On September 26, 1841, southern Africa’s first Jewish community, the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation, met for the first time, for the Kol Nidre prayers of Yom Kippur Eve. More than 175 years later, this Orthodox synagogue is still in existence, and meets in the structure known as the Gardens Synagogue, situated in the Cape Town Botanical Gardens.
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The first significant numbers of Jews arrived in the Cape early in the 19th century, generally from Germany or the Netherlands. The impetus was that the Dutch East India Company, which sponsored much of the settlement, changed its policy to officially allow Jews to settle in the colony and conduct their religious lives publicly, in 1804. These were often commercial entrepreneurs, who in many cases, followed the Boer colonists inland, offering them the trading services and supplies they required.
Non-Jews buried for free
One of the key figures in the initial Jewish community was Benjamin Norden (1789-1876), who arrived in the colony in 1820, and moved from Grahamstown to Cape Town in 1839. Norden, who prospered as a merchant and land speculator, offered his home, Helmsley Place, at the corner of Weltevreden and Hof Streets, for that first Yom Kippur service in 1841, to which 14 men, three boys, and an indeterminate number of women showed up.
According to Solly Berger, the congregation’s current chairman, who wrote a long article about its history in 2005, the group convened for a second time on October 3, 1841, one of the intermediate days of Sukkot, this time at the home of Simeon Marcus. It was then that they formally established what they initially called the Jewish Community of Cape Town, Cape of Good Hope. From that date on, regular services took place, rotating through the homes of members.
Even before the community began planning for a building of its own, its members requested a piece of land from the municipal government for a cemetery. Apparently, it was the practice of the town to allocate land to churches for that purpose at no expense, but in the case of the Jews, city hall requested payment of £10. Not only that, but the parcel designated was adjacent to a slave cemetery. Both of these facts were perceived as an insult to the Hebrew Congregation, and its member withdrew their request for public assistance.
Instead, the members, with the help of a donation from Benjamin Norden, bought a piece of land outright in the suburb of Woodstock, where they established a Jewish cemetery, complete with a beit tahara, where bodies could be ritually prepared for burial. According to Berger, the first burial there was of Abraham Horn, who died in 1844, at age 41. The following year, the congregation registered its first birth – that of Charles Horn, son of Abraham, born to him posthumously.
Have lovers, but no rabbi
The shul’s first wedding took place in June 1844, and was unusual in that, due to lack of a Jewish clergyman with legal authority to perform the ceremony, the officiating clergyman was the senior colonial chaplain of St. George’s Cathedral, the Rev. George Hough, who graciously agreed to create a non-denominational service that didn’t make mention of the Holy Trinity. That service was then followed by a halakhic Jewish service.
In 1847, the synagogue hired its first fulltime rabbi, and in 1849, constructed its first purpose-built home.
With two big influxes of Jews to South Africa, in the 1860s and 1870s, after the discovery of diamonds and gold, respectively, and following 1881, in response to the persecution in the Polish and Lithuanian territories of the Russian Empire, two subsequent homes were built, in 1863 and in 1905. The latter, the Great Synagogue, which has room for 1,400 prayer-goers, remains its home today. Adjacent to it is the South Africa Jewish Museum.