The Jews of Johannesburg
A look at one of the largest Jewish communities south of the equator
South Africa: the name evokes different reactions in different people. Many frum Jews think of South Africa as dangerous, frightening, even life-threatening. But other people, especially former South African residents, will tell you of the beauty of their native home, the comfortable living conditions, and the attractive, well-appointed homes. What is South Africa really like? Is it a hotbed of violence, as we have been led to believe, or is it a wealthy, upscale country where frum Jews are free to live and work as Jews?
As frum Jews, we are often most concerned with the success of the frum community in any given land. The genteel, refined products of this country give us a good indication of the level of Torah education in this area of the world. Is the frum community still thriving in this exotic country, even with the exodus of so many of its members?
A Study in Contrasts
South Africa is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, blessed with thousands of miles of coastline and a plethora of natural resources, including gold, chromium, coal, iron ore, manganese, nickel, phosphates, uranium, gem diamonds, platinum, copper, salt, and natural gas.
It’s is a country of stark contrasts: black and white, Mercedes cars and donkey wagons, lavish marble palaces and leaky tin sheds. It is the proverbial snake in paradise. While white citizens comprise less than ten percent of the population, for decades they have held the position of “baas,” firmly in control of the country’s wealth.
When Rabbi Yossy and Rebbetzin Rochel Goldman arrived in South Africa from Brooklyn in 1976, locals described the situation as “sitting on a volcano.” Planeloads of doctors and engineers, butchers and bakers, were fleeing for the United States, Australia, England, and New Zealand, desperate to make their escape before the big eruption.
Now the day of reckoning has come and gone. White citizen rule has been replaced by a more tolerant regime that allows free movement of blacks to the cities, where lack of work unfortunately drives thousands to theft and murder. The major problem facing Jews now is how to survive the violence.
“Everyone knew that there had to be changes; the ratio of blacks to whites is twelve to one — but no one knew how the changes would affect them,” Rebbetzin Rochel Goldman explains. “Today, many of those who fled in fear twenty years ago are coming back. South Africa is an incredibly beautiful country. The standard of living is high; many homes boast a private swimming pool, and most families have at least one maid. It’s a wonderful place to call home.”
Perhaps — but less so when you have to surround your home with barbed wire and electrified fencing.
Jews of Many Stripes
Out of a population of close to 50 million people, there are now only about 70,000 Jews left in South Africa (the remnants of 120,000 Jews during the ’70s), a minuscule 0.02 percent of the general population (Jo’burg, as Johannesburg is nicknamed, has about 66,000 Jews). The rest have fled. The majority of that 0.02 percent is of Lithuanian descent.
“Due to the community’s predominant Lithuanian makeup, Sephardim and Chassidim were few and far between when I was growing up,” Avraham B. recalls. “Forty years ago, my first sighting of a chassidishe Yid with a long beard and coat almost knocked me over — especially as he was accompanied by a little boy. It struck me as strange that this regular-looking kid would one day grow into such an unusual-looking personage.”
Unfortunately, Jewish education was neglected for many years.
Mrs. Mary Kropman, a long-time resident of Johannesburg, describes how the city’s Jews finally began building up a Jewish educational system:
“The first Jewish elementary school that survived, King David, was established in 1948, followed by a high school in 1955. Today, King David Day School is one of the largest Jewish day schools in the world.”
Unfortunately, King David is noted more for its academic excellence than for its standards of religious education. In the ’70s, for example, the school had a compulsory morning minyan which incorporated everything from Adon Olam to Aleinu. However, there was no mechitzah; boys sat in the back and girls in the front.
“One day the chief rabbi was invited for Shacharis, and you can imagine his shock at this state of affairs,” Avraham B. says. “Unable to get a mechitzah set up, he at least organized that from now on the boys would sit in the front and the girls in the back.”
The Yeshivah College was a step in the right direction.
“In the mid-1950s,” Mrs. Kropman relates, “Rabbi Michel Kosovsky, a European talmid chacham who had fled to South Africa during the Holocaust, and Rabbi Yosef Bronner, a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbi Chaim Berlin who had settled in South Africa after the war, founded Yeshiva College, which for the last forty years has been headed by Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, a graduate of Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland.”
Nowadays, the Modern Orthodox community that has grown around Yeshivah College is probably the largest kehillah in Jo’burg. Up to a thousand people daven in the kehillah on Shabbos, at four or five different minyanim.
