Sterkstroom (Eastern Cape)

 

The village of Sterkstroom is situated in the Eastern Cape, 56 km north-west of Queenstown. It was founded in 1875 as a new parish for the Dutch Reformed Church. Low grade coal was mined nearby but in time, the main economic activity shifted to merino sheep farming.

Abraham Jacobson, regarded as the first Jew in Sterkstroom, came from Latvia in 1907. He became a farmer and shopkeeper. He later brought out many members of his family to add to the almost totally “”Kurlander”” (Latvian) community at that time. Jacobson was one of the founders of the Sterkstroom Jewish community and was chairman of the congregation for 15 years. Apart from his commercial interests as a general dealer, Jacobson was also a successful wheat farmer and cattle breeder and took an active role in local politics.

The first Jewish institution, established in December 1924, was the Sterkstroom Jewish Benevolent Society. Its purpose was to assist local Jews in need and to support other charitable, including Zionist, causes. In June 1925 the name was changed to the Sterkstroom Hebrew Congregation. The first chairman was Simon Henry Woolf. Abraham Jacobson succeeded him and served as chairman from 1927 until the congregation ceased to exist in 1942. No synagogue was ever built, but regular services were held in the home of Mr and Mrs Woolf. When they left Sterkstroom in 1927, the exodus of Jews had already begun and it became difficult to obtain a minyan (prayer quorum). Services were then held in the hall of the Dutch Reformed Church; services were also attended by Jews from the neighbouring settlements of Halseton, Bird’s River and Tarkastad.

Although a plot of land was donated to the Jewish community for use as a burial ground, no cemetery was ever consecrated; burials took place in Queenstown.

With the establishment of the Sterkstroom Hebrew Congregation in 1925, a children’s Hebrew Sunday School was started. Messrs Kruger, Wainstein and Woolf gave lessons at Mr. Woolf’s house.

Records from 1909 to 1929 indicate that Jews living in this district made regular contributions to a number of Zionist funds. The existence of a Zionist society in Sterkstroom was recorded at a congress of the South African Zionist Federation held in 1916.

By 1910 several Jews were involved in farming and cattle breeding. Jews were mainly shopkeepers, but there were also several hoteliers, a butcher and a baker and three doctors who lived and worked in the district.

Sterkstroom had no electricity before 1919 and the first building to enjoy this amenity was the Masonic Hotel owned by S H Woolf

Dr Louis Bass, who left Sterkstroom in 1942, was the national president of the Bnai Brith in 1976. The following year he served as vice president of Bnai Brith International.

In 1936 there were 24 Jews in Sterkstroom but by 1943 the number had dropped to 8. From 1956 to 1964 there were only 3 Jews. The national census for 1980 recorded a single Jew but community records for 1980/1 indicate that there were no longer any Jews in Sterkstroom.