. Of these, over 95 percent resided in the major urban centers, mainly Johannesburg and Cape Town.

The once thriving Jewish communities in the small country towns, most of which at their height managed to maintain a shul and community hall, a full-time rabbi, cheder and sometimes even a mikveh, have all but disappeared. Tiny pockets of Jews, totaling no more than 2500 mostly elderly souls, remain scattered in various country towns, but in only a handful of cases is it possible for these to come together for a minyan, even on the Yomim Noraim.

Caring for the religious needs of Jews in the country has been the provenance of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies since the early 1950s, at which time the country communities were already in serious decline. Much of the Board's work today consists of maintaining the more than 220 Jewish cemeteries in the rural areas, which in the absence of any local Jews to look after them have been vulnerable to natural deterioration and acts of vandalism.

Under Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, Spiritual Leader to the Country Communities, a new system is being instituted whereby the matzeivos, instead of standing upright are laid flat in a bed of concrete, similar to the custom in Israel. The measure has thus far proved highly effective in preventing damage to the stones.

South Africa is divided into nine provinces. The provinces with the largest number of Jews living outside the major urban centers are Western Cape with 900, and North-West Province with 440. In the geographically large but arid and sparsely populated Northern Cape, by contrast, a mere 23 Jews were recorded as living in the smaller towns, and little more than a hundred overall, out of a total population of nearly 900,000.

The story of country Jewish life in South Africa is not only one of decline, however. Certain communities on the southern coast of the country have actually grown in recent years. One of these is Hermanus, whose shul reopened its doors a few years ago after having ceased operating a decade previously.

Plettenberg Bay's growth has been even more surprising. The picturesque coastal town, a favorite of vacationers from all over the country, today boasts not only a full-time rabbi but also a kosher deli, the latter being the only such facility outside of Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Another one of the country communities still functioning is that of Oudtshoorn, once described as the "Jerusalem of South Africa" because of the strong and active Jewish community that resided there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The district is famous for ostrich farming, and the international ostrich feather boom of a century ago enabled many recent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to make their fortunes.

Oudtshoorn celebrates its 120th anniversary this year, and the remaining Jews in the town, along with Jewish leaders from around the country, will be taking part in the official celebrations in November.


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