Impactful story of Progressive Jewry told in new SAJM exhibition

Rabbis Sherman and Weiler at the opening of Temple David, Durban in 1951

The SA Jewish Museum will be hosting the first exhibition on Progressive Judaism, Ground Breakers from 14 December until March 2021.

In text, photographs and video, the exhibition demonstrates that no history of South African Jewry is complete without an understanding of how this minority community broke new ground and impacted upon the majority.

The exhibition tells the story of a charismatic young rabbi, Moses Weiler, who in 1933 defied expectations by building a movement under adverse conditions in a deeply conservative community, and then managed to spread it from Cape Town to Salisbury. He pioneered many firsts that we now take for granted; the first bat-mitzvah — held in near secrecy, the first Jewish outreach to African townships, the first women on shul executives and the first interfaith dialogues. And more recently, the movement has gone places Orthodoxy can’t follow: women rabbis and same sex marriages.

Some interesting characters appear in the story: The movement’s founder in South Africa was Professor Avram Zvi Idelsohn, widely regarded as the world’s leading expert on Jewish liturgical music. He also happened to compose Hava Nagila. Rabbi David Sherman dominated the Cape Town progressive movement for half a century. So did his wife Bertha, the charming and vivacious ‘front of house’ to the movement, whom he married three months after hiring her as a Hebrew teacher.

Rabbi Andre Ungar spent his childhood hiding from the Nazis in Budapest. When he arrived in South Africa ten years later, he said he saw similar things happening here. For which the government promptly deported him.

The exhibition is based on the research of Irwin Manoim, from the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies at UCT, who has just published a book on the subject, Mavericks Inside the Tent.

Ground Breakers: A History of Progressive Judaism in South Africa will be on display at the SA Jewish Museum from 14 December 2020. The book Mavericks Inside the Tent is available from the museum gift shop. For more information please go to

Published in the print edition of the December 2020/January 2021 issue.
Download the Dec/Jan issue PDF here.

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