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Cape Town’s Old Synagogue, the first synagogue built in South Africa in 1863, which since 2000 has housed the South African Jewish MuseumAriadne Van Zandbergen/Alamy
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The Future of Jewish South Africa

Three neighborhoods offer different visions of the community’s place in the ‘Rainbow Nation,’ three decades after the end of apartheid

John Besche
March 22, 2023
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Cape Town’s Old Synagogue, the first synagogue built in South Africa in 1863, which since 2000 has housed the South African Jewish MuseumAriadne Van Zandbergen/Alamy

On a Shabbat morning in Johannesburg this past January, about a dozen people braved the summer heat to daven at Temple Israel Hillbrow. The synagogue has striking art deco motifs and a midcentury modern interior but no air conditioning. Many at Temple Israel pray in the same well-worn leather chairs where their own kids used to sit. Midway through a dvar Torah, or sermon, on the scourges of corruption, racism, and the government’s refusal to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the lights went out.

“Ah, well,” shrugged shul chairwoman Reeva Forman, who was giving the dvar Torah. She carried on, calling up the youngest in attendance to read a prayer for South Africa.

Many of the congregants are grandparents, and their adult children—those who haven’t emigrated on account of the rolling blackouts and the economic uncertainty—are often wary of bringing the grandchildren to shul. Hillbrow exists in the popular imagination as one of the most violent urban areas in Africa. Temple Israel Hillbrow, a Progressive (think Reform) congregation of about 30 members, is the last active synagogue in the city center once known as Jew-hannesburg.

Johannesburg—locals also call it “Joburg” or “Jozi”—remains a hub of Jewish life in South Africa. The country has just over 50,000 Jews, which, while less than half the peak population of 120,000 in the 1970s, is still the 12th-largest Jewish diaspora in the world. And those left behind, those who have not fled to Australia, Israel, or the U.S., are now engaged in a series of internal migrations that are reshaping Jewish life in South Africa every bit as much as the exodus to other countries. While still centered in large cities, they are moving and sorting in ways that will be familiar to Jews elsewhere, ways that have a lot to say about race, economics, and the shape-shifting realities of Jewish demographics, in South Africa and throughout the diaspora.

Broadly speaking, there are three possible iterations of a Jewish urban future in South Africa. There are those usually politically progressive, liberal Jews, who remain committed to the old Jewish neighborhoods. Then there is a group of Jews who, swept up in a religious revival in the 1960s, built a yeshivish, or highly observant, Orthodox enclave in Glenhazel, a northern Johannesburg suburb. Finally, there is the cosmopolitanism of Sea Point, a wealthy, oceanfront Cape Town neighborhood, thick with cultural Judaism and amenities but with less observance or political passion.

Under the system of apartheid, which ended in 1994, society was divided into White, Black, Asian, and Coloured (referring to predominantly mixed-race Afrikaans speakers). The system designated Jews as White, and, generally speaking, Jews benefited from this position. But they were uneasy about it. Many post-WWII immigrants were uncomfortable with the ruling National Party’s Nazi sympathies and the apartheid state they maintained. Jews also stood on the front lines of change; to take one famous example, Helen Suzman, a Jew, was the only opposition member of South Africa’s parliament for over a decade, and is remembered nationally as an icon of the anti-apartheid movement. Jews’ relationship with apartheid remains complicated, and the post-apartheid Jewish urbanism of Johannesburg reflects that.

Joburg Jews once lived in the center city, in neighborhoods like Hillbrow. After apartheid ended in 1994, Jews mostly resettled in the city’s northern sprawl toward Sandton, a ritzy patchwork of gated communities that is Africa’s richest square mile. Hillbrow got left behind, and today it’s hard to convince an Uber driver to take you there. To such fears, Reeva Forman formed antlers with her hands and cooed: “Oooohhhh, verrrry scary.”

Forman, who runs a cosmetics company in addition to chairing Temple Israel Hillbrow, zips around Jozi in a white BMW. She’s one of many in Joburg to style herself as a maverick. Sure, she snickers at the potholes and the road rage resulting from nonfunctional traffic lights. But she has no inhibitions about Hillbrow. Originally from the old Jewish neighborhood of Doornfontein, Forman gushes with pride when she tells people about her parents’ pharmacy where, in stark contrast to other businesspeople, “they served everyone.”

Driving around the half square mile of uniformly 10-story, concrete-forward apartment blocks, Reeva lowers her window to chat with people on the street corners. Her commitment to Hillbrow derives from her sense of Ubuntu—a Bantu word for “humanity” that has become a philosophy in its own right. Ubuntu preaches a collective sense of responsibility toward all people. She thinks of it as tikkun olam, but she takes it a step further. Forman believes the role of Jews in South Africa is to help actualize what Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the “Rainbow Nation,” a post-apartheid vision for a harmonious multiracial democracy.