Another firmly committed frum community in Jo’burg is the kehillah created by the German Jews who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
“When I first walked into Adass during the mid-70s,” Avraham B. says, “one of the first things I noticed was a portrait of Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch hanging prominently on the wall. He was the shul’s guiding light. Founded in 1936 by German-Jewish immigrants who were dissatisfied with local shul, Kehillas Adass Yeshurun was a true Torah Im Derech Eretz community in Johannesburg and the frummest shul in town.”
Until the 1990s, Adass Yeshurun was located in the Yeoville (jokingly known as “Jewville”) section of Johannesburg, which in its heyday boasted eight synagogues, two Orthodox day schools, bookstores, kosher bakeries, and restaurants, as well as a beis din.
“Unfortunately, the yekke children were leaving, and with them went the kehillah’s lifeblood,” Avraham B. explains. “The day of doom came during the ’90s, when non-yekke members complained that they were tired of the yekke minhag of reciting long Yotzros on select Shabbosos. This was put to the vote, and the anti-Yotzros faction won.
“After the black takeover, black South Africans began moving into Yeoville (under Apartheid almost no blacks were allowed to live in Johannesburg proper), and the Jews fled to wealthier suburbs such as Glenhazel, Fairmount, and Gardens. Adass Yeshurun reestablished itself in Glenhazel, but in name only — today, there are only two surviving yekke families in the whole city!”
The original head of Adass Yeshurun, Rav Yaakov Salzer, was a talmid chacham widely recognized as one of South Africa’s foremost halachic authorities. His son, Rav Yosi Salzer, now heads the new Adass in Glenhazel. Adass Yeshurun succeeded in creating an oasis in the spiritual desert of South Africa, planting the seeds for the flowering of the baal teshuvah movement several decades later.
Riding the Teshuvah Wave
Another pivotal event of Johannesburg’s Torah development was the arrival of the world-class Gaon Rav Moshe Sternbuch, shlita, presently head of Jerusalem’s Eida HaChareidis, whose monumental Teshuvos VeHanhagos responsa is based largely on sheilos he received while leading the Torah Center shul in Yeoville. There was also a kollel opened by Rav Tzvi Lieberman, who, like Rav Salzer, was an alumna of the Pressburg Yeshivah in Europe. In 1975, Rav Lieberman decided that what South Africa needed was a kollel, and he opened one with six members.
“The kollel was opened just in time to catch the wave of the growing teshuvah movement,” Avraham B. says. “During the famous Monday night sessions, cars lined both sides of its Observatory Avenue location, and hundreds squeezed inside to slake their thirst for Torah.”
Johannesburg’s teshuvah process was eased by the fact that South Africa is perhaps unique in having almost no Reform or Conservative Jews.
“Most Jews in my day were perfectly happy to attend Friday night services at an Orthodox synagogue, followed perhaps by a Shabbos meal, buy their meat at an Orthodox butcher, and feel that they were in perfect alignment with a hazy tradition stretching back to some mountain called Sinai,” Avraham B. relates.
Why are Jo’burg’s Jews so accepting of the “rigors” of Orthodoxy? Because it accommodates them, explains Rav S. Suchard, a dayan in the Johannesburg beis din.
“The Orthodox shuls take in everyone,” he says. “In Eretz Yisrael only frum people go to shul, but in South Africa you can be non–shomer Shabbos and still go to an Orthodox shul. In the U.S. a non–shomer Shabbos would be a second-class citizen, but here people want to belong to an Orthodox synagogue even if they are not Orthodox, so we don’t drive them to Reform.”
Rabbi Yossy Goldman, now rav of the huge Sydenam Shul, which features a professional chazan and a choir, talks about the impact of the baal teshuvah movement on the area’s mainstream Orthodox shuls:
“Over the years, many, many individuals and families have changed their lives, embracing a fully committed Jewish lifestyle. Many wonderful people in my own congregation who became shomrei Shabbos joined different shuls within walking distance of their homes. I consider these losses to be my greatest successes.
“The baal teshuvah movement is so successful here that almost every family has at least one member who has become frum. On the whole, there is a healthy respect between baalei teshuvah and their families. In the past, I was often called upon to counsel families where a son or daughter’s newfound Yiddishkeit was perceived to be the cause of family rift. Today, baruch Hashem, I rarely have to do this, as it’s become acceptable to have a family member become frum.
