Caledon’s springs attracted Jewish settlers in the 19th century

The synagogue as a private home

by Gwynne Robins

Caledon is famous for its seven springs — one cold, six thermal — warmed by rocks heated deep underground to 49.5° C. As early as 1797, a bathhouse was built there, followed by a sick house and a sanatorium.

Understandably, Jewish immigrants spreading out into the interior looking for economic opportunities would be drawn to a village that was already hosting visitors and, as early as 1870, J Hurwitz, a smous (‘hawker’), and a Mr Brauer had settled there, followed around 1880 by Solomon Gordon who introduced ostriches, the Allegenskys, fishmongers, Mordechai Choritz and Isaac Newmark, general dealers, and Chaim Landaw, a shop assistant and Samuel Ressel, a bootmaker. Many Caledon Jews later owned local hotels or ran B&Bs, were general dealers, grain and wool buyers, ostrich feather dealers, shopkeepers and one, a cinema owner. Solly Perlo, proprietor of the Commercial Hotel served as mayor on several occasions.

When Dr Daniell published an article in the South African Medical Journal in 1894 praising the waters as a treatment for rheumatism, that put the village on the map. Poor immigrants complaining of rheumatism asked the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation’s Cape Town Jewish Philanthropic Society to send them to Caledon, but this turned out to be a costly treatment. When the society sent a young man to Caledon for treatment, it discovered that it had to pay thirty shillings for travelling expenses, £6 for a month’s maintenance at the Baths, £1.16.0 for Dr Daniell’s treatment, and £1.6.0 for board and lodging every nine days, and when it asked the presumably Jewish landlady for a reduction, she only agreed to give it a donation. When a second man with a wife and eight children in Russia also asked to be sent to Caledon, they gave him £3 and told him to make his own arrangements.

The ‘far-famed Caledon Baths’ and its visitors must have been good for business. A 1911 advertisement for the baths which was “of the utmost importance to humanity from a curative point of view”, stated the properties of which were “unexcelled throughout the world,” particularly for “most chronic cases of disease in which stagnation of the blood is the distinguishing feature.”

“Moreover, the Baths are situated in a district in which Titania and all her fairy court might well wander amid the natural garden of multitudinous heath. The Caledon Baths Company had built a splendidly appointed sanatorium and hotel with 100 bedrooms, several suites of rooms, 30 bathing rooms, nine reception rooms and a very large concert hall, where dances are often held, and a string band played frequently during the week. There are also two pianos in the hotel, three reading and writing rooms, and daily papers are in abundance. There are extensive vegetable and fruit gardens, and it houses its own butcher. Milk and butter are produced on the premises, as well as bread and other necessities. There is roomy stabling, and carts are for hire; a motor-garage is also attached to the Baths.”

With all these attractions, surprisingly, the community did not have sufficient committed religious leadership to buy land for a synagogue before 1925, and their synagogue was only erected in 1928, although Solomon Gordon had organised a minyan to celebrate the High Holy Days in the 1880s. In 1914, HM Grodzinski was the congregation president and Montagu’s Rev N Cohen was its mohel, cantor and shochet. In 1918, 18 members attended services. By 1933, they held weekly services and celebrating all chagim. At its peak, 40 families lived there. They managed to retain ministers until 1945.

Usually, one of the first things that a Jewish community does is to purchase a burial ground, but the baths must have kept the congregation healthy as they only got a cemetery quite late at an unknown date and, by 1947, it only contained seven graves with the last Jewish funeral taking place in 1955. Earlier Jews were buried in the Dutch Reformed cemetery or the bodies were sent to Cape Town. In 1995, the vacant section was given to the municipality in return for a commitment to look after the graves. A precast wall was erected around the graves two years later, once it was realised that the municipality was not doing so.

There were several antisemitic incidents with protest meetings against Jewish immigration in Caledon in the 1930s by the Nationalist Party, with Dr Donges (later state president) as a speaker, with Dr Verwoerd (later prime minister) at another. During the Second World War, there was a virtual boycott of Jewish shops with slogans on school blackboards, and the synagogue was vandalised.

Caledon, like all the country communities, started to lose its members as the children grew up and moved to the cities for education, to be followed later by their parents. In 1952, there were still 11 families with six children. The SAJBD provided Caledon with a subsidy to assist families who could not afford the cost of Jewish education. Its Country Communities subcommittee, with the help of Rabbi Duschinsky, tried to assist it with a minister for the High Holy Days and a minister to visit them once a week, and he suggested that the SAJBD helped by arranging cultural events to retain the interest and involvement of the community.

In 1955, the SAJBD loaned a Sefer Torah to the Caledon Hebrew Congregation. The SAJBD had established a Sifrei Torah Fund to assist country communities to obtain Sifrei Torah and later gave Caledon a Torah from the defunct Ladismith Hebrew Congregation. In 1957, the synagogue windows were smashed. By 1970, there was no longer a minyan, and in 1982, the Caledon Hebrew Congregation ceased to exist. In 1983, their Sifrei Torah was given on loan to the Camps Bay Hebrew congregation.

In 1994, the SAJBD’s Country Communities Subcommittee met with members of the Caledon community to adopt a new constitution and approve the sale of the synagogue to an Afrikaans man who wished to use it as a private home. The money was put into the Caledon Hebrew Congregation Bursary Fund.

The Country Communities subcommittee of the Cape SAJBD looks after the cemeteries of the defunct country communities. For queries or to get involved, contact Stuart Diamond on stuart@ctjc.co.za.

Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies website: www.capesajbd.org, Instagram, and Facebook page.

Published in the print edition of the February 2021 issue. Download the February 2021 issue PDF here.

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