Graaff Reinet, South Africa


Rabbi Silberhaft


Many thanks to Rabbi Silberhaft of the African Jewish Congress

From: The Travelling Rabbi
Sent: 01 February 2016
To: 'Eli Rabinowitz'
Subject: Graaff-Reinet


One of the loveliest places I visit is Graaff-Reinet, the fourth oldest town in South Africa and one with the third oldest Jewish community. It is surrounded by the Camdeboo National Park and is nestled in a bend of the Sundays River. It is appropriately called the ‘Jewel’ of the Karoo – a veritable oasis chosen for its beauty and ample water supply – and was founded by the Trek Boers in 1786.

Graaff-Reinet never had a Jewish population of numerical significance. The first was Isaac Baumann, a German Jew who lived in London but came to South Africa in 1836, followed by various members of his family.

A mercantile business was started by Adolph and Joseph Mosenthal, also from Germany, in 1842. They brought to Graaff-Reinet numerous members of their family and friends,some of whom joined their business while others started theirown concerns.

Michael Henry Benjamin from London settled in Graaff-Reinet with his wife, Rachel, in the mid-nineteenth century, around the same time as his relative Joseph Benjamin and Maurice and Louis Joseph. He became a marriage officer andjustice of the peace in 1853.

Edward Nathan, a trader and amateur musician, was mayor of Graaff-Reinet from 1862 to 1865 and chairman of its chamber of commerce. He served as secretary and later president of the Hebrew congregation. He was known for his philanthropy.

In the late nineteenth century, Mr Joseph Herbstein was born there, later moving to Cape Town where he was a judge of the Supreme Court. He was very active in Zionist affairs, as was his brother Philip, the first chairman of the Cape Law Society and the South African Legal Council.

The community was revived in 1941 with the arrival of Manfred Halberstadt, who became the voluntary spiritual leader and teacher of both children and adults until making aliya in 1967.

When the Jewish émigrés joined the gold and diamond rush, the Jewish population dwindled to 37, which increased to 82 in 1904 and dropped to 49 in 1954. In 1991 there were only five Jews left in the town.

Graaff-Reinet Jewry never had an official place of worship until 1954 when 13 families, through the generous sponsorship of Mr Joseph Miller, built a small synagogue next to the cemetery.

When it was consecrated, all 49 residents, civic dignitaries and rabbonim from all over, including one of my predecessors, Rabbi The Travelling Rabbi Dr Jacob Newman, were in attendance. Regular services were held and, on the High Festivals, Jews from nearby Aberdeen

took part. But the shul followed the path of so many in the country towns and closed its doors around 1968. It was sold to the Graaff-Reinet municipality as a shelter for the mentally challenged, with proceeds going to the Board of Deputies’ Trust Fund.

By the time I started visiting Graaff-Reinet, only Frank Horwitz, twice mayor of the town, and his wife, Brenda, remained. I knew them well and enjoyed their warm hospitality.

Frank passed away in 1999 and was buried in Port Elizabeth, while Brenda stayed on in a retirement home, becoming a household name as the sole Jewish resident in Graaff-Reinet, until her passing in 2005 when she was buried beside him. Brenda Horwitz Laan was named after her because of her significant contribution to the community. Brenda and Graaff-Reinet were highlights in my first SABC documentary The Travelling Rabbi. The name stuck and is now virtually my official title.

The small Jewish population in the town meant that burials in its Jewish cemetery were few. The cemetery was adjacent to a bowling club and in 1948, because of parking problems, the club gave notice of its intention to have the cemetery legally closed as it had been unused for 25 years. The community was naturally opposed to the removal of the remains of their forebears and the tearing down of their old cemetery. As fate would have it, a nesmin hashamayim (miracle from heaven) occurred at the eleventh hour when congregant Morris Seiham performed the last of his many mitzvot and died. He was buried in the cemetery, which, if you pardon the humour, gave the cemetery a new lease on life.

