It wasn’t what I expected to hear from the little old Evangelical Christian lady.
“I went to Springbok (a town in northwestern South Africa), and I saw a lovely synagogue. But someone told me that there weren’t enough Jews to have a congregation anymore,” she said. “It’s sad. Why aren’t there Jews in Springbok? It’s such a lovely synagogue.”
Her lament over the Springbok synagogue is not the only one over a closed synagogue in South Africa.
South Africa’s Jewish community today is very concentrated in the country’s major cities. The largest number of Jews – and Jewish congregations – is in Johannesburg; numerous congregations also exist in Cape Town, Pretoria, and Durban. Smaller large cities – Bloemfontein, East London, and Port Elizabeth – have a congregation, as do some smaller towns, such as Paarl (which I studied), Oudtshoorn, and Stellenbosch.
Yet South African Jews, until the 1950’s, were far more widespread. Congregations existed in small towns throughout the country: from Springbok to Welkom, Calvinia to Polokwane (Pietersburg). In the 1930’s, one could find Shabbat minyanim in locations as diverse as worldly Cape Town and tiny, countryside Wellington eighty kilometers away.
So why did these synagogues close down? One answer is that Jews did not want to live in the dorpies and hoekies of South Africa anymore. Though many Jews started out as small-town traders and shopkeepers – a profession highly romanticized by later historians – their children, who were generally better-educated and very assimilated into European South African culture, sought better jobs. Those jobs were in the big cities: and so to Cape Town and Johannesburg Jews went.
Right-wing Jews will tell you that certain political changes caused emigration to Israel that gutted small-town communities. That’s not true: by the time large-scale emigration to Israel and the United States occurred, most small-town Jewish communities were already gutted. The truth is, no Jews wanted to live in Koffiefontein or Springbok.
Many larger communities, however, suffered from emigration in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Some Jews left because they couldn’t stand apartheid or the insularity of White South Africa – among them, my father, many activists, and many young people. Others left for economic security after a deep recession in the 1970’s. A few, like my grandmother, were ardent Zionists. And, though this gets glossed over by many, many Jews left because…they weren’t quite so excited about the new, democratic South Africa. It’s a hard truth.
And what happened to the synagogues Jews left behind for Tel Aviv, Sydney, and Toronto? Many were forced to shut, and many congregations merged. Jews became even more concentrated within certain neighborhoods – and other neighborhoods’ synagogues suffered.
The city hall of Pietermaritzburg - whose (much smaller) synagogue closed in 2001 | Image in the public domain
I am writing this from the mid-sized city of Pietermaritzburg – a provincial capital and not small by any means. Its synagogue – once bustling – closed in 2001; the nearest synagogue is now eighty kilometers away in Durban. The congregation hit the perfect storm: many Jews went for better job opportunities in larger cities, many emigrated, and many went to areas with more Jews. Despite the presence of the provincial government, a strong university, and other industries, there were not enough Jews for a minyan.
Yet the memories of these closed synagogues still remain. Jewish symbols remain emblazed on buildings that now act as nursery schools, apartment houses, shops, or even parking lot offices. Older residents of a given town might remember a small Jewish community; older Jews might remember excited holiday celebrations in these small towns. At Shabbat dinner tables, reminiscences are exchanged. The synagogues are not quite dead – not in the minds of South Africa’s Jewry, at least.