Barberton lies at the foot of the Makonjwa Mountains in De Kaap Valley in the Lowveld, in the Mpumalanga province (the former Eastern Transvaal). In the late 19th century, gold was discovered in Barberton and the surrounding areas. Many Jews were among the diggers who flocked to the gold fields from other parts of South Africa.
The Jews in Barberton held regular services and formed the first Hebrew congregation in the Transvaal. By 1885 there was a Jewish cemetery in Barberton. A Jewish school – the first in the Transvaal – was also established in the town.
During the 1890’s, the Barberton reefs got poorer and were soon overshadowed by the discovery of the Witwatersrand reef with its vast deposits of ore and its greater accessibility. As a result many diggers moved on to Johannesburg and a depression set in Barberton. Jewish communal life slowed down, and by 1894 the Hebrew School had already closed.
Jews were engaged in a range of economic activities in Barberton – prospectors and gold-mining activities abounded. There were also stockbrokers, solicitors, hoteliers, tavern-keepers, musicians, a chemist, a doctor, a tailor and a newspaper editor.Sir Harry Graumann was one of the pioneers of the Barberton gold fields. He established a large financial and mining firm under the name of Cohen and Graumann. He later became the first Jewish mayor of Johannesburg in 1909, a Member of Parliament in 1915 and was knighted in 1923.
Philip Wolfers, appointed rabbi of the town in 1889, was the driving force behind the establishment of the first Jewish school in the Transvaal in Barberton. Official census data shows that in 1904 there were 77 Jews in Barberton. In 1936 this figure had dropped to 26 and by 1951 there were only ten Jews living in the town. This increased to 28 in 1980, but in 1991, only 14 were recorded.