Keepsakes from our Country Communities

Silver Torah shield from Robertson

By Gwynne Robins

Recently, our Chairperson Tzvi Brivik toured some of our country communities, accompanied by Executive Director, Daniel Bloch and Programme and Development Manager, Craig Nudelman.

They visited Jewish sites and cemeteries in Ceres, Wellington, Stellenbosch, Hermanus, Strand and Somerset West, receiving a warm welcome everywhere.

In Somerset West they were given a wonderful artefact to add to the Board’s collection of memorabilia of country communities — a solid brass key from the Strand-Somerset West synagogue, possibly dating to its erection in 1923. At 220mm long and weighing 220g, it was solid enough for a shammas to have been tempted to use it to brain a recalcitrant congregant!

It will join other country community memorabilia originally given to the Jewish Museum for historical and sentimental reasons, and then handed over to the Board (as Museum trustees) as these did not fit into the parameters of the new South African Jewish Museum. Today they are proudly displayed and beautifully mounted in purpose-built cabinets in the Samson Centre and in the Albow, honouring the memory of once-thriving communities.

There is a common pattern to most country communities. A smous visits a few times, sees economic possibilities, settles down, brings out his family, is joined by other Jews and within a short time the village has a Jewish general dealer, hotelier, butcher, bottle store, doctor, pharmacist and lawyer. They consecrate a cemetery, build a synagogue and Talmud Torah. The children grow up and leave for university. With qualifications lacked by the immigrant parents, they settle in the cities instead of opening a small country shop, are followed later by their ageing parents and soon there are not enough Jews left in the village for a minyan. The Board then steps in to assist in closing down the congregation, establishing a trust fund with their assets according to their wishes. Often the benches, bimah, Sefer Torahs would be donated to other congregations in South Africa or in Israel, but some artefacts were donated to the Jewish Museum.

This is not the only key in our collection. We have the ceremonial key of the Malmesbury Hebrew Congregation, presented to Rev A P Bender on 16 May 1912. First settled in 1880, with a cemetery donated by an Afrikaans farmer in 1922, its synagogue closed in 1974 and is today a museum. By 1890, Wellington had a sizable Jewish community with a cemetery consecrated in 1903, and a synagogue — according to its ceremonial key — dedicated on 23 August 1922, and later sold to the Apostolic Church. Paarl is still a functioning congregation but we do have the ceremonial key presented to Rev H Strelitz on 29 August 1920 when they opened their Talmud Torah. We also have the key presented to Advocate Morris Alexander KC MP, at the opening of the Upington Jewish Communal Hall on 3 June 1937.

We have the ceremonial trowel presented to the Rev AP Bender, on 24 March 1926, used to lay the foundation stone of the Worcester synagogue where Jews had been living since the early 1860s, as well as its glass wine decanter, donated when the synagogue was deconsecrated in 1994. Used for so many happy chagim and Shabbats, it is now on display in the Samson Centre as is the EPNS kiddush cup from Riversdale, donated when they sold their synagogue in 1960. The cup was presented to the congregation by the children of B. Rose who died in Riversdale c. 1903. Riversdale had been settled as early as the 1870s, consecrating a cemetery in 1886.

An indication that the Jews even in the small towns kept their traditions, is the boxed schechting knife used by A. Mandelbrote, who died in 1948, the Schochet and teacher in Cradock and Noupoort. Cradock first settled around 1900, consecrated its cemetery in 1905, its first synagogue in 1914 and a larger one in 1928, which was closed in 1986, becoming the head office of the SAPS dog unit! As for Noupoort, which first settled in 1900, it was always too small for a cemetery or synagogue, and their last Jew left before 1973. Small as it was, they still employed Rev Mandelbrote to provide them with kosher meat.

The pride of our country community collection is undoubtedly the beautiful gilded silver Torah shield from Robertson, with its projecting Tablets of the Law engraved with the Ten Commandments and flanked by two gilded filigree pillars and rampant lions. Robertson too was settled in the 1880s by the East European immigrants. We also have Robertson’s ceremonial trowel used for the shul’s foundation stone built as early as 1896, the same year its cemetery was consecrated.

The Board still keeps a watchful eye over these cemeteries and was concerned when Hermanus and Oudtshoorn tombstones and the Wellington taharah house were desecrated. In the past year we have met contractors on cemetery sites, and visited or were in touch with people regarding repairs to the Caledon, Ceres, Malmesbury, Montague, Oudtshoorn, Paarl, Piketberg, Robertson, Strand/Somerset West, Uniondale, Wellington and Worcester cemeteries. We also donated money towards repainting the Uniondale Synagogue (now a museum), the refurbishing of the Piketberg Synagogue (now a museum), and assisted Mooreesburg’s Wheat Industry Museum’s curator.

Most of these communities have closed down, but the Board still cherishes the heritage, the memories and the final resting places of their founders.

Disclaimer: This article is provided for informational and educational purposes. It is not all-inclusive and its authors accept no liability for any errors or actions that may result from a particular understanding of its contents. For queries contact Tyla at

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