Jewish smouse or pedlars were a common sight in South Africa in bygone years and a plaque was erected to remember them.

The inscription, in English and Afrikaans, is ‘In honour of the pioneer Jewish pedlars known as smouse who traded in outlying and remote country districts. They supplied their customers with many of the necessities of life. In the course of their trading they made a contribution to the economic development of the country.’

It was originally cast in bronze in 1989 when it was first erected on a stone plinth at the southern entrance to the town.

Bronze proved impractical, however, and a temptation for would-be thieves when the plaque was stolen. At the behestof the Graaff-Reinet Heritage Association, I arranged for the plaque to be recast in granite to avoid future vandalisation.

The plaque was unveiled again at a special ceremony in June 2003 – still during Brenda Horwitz’s lifetime – attended by all

the town’s top dignitaries. I was honoured to preside over the proceedings, speaking about the history of the Graaff-Reinet Jewish community.

I paid tribute to the late Dr Anton Rupert of the Rembrandt Group, one of the famous sons of Graaff-Reinet. The billionaire, businessman and conservationist decided, as part of his love and appreciation of South African history, to have his home town declared a national monument. In so doing, he had the entire town upgraded. The old buildings were whitewashed and restored, while still retaining their original character.

It was not the end of the cemetery saga in Graaff-Reinet, however. Frank Horwitz succeeded in having the cemetery declared a national monument, which would ensure its protection for posterity, but the cemetery was in dire need of an upgrade.

Yet again, my department, several years later, undertook the mammoth task of restoring it. While the Board of Deputies would be responsible for restoring the cemetery, I wanted it to be part of Anton Rupert’s project. I took a flyer and dialled 1023 to find out the number of Dr Rupert in Stellenbosch. I then called the number and got a huge fright when he answered the phone himself. I was so shocked that I put down the phone! The Travelling Rabbi

After regaining my composure, I rang back, introduced myself and explained what we were all about.

Dr Rupert became very excited, remarking how refreshing it was to have a young man taking an active interest in history and our heritage – that, he said, was usually confined to older people. He was so enthusiastic that he offered to fly me down to Stellenbosch two days later in his private plane. I didn’t take up the offer, but made an appointment to see him at a later stage on one of my frequent trips to the Western Cape.

His sincerity overwhelmed me at our meeting. There were all sorts of businessmen and executives waiting to see him, but he gave me priority and our scheduled 45-minute meeting lasted nearly two hours. At the close of our discussions, he called for his cheque book and asked what I needed. My initial response was that I had not called him to ask for money. Thinking on my feet, I said that if he would like to make a contribution he could do so by publishing the South African Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth’s booklet on the history of Graaff-Reinet and the

Jewish role in the town. He agreed readily to this contribution and assisted in making the booklet, which was dedicated to him, available at Graaff-Reinet’s publicity centre. The inside front page depicts him standing with me in front of one of his Irma Stern paintings – he had the largest collection in the world.

In October 1999, the book was published, with an official launch at the headquarters of Rupert International. It is a professional publication entitled The Jewish Community of Graaff Reinet: A Brief History, complete with the coat of arms of the town and a Magen David in gold on the cover. The late Phyllis Jowell, one of the organisers of the South African Friends of Beth Hatefutsoth project, accompanied me, presenting Dr

Rupert with a book she had written on the history of Joe Jowell of Namaqualand, who had been a personal friend of his. Linda Behr, of Johannesburg, who had carried out research for the project, also flew down for the launch. She describes Dr Rupert as an exceptional and great man and gentleman, which I echo and add my own description of humbleness and sincerity.

We had regular telephonic contact until his passing in 2006, when I received a request from his office to attend the funeral in Stellenbosch. I couldn’t go, but sent my condolences in a carefully thought-out letter to the family, which I was assured was well received.

What a pity there are not more like Dr Rupert, who not only used his wealth wisely, but also gave so much of himself to the country. He has left an unparalleled legacy in South Africa and beyond and I was privileged to have known him.