Jewish Life in Cape Town, South Africa

The city of Cape Town is a place of significance within Jewish history, for it is here that the Jewish community of South Africa established its roots and began to grow and flourish.

Cape Town was established in 1652 as the first European settlement within South Africa, and was initially designated as a supply station for Dutch ships that were sailing to Eastern Africa, India, and the Far East. It outgrew this original purpose and rapidly became the economic and cultural hub of the Cape Colony.

In 1820, a large number of British settlers immigrated to Cape Town, among whom were three Jewish families that all together made up about 20 people.

Later in 1841, these families, along with a handful of other individuals, established the first Hebrew Congregation of Cape Town, called The Tikvat Israel Congregation, and 17 men conducted the first Orthodox service in South Africa.

Thereafter, the community grew slowly and steadily. That is, until two valuable discoveries drastically changed the economic climate in Cape Town and resulted in a massive migration to the city. Diamonds were discovered in 1869 and gold was discovered in 1886.

These dramatic discoveries led to a fast and huge change in the overall population, as well as the Jewish population, within South Africa. In 1880, there were no more than an estimated 4,000 Jews out of a total white population of 474,309 (which made Jews less than 1% of the total). A mere 25 years later, the figure had leapt to 38,101 out of 1,116,806, which now brought the Jewish population up to 3.4%.

Jewish entrepreneurs and businessman were attracted to South Africa from all over the world. Because of the extensive Jewish trade network, Jews immediately became involved in the diamond and precious stones industry, many moving north from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

One famous Jewish South African entrepreneur was Barney Barnato. Barnato founded the De Beers Consolidated Mines for mining diamond fields. Of course, De Beers is a name that we still closely associate with diamonds today.

Presently, the Jewish community within Cape Town is the largest within South Africa, making up about 25% of the total Jewish population of the country. Many Jewish organizations and individuals from Cape Town played a significant role within the anti-apartheid movement during the mid 1900s.

One of the greatest and most famous leaders of the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela, wrote about Jews in South Africa, “I have found Jews to be more broadminded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.” Mandela’s defense attorney, Isie Maisels, was Jewish.

Cape Town’s largest synagogue at present day is the Gardens Shul, which was established in 1905 and seats over 1,400 people. In addition to the Great Shul, other Orthodox synagogues include the Green and Sea Point Hebrew Congregation, which has more than 2,000 members, making it the synagogue with the highest number of members in all of Africa.

Cape Town is also the home to several other significant Jewish sites, including the Jewish Museum, which contains a collection of ceremonial objects belonging to the original community members, and the Cape Town Holocaust Center, which is the only center of its kind established in Africa to combat anti-Semitism as well as all other forms of discrimination and prejudice.

While you’re in Cape Town you can also take a short trip outside the city to the Zaandwijk Winery, which is the only kosher winery in South Africa. It is a lovely way to toast to the goodness and generosity of the Jewish community in Cape Town, which donates more to Israel per capita than any other Jewish community in the entire world.

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