Mathilde Myburgh interviewed Moonyeen Castle, long-time supporter of Highlands House and Honorary Life Member as of 2022
I was born in Johannesburg, and lived in the early years in Cyrildene.
Things were so different in those days. I walked to Observatory Girls Primary School. From 12 to 17, I lived in Welkom, and those were the best years of my life. I am grateful that my parents made the decision to move — it was a small town, and the freedom was marvellous. I rode my bike all over, and I could run across the field to my friends. The Afrikaans and English children were integrated, and everyone mingled. I attended a convent in Welkom, where I learned new perspectives on our different ways of life and different faiths. While there may be upsides to growing up in a cocoon — such as improving your identity and sense of self and safety — I’m grateful that I didn’t. I think it is important to know about other lives and find the commonalities.
The move to Cape Town
I’m a teacher by profession and studied in Johannesburg. I came to Cape Town on holiday, and luckily the convent in Welkom contacted me to advise about a vacancy at Good Hope Convent in Hope Street, saying they needed somebody like me. The familiar surroundings were comforting, and I thought this was my chance. Teaching at the convent was a great experience. I was enriched by teaching children who were raised differently than I was.
My parents insisted that I stayed with family friends, but they agreed to the move, realising that the most important thing they could do for their child was to let her go, and I tried to do that with my children, too.
While I was teaching there, I met my husband. I was 22 — we met in May, we married in December, and 55 years later, we are still together. I continued teaching, even after we got married. I decided not to have children immediately but, when I did, I stopped working. Those days, you became a mother and reared children, and most women did not continue with their careers.
From mommy to president
I missed teaching, and I knew that I needed to do more than being a mommy and fetching children from school, so I got involved in various community organisations. I was a Joburger who got involved in Capetonian Jewish life, rising to Chairmanships and Presidencies. I first got involved with the Union of Jewish Women. We lived in Rondebosch those days, and my friend attended Bnoth Zion WIZO meetings and invited me along. Back then, it was newly founded and there was great need in Israel, and I walked into a wonderful group of women who had a purpose and focus. It was a privilege for me to be involved and rise, as I later became Chairperson of the Rondebosch branch, and then I was invited to the Executive, and later elected as Chairperson of Cape Town and, quite recently, I served as President of WIZO South Africa.
At a later point, I taught at the Holocaust Centre for a couple of years. That was another marvellous experience. Some children had never seen a Jew, and this space opened up their minds and hearts. It’s hard to try and help people who come in with a certain perception to think differently, but for some, it had a great effect.
Being the “first woman to… ” is not easy
In the 90s, I became the first woman in 104 years to serve as Chairperson of the Cape SAJBD. It was a challenge for the men, and my moves were closely scrutinised. Although there were women on the Board at the time, being led by a woman brought about frustration and inevitable change.
Being on the Cape SAJBD had wonderful benefits, including meeting wonderful people like Nelson Mandela and representing South Africa at the American Jewish Committee’s centenary conference, attended by George Bush, Angela Merkel, Kofi Anan and other prestigious world leaders.
At the 100th anniversary of the Cape SAJBD in 1994, I was the Vice-chair and Dennis Davis the Chair, and we had a celebration at a hotel in town with a special opening evening. We had a 100-year-old Jewish man who ran carrying the Olympic candle down the centre of the hall to Chariots of Fire. It was memorable.
I also later became the Chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation Cape Council.
I was involved with Afrika Tikkun, with the late Ann Harris, who did brilliant work. One has to give dignity to those who suffered indignity during apartheid, and one way to do that is to educate and uplift people, which spoke to my love of teaching and witnessing spiritual growth. We had a children’s aftercare centre and cooked thousands of meals for people.
The President’s Tea and the coffee shop
After my term for the SAZF, my friend Anna Berkowitz got involved at Highlands House and invited me along. It wasn’t the Home it became in more recent years. At the time, it had a grim reputation. It’s changed today and people seem happy. I enjoyed spending time with the residents and doing volunteer work. Anna was meant to be the President but, unfortunately, she stepped down, and that’s how I became President. I loved it. I held the President’s Tea once a month, and we’d have 12 or so people together, and Jenni Burnett (who’s still an active resident) assisted me. Residents could open up on a one-to-one basis and air complaints — and they weren’t shy. I’m sure food and air conditioning are still the two most-visited topics at the Home! Either it’s wonderful, or terrible — and there’s no in-between. I was grateful to Terry Berkow, who took over the Presidency from me. The committee I was part of did an incredible job and was a great group of people to be around.
I’ll never forget a woman who was put out at being admitted to Highlands House, feeling abandoned, blaming her son and not speaking to him at first. Later, she had to swallow her pride, phone her son and thank him. She grew to feel secure, cared for with good food and medical assistance, and she made friends. She was so happy she had come.
One highlight for me was the ideation and creation of the coffee shop. I pitched the idea to Harris Burman and we secured a donation. It brought a whole new dynamic to the Home because people were no longer stuck in their rooms, and friends and family had a place to enjoy their visit.
Harris Burman changed Highlands House in his time, cleaning up the organisation and modernising things. I respect Dr Leon Geffen and his medical background, and I believe he’s doing an incredible job with a new motivation and focus. He managed the COVID-19 pandemic incredibly well and ensured our residents felt safe and cared for and were vaccinated as soon as possible.
I hope for a bright, abundant future for Highlands House, and for many more people to get involved and feel that fulfilment.
Highlands House www.highlandshouse.co.za
• Published in the July 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.
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