“The Jews have an obligation first to their own, and then equally to those who are not Jewish on our doorstep in Hillbrow,” Forman said.

For Forman and many in the congregation at Temple Israel Hillbrow, sticking it out in the old neighborhoods is the way forward for South Africa’s urban future. They are among many to allude to Hillbrow as an urban technology for upward mobility. The Jews were once immigrants and so now are the Nigerians and Zimbabweans, Forman says.

“What happened with Johannesburg is sort of similar to what happened to places like Detroit,” according to Irwin Manoim, a historian of South African Jewry. “The center of the town imploded, and people kept [migrating] to the suburbs. And that’s the reason why the Jews and every other community kept moving … Hillbrow started falling apart for reasons unrelated to the Jews. It started falling apart, if one wants to call it falling apart, as apartheid started falling apart. Ten or 15 years before the end, what happened was Indians and Coloureds were moving illegally into areas like Hillbrow … It was also partly a demographic thing in terms of the fact that people living in Hillbrow at that time were all the older generation, who hadn’t moved with the younger people that moved to the suburbs, which is where the schools were.”

In response to the political anxieties and dislocations of the time, says South African Jewish Museum Director Gavin Morris, Johannesburg experienced an Orthodox religious revival. Foreign rabbis of the Ohr Somayach movement promoted a return to Orthodoxy. That community gained a foothold in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg with an epicenter in Glenhazel, where one now finds kosher sushi, private security, and a yeshiva. Glenhazel is much more religious than other Jewish suburbs in Johannesburg, or just about anywhere else in South Africa.

In large part due to Glenhazel’s population, 48% of Johannesburg’s Jews identify as Orthodox, compared with only 22% in Cape Town, according to a survey by the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town. Think of Cape Town Jewry as 20th-century American Jewry on the Upper West Side, or Beverly Hills—attached to their Judaism, less attached to their shul.

Historian Milton Shain chalks up much of the Cape Town/Joburg religious divide (in jest) to topography. Relaying a quip from former Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, “the reason Joburg is more religious than Cape Town is that in Cape Town they have a mountain and nice walks.” Cape Town is flanked by beaches and wineries. Johannesburg is a bit “sharper,” to use Morris’ term. All agree that Cape Town and Johannesburg are the future of South African Jewry (and that the Jewish community in Durban, South Africa’s third-largest city, will disappear within a few generations). Cape Town’s primary Jewish neighborhoods, Sea Point, Vredehoek, and Gardens, are constrained by mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. Sea Point, at the end of Helen Suzman Boulevard, is extremely cosmopolitan, boasting stylish oceanfront condos and an upmarket New York-inspired noshery. Though Sea Point is widely perceived to be Cape Town’s “Jewish neighborhood,” it’s one of the most diverse in South Africa. Along with Jews, you can find substantial populations of Chinese, English (as they call white South Africans who don’t speak Afrikaans), and Black South Africans.

These three distinct Jewish communities reflect three Jewish responses to the “Rainbow Nation” hopefulness that was so widespread when apartheid ended. In Hillbrow, the Jews are staying, hard up against the non-white people who have become the overwhelming majority in their area. They value diversity, and still see it as a template for the South African future—one to which Jews can contribute. In Glenhazel, Jews are, similarly, staying put, and committing to a particular Jewish role, one that emphasizes not integration, but internal cohesion. And in Sea Point, many Jews live in a micro-Rainbow Nation—or if not, then it’s a metaphor that has outlived its usefulness.

“There is a very particular trajectory of that term [Rainbow Nation],” said professor Adam Mendelsohn, director of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town. “It falls out of fashion. In fact, it’s in a way connected with the fortunes of the [African National Congress] itself. That and that we already see during the [President Thabo] Mbeki period, but very much during the [President Jacob] Zuma period, that sort of a reracialization of political discourse by the party, as its fortunes become increasingly troubled.”

Post-apartheid Jewish urbanism in South Africa thus points toward three distinct futures: the Ubuntu Jews of Hillbrow, the yeshivish of Glenhazel, and the cosmopolitanism of Sea Point. Still, the majority of South African parents want their children to study abroad. In each of these scenarios, Jewish life in South Africa is touch-and-go, anticipating a moment where it becomes untenable, or anxieties reach critical mass. In 2021, 555 South Africans made aliyah to Israel, the highest number since 1994. As for the others, well, many have their bags packed for that other aliyah, the one with a better coastline: They are looking toward Perth.

John Besche is a traveling writer who reports on religion, urbanism, the confluence of the two, and a little bit of everything in between.