Grahamstown (Eastern Cape)

Grahamstown is situated in the Eastern Cape, 128km from Port Elizabeth, and is the principal town in the farming district of Albany. The town was laid out in 1815 and became the centre of the British settlers in 1820.

The first Jews arrived with the 1820 settlers, among them Benjamin and Joshua Norden and John Norton, both of whom became well known in the Jewish and secular life of Grahamstown and elsewhere in South Africa.

Before the establishment of Jewish institutions, Jews met infrequently for a minyan {prayer group). The Grahamstown Jewish Community first met officially in 1843 and purchased a burial ground in the same year. This was the second formal congregation in South Africa, after Cape Town. The first Jewish marriage outside of Cape Town took place in Grahamstown at the house of Nathan Birkenruth in 1855. The marriage was that of Joseph Hess, of Port Elizabeth to Lina Schottenfels, the daughter of Isaac Benzion Schottenfels, a Jewish marriage officer for the Eastern Province. However, by 1870 the community had dwindled and very little formal congregational activity remained.

Congregational life was revived in 1901 when the Grahamstown Hebrew Congregation was formed. A synagogue was built in 1913, the third in South Africa after Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, and a communal hall opened in 1939 adjoining the synagogue.

Prior to 1901, Grahamstown was served by a shochet; cheder classes were held even before the establishment of the congregation, and Hebrew and religious instruction have been given throughout the years. The establishment of Rhodes University College in 1904 attracted Jewish academics to the town. Prof Schonland was director of the Albany Museum from 1899 and played an important role in the founding of the university. There were numerous Jewish professors and lecturers over the years, and Rhodes University offered Semitic languages and Jewish Studies. Hillel House was established in 1960 to cater for the social and cultural needs of Jewish students and scholars. Jewish residents participated in a wide variety of Zionist, cultural and charitable organizations.

From the arrival of the first Jewish settlers in the district in 1820, Jews played a major role in the economic growth of the town. They started out as farmers on the land allocated to the 1820 settlers, but most left farming and moved in to the town where they established themselves predominantly as merchants. Some were instrumental in opening up trade on the eastern frontier, with Benjamin Norden establishing trade links with Natal. Nathan Birkenruth was a director of the Frontier Commercial and Agricultural Bank in 1850. At the turn of the century many Jews were ostrich feather traders as well as general dealers and farmers. At that time there was a cigarette company manufacturing “Grahamstown Favourites” and “Little Bess” established by Abraham Radomsky. The town also boasted a fishmonger, aptly named Mr Fisher.

Grahamstown’s status as a judicial centre accounted for the number of Jews in the legal profession. As early as 1866 Simeon Jacobs became solicitor-general for the Eastern Province. Professor HG Lewis, former professor of Law at Rhodes University, was appointed judge of the Eastern Province division of the Supreme Court in 1945, as was the Hon. N C Addleson in 1966. Jewish residents covered the full spectrum of economic activities, such as hotelier, doctor, farmer, shopkeeper, theatre proprietor, and estate agent.

Chief Rabbi B. M. Casper represented the Jewish community at the opening of the 1820 Settlers Memorial on Gunfire Hill in 1974. The State President in his address referred to the exemplary spirit of the Jews.

The official census figures given are for the district of Albany and include permanent residents, students and lecturers at Rhodes University, scholars at boarding school and servicemen at the local army camp. They range from 188 Jews in 1904, to 179 in 1951 and 118 in 1991, whereas the community records indicate 140 Jews in 1943, 117 in 1953, 72 in 1964, and 50 in 1980/81. In 1999 there were 5 Jewish residents in Grahamstown.