Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa and was founded in 1886, when gold was discovered. Today it is the centre of the world’s most important gold producing region.
The first Jewish inhabitants came mainly from Britain and central Europe. Immigrants from Eastern Europe – predominantly Lithuania – soon followed. Lithuanian immigrants came to form the bulk of the city’s Jewish population.
In 1896 there were 6,253 Jews in the city, more than half of them from Eastern Europe. The first congregation in Johannesburg was formed in 1887 and the first synagogue built in 1888.
In 1892 the Johannesburg Hebrew Congregation built the Park Synagogue, which was opened by President Paul Kruger.
The synagogue served the community until the Great Synagogue (Wolmarans Street) was built.
By 1899 the Jewish population had risen to about 10,000.Some Jews were prominent among the “Uitlanders” whose demands for greater rights precipitated the South African (Anglo-Boer) War of 1899-1902.
The growth of Johannesburg’s suburban areas led to the establishment of many new congregations and synagogues. Today they number 52 Orthodox congregations, 3 Progressive and 1 Independent.
Jewish welfare work in Johannesburg is served by a number of institutions affiliated to the Transvaal Jewish Welfare Council, founded in 1949. The most important of these is the Chevra Kadisha, the largest Jewish philanthropic agency in South Africa.
The South African Zionist Federation was formed in Johannesburg in 1898, and the Zionist Centre built in 1958 became an important cultural centre.
Today’s Jewish population is estimated at about 40,000. Jews have been prominent in Johannesburg life from its earliest days. They were among the leaders of the gold mining industry and helped build up the city as South Africa’s commercial, industrial, and financial centre.