“This is precisely the reason I accepted the invitation to serve as senior rabbi at Johannesburg’s largest shul. Since the city’s beis din manages kashrus, giyur, gittin, and more, the congregational rabbi is afforded much more time to devote to education and inspiration — or, as I like to call it, the ‘marketing’ of Judaism as opposed to the ‘management.’
“Here in Johannesburg, all the rabbis of mainstream synagogues such as mine are into kiruv. The number of shomrei Shabbos is steadily increasing. Back in 1976, a shomer Shabbos was considered by many to be meshuga frum. Today, the term is used with respect and admiration for people who were prepared to change their lifestyle for principles.”
Despite its kehillos of all types, Jo’burg Jewry is united under one beis din.
“We are very fortunate because there is only one beis din and only one kashrus agency,” says Rav Suchard. “Even those who want to be more mehadrin are under the wings of the beis din. We incorporate them; we don’t fight, and we use the same facilities. The beis din is open to people who, for example, want to keep yashan, issuing notices of what is yashan and what is not.”
A Bleak Future
The way things are going, the Jewish community might well be on its way to extinction — about 1,800 South African Jews still leave for Israel, Australia, Canada, and the States every year. Although forty families recently returned, this was more than counterbalanced by two planeloads of Jews who left for Israel. This exodus is due not only to lack of livelihood, but even more to black violence.
“Crime is our single biggest problem,” admits Rav Goldman. “Fifteen years ago, when my wife was coming home from grocery shopping, a carjacker jumped into her van and pointed a gun at her, demanding the keys. Our youngest child, then two years old, was belted into the car seat in the back. Rochel, who has the incredible ability to remain calm no matter what, quietly told the criminal that she would give him the keys as soon as she took her baby out of the car. But the carjacker was nervous and pulled the trigger. Thank G-d, the gun failed, and the criminal fled. We are eternally grateful to Hashem for this miracle.
“But life carries on, and we manage. Every Shabbos and Yom Tov I walk home at night through a park, and, baruch Hashem, I’ve never had an incident. Although crime is definitely a serious problem, it’s not nearly as bad as people overseas imagine, and visitors to South Africa are pleasantly surprised.”
In the face of police inability to handle the situation, the Glenhazel-area Jews took the law into their own hands.
“South Africa’s chief rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, established the Community Active Protection (CAP) to combat crime in the major Jewish neighborhoods of Johannesburg,” says Mrs. Mary Kropman. “This includes a high-tech control room which monitors surveillance cameras and handles all crime-related calls. Armed guards patrol the streets in tactical vehicles or are on duty at specific stations. During the Jewish holidays, CAP increases its patrols, enabling the frum community to walk the streets freely.
“Sometime ago, my granddaughter and I arrived at her home and found it being ransacked. We immediately alerted CAP. They arrived within minutes, whereas it took the local police two hours to get there.”
Will this stopgap measure propel Johannesburg’s kehillos into a magnificent future, ad bias goel tzidkeinu? Only time will tell.
The History of South African Jewry
The first minyan ever held in South Africa took place on Yom Kippur 5602/1841, when seventeen Cape Town Jews joined forces in a local home. The first bar mitzvah was eight years later, the bar mitzvah boy’s bris having been performed just a year earlier since until then there was no one in the country qualified to do the job.
Jews poured into the country between 1880 and 1910, with nearly 36,000 Lithuanian Jews fleeing pogroms and persecution landing on South Africa’s shores and prospering.
“Touching our coreligionists of Cape Town,” a local Jew wrote in 5651/1891, “our noble selves may be described as consisting of two classes, those who attend shul and those who don’t. There are three sections amongst us; the highest are the big shopkeepers, the second are the small shopkeepers, and the lowest — well, we have no lowest. The conditions of life are eminently comfortable, and existence is not a very difficult problem with the majority…
“It is only due to write that the slights and heart-burnings the poor labor under in other places are almost unknown here. Practical men, skilled artisans and the like would not make any sacrifice in coming to these shores. ‘Golden South Africa’ will be something more than a mere phrase.”
“The baal teshuvah movement is so successful here that almost every family has at least one member who has become frum.
“When my wife was coming home from grocery shopping, a carjacker jumped into her van and pointed a gun at her, demanding the keys. Our youngest child, then two years old, was belted into the car seat in the back.”