Jewish South Africa: A Brief History

The South African Jewish community traces its origins to the influx of a large number of British settlers in 1820, among which were three Jewish families and a handful of individuals. In 1841, seventeen Jews organized the first Hebrew Congregation in Cape Town, the Tikvat Israel Congregation. The community grew slowly but steadily until the discovery of diamonds (1869) and gold (1886), combined with the massive worldwide migration of East European Jewry at the end of the 19th Century, saw its numbers being dramatically augmented.

As the community grew, both in numbers and influence, Jewish communal institutions began to emerge. The South African Zionist Federation was founded in 1898, only one year after the inaugural World Zionist Conference in Switzerland.

Today, there are approximately 70,000 Jews living in South Africa out of a total population of some 45 million. Around 90% of the Jewish population lives in either Johannesburg or Cape Town. Most South African Jews are of Lithuanian descent, their ancestors having arrived in South Africa between 1880 and 1930. Smaller groups have come from the U. K., Germany (particularly in the 1930s) and, from the mid-1970s, Israel and Zimbabwe.

The community, though currently stable in size, has been in steady decline since reaching a peak of 119,000 according to the 1980 census, something which can be attributed to the political uncertainty of these years and, of late, to an unprecedented rise in domestic crime. Recent surveys have revealed that a high proportion, around 20%, of those who have recently emigrated return to the country.

Despite its diminishing numbers, the Jewish community remains cohesive and well-organized, with a highly developed network of educational, welfare and Zionist institutions. In the religious sphere, South African Jews are overwhelmingly affiliated with Orthodox congregations, comprising some 88% of the total, even if the majority of those who attend are not fully Orthodox in their own practice. Around 80% of Jewish children are currently enrolled in the Jewish day schools with many of the remainder attending private colleges.