Cape Town (Western Cape)

Cape Town is the legislative capital of South Africa and capital of the Western Cape. The Dutch East India Company founded the city in 1652 as a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope. Although the company rules only allowed Protestants, there were a few Jews in Cape Town in the late 17th Century.   In1669 two of these settlers converted to Christianity in order to work for the Dutch East India Company.

After the British occupation of the Cape in 1806, a steady flow of Jewish immigrants arrived from Central Europe and England and later, in larger numbers, from Eastern Europe.

Cape Town is the second largest Jewish centre in South Africa and has a community of around 20 000.

As the oldest Jewish community in South Africa, Cape Town’s organized communal life provided the pattern for the future development of South African Jewry. The Cape Town Hebrew congregation, the first in South Africa, dates back to 1841. The first synagogue was built in 1849 and was called Tikvath Israel (‘hope of Israel’ – a reference to ‘good hope’). The present Great Synagogue was inaugurated in 1905.

For many years, Cape Town was the principal center of Jewish communal life in South African. In 1904, the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies was formed in Cape Town. A year later, a corresponding body was formed for the Transvaal and Natal. These two organizations merged in 1912 to form the SA Jewish Board of Deputies. From the early days of the Zionist movement in South Africa, Cape Town was a centre of Zionist activity.

With the discovery of diamonds in Kimberley and the development of the Witwatersrand gold fields, however, there was a northward shift of the population.

Most national Jewish organizations have their head offices in Johannesburg, on the Witwatersrand. But there is a strong emphasis on Cape autonomy from more distant Johannesburg Jewry, and this desire for autonomy characterises much of the history of Cape Jewry.

Jews have made significant contributions to the cultural and civic life of Cape Town. These include the Max Michaelis Art Gallery, the de Pass collection in the South African National Gallery, and the Mendelsohn library, one of the most important collections of Africana, presented to the nation and stored in the Houses of Parliament. The Liberman doors in the South African National Gallery were commissioned and presented by Joseph Liberman, who was mayor of Cape Town from 1904-1907.

In 1969, there were 12 Orthodox synagogues in the city and two Reform temples. In 2003, 18 Orthodox and four Progressive congregations were recorded. Among the welfare institutions are a Jewish orphanage and old-aged home. The Zionist movement, especially among the youth, is vibrant. The main charitable organization is the Jewish Board of Guardians.