South African Jews–Rachel R.

In 1652, a handful of non-professing Jews arrived in Cape Town, South Africa in spite of the laws refusing entry of non-Christians. The Dutch had previously colonized South Africa but had lost their land to the British. In the early 1800’s they reconquered South Africa and in 1803, granted religious freedom. This was important for the Jews because practicing as orthodox Jews was difficult until then. When England granted religious freedom in 1806, approximately 20 Jews arrived Cape Town. Later, many Jews immigrated from other European communities. Jews started out as peddlers and eventually became shop owners. Jews became a big part of society, enhancing fishing, shopping, products and gold mines. Between 1880 and 1910 the South African Jewish community prospered from about 4,000 to 40,000 people. Pro-Zionist beliefs spread amongst the Jewish community. In 1903, Jews successfully lobbied to allow more immigration of Jews into South Africa.

In 1841, the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation was founded after 17 Jewish men were available and became the first orthodox service in South Africa. Services took place in someone’s house. Several years later the first Jewish synagogue was founded. “The Cape Town Hebrew Congregation was founded in 1841 making it the oldest Congregation in South Africa and one of the oldest in the Southern hemisphere. It is regarded as the Mother Synagogue of South Africa and is a center for community events and celebrations. The Jews of Cape Town are homogenous. In other words, majority of the community is culturally similar. 80% of the community is Orthodox and the other 20% are Reform Jews. Most South African Jews are of Lithuanian descent. Today Cape Town is the second largest Jewish community in the country.

In 1912 two Jewish boards merged calling themselves South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD.) Even today, they are involved in helping synagogues and other Jewish institutions as well as legislation involving Jews worldwide. They keep a strong eye out in the worldwide media for any hints of anti-Semitism.  In addition, they keep close contact with nearly all if not all Jewish communities in the diaspora.

In addition to a generally Lithuanian or Ashkenazi community living and striving in South Africa there is also the Lemba tribe. The Lembra tribe has very similar customs to Jews, for instance they too follow the Torah, wear kippahs and have an Ark. Scientists have a genetic similarity between Jews and the Lembra people. Their Y chromosomes indicate an indication of Kohanim that genetics prove to only pass down on the male line. Their prayers are recited in a Hebrew-Arabic language. They don’t look that much different from the Christians or Muslims, however they claim that they were amongst some of the Jews who fled during the Assyrian empire. They hold a 700-year-old replica of the Ark that was originally made more than 3,000 years ago.

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