The history of Durbanville’s Jewish community

The opening of the Durbanville Synagogue, 1927

By Gwynne Robins, Senior Researcher, Cape SAJBD

Pampoenkraal (Pumpkin Patch) was a fresh water spring 30km from Cape Town that made a convenient stopping-off place for travellers going to the interior, and provided a fulcrum for commercial activity.

A village was laid out there in 1806 and in 1836 was given the more dignified name of D’Urban, after the British Governor. The spring provided the town with water until 1950.

Meanwhile, in 1824, the Jewish traveller, Nathaniel Isaacs who had developed a good (if uneasy) relationship with Zulu chief Chaka, gained the chief’s mark on a document giving permission for people to settle on land at Port Natal. This settlement was renamed Durban in 1835; but as D’Urban and Durban could be confusing, D’Urban was changed to Durbanville in 1886.

With a good water supply, Durbanville became a farming centre. Nathan Scher arrived in 1892 and later brought out his mother and three brothers. All went into dairy, cattle and sheep farming, as well as cultivating vines providing grapes to KWV. In addition to Jewish farmers, general dealers, speculators and businessmen also settled here. Samuel Borok arrived in Cape Town from Lithuania in 1914, getting work delivering meat on a bicycle. He crashed, the meat went flying into the dirt and the butcher sacked him. He then moved to Durbanville and got a job washing wine bottles for the Basson family’s Oxford Hotel and three years later, with borrowed money, he bought the hotel and made a great success of it. During World War II, Louis Lerer — Samuel Borok’s young barman — was awarded the Military Medal. After the war Louis went on aliyah.

These families left their mark on the town. Both Samuel Borok and his son Sonny became deputy mayors of Durbanville, and street names now commemorate the contribution of Jews to the town. There is a Scher Street, a Borok Road and a Schus street. All three served on Durbanville’s first synagogue committee — Scher was a farmer, Borok a hotel proprietor and Schus a garage owner. The descendants of at least three of those committee men — the Schers, the Boroks and the Spiros (Swerling’s nephew) — settled in Israel.

The synagogue’s foundation stone was laid in 1926 and the synagogue, designed by Town Clerk T Chenoweth and built by the Baxter brothers on a piece of land initially rented from the Dutch Reformed Church, was opened the following year.

Samuel Borok, congregation president, donated money to purchase the land for the synagogue. The Borok family also donated two menorot made by Vicky Scher’s father, Boris Surowsky, in memory of her mother; as well as a Ner Tamid in honour of Vicky and Nokkie Scher’s marriage in 1953.

Durbanville’s small community of between 20-28 families could not afford a cantor and choir, but its minister, Rev Dorogow, made an indelible impression on his students, particularly Gessie Borok, Nokkie Scher, and Norman Spiro, providing them with Yiddishkeit and a love for the Hebrew language. All three of them later went on aliyah. For many years Nokkie was the Durbanville Synagogue’s Ba’al Tefilla.

Roy Scher, Nokkie’s son, became Telfed’s Jerusalem Regional Head. When Norman and Nokkie spoke on the phone, they would invariably rattle off the Sedra of the week.

In 1954 the community purchased the ground and adjoining properties, including a nearby house from the church warden of the Dutch Reformed Church, 2 Scher Street. Originally built in 1901 by the King brothers, it had a veranda with a concave corrugated iron roof with closed ends, and a four-panel front door with a three-paned fanlight. Rev Dorogow lived in this house and when he left, an Israeli couple would visit and conduct the services on chagim and Shabbat, and would stay in the house which still remains
Shul property.

D’Urban and Durban were not the only confusing names. The synagogue was on Church Street, the Wagon works were on Scher street and the railway station was on Station Street. There never was a railway so it was renamed Voortrekker Street, and Durbanville Avenue, a quiet road running through the town, became the R302 double carriageway.

In 1970, Vicky Scher was involved in a motor accident — she survived but her mother-in-law Golde, her daughter Hannah Reichlin and her daughter-in-law Judith Scher were killed. Her father-in-law Abie Scher donated a Sefer Torah to the shul to commemorate their names and two of his grandsons read their bar mitzvah portions from it. Later the family went on aliyah, the Sefer Torah accompanying them to Ramot, and six of his great-grandchildren have read from that same Torah.

As is apparent, the Durbanville community were staunchly Zionist. Each year the Ladies Zionist Society would organise a dance in the town hall with different themes. Those events were patronised by their non-Jewish neighbours, with whom they had good relations. All new brides were given a year’s free subscription to the Ladies’ Zionist Society. As the Capetonians regarded the Durbanville branch as being ‘out in the country’, they were expected to provide fruit and vegetables to their stall at the annual Bnoth Zion Association fete. Unfortunately Durbanville was not a vegetable farming area, but the Capetonians did not realise that. Rather than disillusion them, they would go to Cape Town’s Epping market early in the morning to buy fruit and vegetables, and would also bring along konfyt that two Afrikaans women made in the Schers’ kitchen.

Eta Scher recalled, “Everyone would say ‘Oooh! You can see these are fresh from the country.’ One year a friend and I took my husband’s truck from the farm at 4 am to the Epping Market. We took our purchases back to Durbanville to the shul hall where we packed it up and took it to the fete where everyone thought they were wonderful fresh vegetables straight from the farm — we did not tell them the truth. Solly was annoyed at us for using his lorry.”

When they tired of the fruit and vegetable charade, Durbanville ran a doll stall, and for weeks beforehand, the women would meet to make dolls’ clothes. They also arranged for an Afrikaans window dresser they knew to design their stall for a Best Dressed Stall competition.

Eta watched the community dwindle and their activities diminish until the once-strong group was doing very little. In the end, the Durbanville Zionist women’s branch closed and she was the only one who went through to Bellville for the meetings of the Tygerberg branch.

The reverse happened to the synagogue. When numbers started to drop and it became difficult to get a minyan, the Bellville Congregation (that was also having difficulty) would travel to Durbanville for joint services, finally closing and amalgamating to form the Durbanville-Bellville Hebrew Congregation in Church Street in 2011. After the amalgamation they built a function-room on shul property.

Although the membership has suffered over the years, the Durbanville Bellville Hebrew Congregation is still an active congregation with services on Friday nights; and thanks to Raymond Klitzner and Ivan Klitzner, they are able to have most festivals, such as High Festivals, Purim, Shavuot, Simchat Torah and Chanukah. These are followed by functions in the hall which provide the community with the opportunity to socialise and maintain their strong feeling of community.

First Shul committee 1927. Standing: Philip Scher, Solly Swerling and Abie Scher; Seated: Hillel Emdin, Samuel Borok (President), Hirsch (Harry) Schus
2 Scher Street, Durbanville (picture: Nigel Amschwand)

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

• Published in the PDF edition of the November 2021 issue – Click here to get it.

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