The First Jews of South Africa

Celebrate the birth of a new Jewish community in a 'distant colony', from the new series where genealogist Rivka Goldblatt delves into the more interesting corners of the JC Archive

December 18, 2017 10:20

In January 1842, the Jewish Chronicle received a letter from Cape Town.


We are favored with an extract from a letter dated, Cape Town, Oct. 12, 1841, communicating the pleasing intelligence, that divine service had been performed there on the recent day of atonement, by the first minyan which has assembled in that distant colony. (A gentleman who had been wrecked in the Prince Rupert making up the number).

The day was characterised by great solemnity, many being present who had not enjoyed the like opportunity for many years. Such was the effect produced, that the whole body was immediately constituted a committee for the promotion of the Jewish religion in that part of the world. It was resolved to petition the governor for a grant of land for a burial ground, and a handsome subscription was at once paid down for the purchase of one, in case the application to the governor should prove unsuccessful.

The Prince Rupert, a cargo ship going from London to New Zealand, ran aground at Mouille Point. It was 9pm on 4 September. Most of the crew were rescued, and over 20 stayed in Cape Town. One of these was a Jew, and a community was born.

Life at the Cape was dangerous, with warring tribes and unexplored territory. The first thing the new community did was buy a cemetery plot. According to this 1859 article, they had to pay towards it.


Hithero, the congregation of Cape Town was the only one in the colony in possession of a burial ground, which was partly purchased at the expense of Mr. B. Norden, who is now a resident in London.

The article goes on to say that the congregation at Graaf Reenet, 665km from Cape Town, had now been granted a burial-ground too.

In 1844, the Jewish Chronicle was pleased to announce that it had four subscribers from Cape Town, as well as one from China. The same year, however, one man in this tiny community was killed trying to protect his land from, what the original 19th century article described as, "the Kaffirs".

Seventeen years later, in 1858, the community is looking for a minister.


The Committee appointed for the purpose of obtaining a Minister, &c., for the Jewish Community of the Cape of Good Hope, will MEET at No. 60, Gower-street, on SUNDAY, the 5th inst.,at 4 p.m., for the purpose of electing one of the nine applicants for the above situation, subject to the approval of the Rev. Dr. Adler.                                                                                              

(Signed,) B. NORDEN, Chairman

The Jewish population in South Africa grew to 4,000 by 1880. In 1885, a second community had established itself on Cape Town, and the original  community had grown:


The synagogue at Cape Town being about to be enlarged, the foundation-stone has been re-laid. The ceremony was performed by Mr. Bensusan, who addressed a few remarks to the congregation on the history of the synagogue. An appropriate prayer was offered up by the Rev. A. F. Ornstien. The alterations in the present building are somewhat extensive, and will cost altogether about £1,200.

In 1886 the Gold Rush began, and by 1914, the number was over 40,000. The Jews had arrived in the New Country – South Africa.

The Jewish Chronicle has traced the rise and fall of many communities over the years, and it is strange to think about how different the world was 150 years ago. We have even discovered new countries!



December 18, 2017 10:20

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