Kimberley, South Africa


Jewish Education in Kimberley


(written by Leon Chonin October, 2019)


With a comparatively small Jewish community in Kimberley, Jewish education was limited to three sources of Judaic instruction.

•The cheider school

•Shul services

•The youth movement.

No formal Jewish education was provided by government schools.

It was the tradition in Eastern Europe for the Jewish youth to attended what could be regarded as cheider as these schools fell under the control of the shuls. The Rabbonim administered and taught at the schools which only covered Jewish studies. My father who was born and educated in Utena, Lithuania attended a cheider. Secular schools were not officially open to Jewish children hence they received no tuition in other languages, the sciences or any of the arts.


When the Eastern European Jews migrated to Kimberley, they brought this tradition with them in order to ensure that their children would receive a Jewish education. However, attending government schools was not only open to the Jewish community it was compulsory to attend a secular school until the age of sixteen. It was therefore necessary to schedule cheider classes after the close of the government schools which was around 2pm in the afternoon. However, most government schools would then arrange for school sport to commence soon after the close of teaching classes. For many Jewish children this posed a huge problem because they could either enjoy their sport or otherwise choose to attend cheider classes after the school program. It was one of the reasons that not every child would attend cheider. There were also other activities that many children preferred over attending cheider such as dance, music lessons or other arts topics such as drama and elocution. Because the time restrictions precluded a curriculum that covered every aspect of Judaism, cheider classes tended to focus on teaching reading and writing of Hebrew, biblical studies and tefilla (prayer). There was no time to devote to the actual speaking of Hebrew. From memory I recall that classes were no longer than an hour and commenced after school around 2pm until around 5pm. The classes were divided into age groups and there were at least two teachers taking these classes. When Kimberley had two religious leaders during the time of Rabbi Goldberg both would take classes but after Rabbi Goldberg retired to the Cape the community was left with only one Hebrew teacher until Rabbi Werner was appointed when his wife who was also a Hebrew school teacher was also able to instruct some of the classes.

In 1950 the Community Hall and Cheider Classes foundation stones were laid, and Geraldine Auerbach recalls that when the classrooms opened in circa 1953 a female Hebrew (Ivrit) teacher was employed to supplement the religious teaching staff. Pictures of the classrooms together with the foundation stone for the both the classrooms and communal hall as well as others of the synagogue grounds can be viewed at: 


The boys were provided with barmitzvah lessons and the girls in later years when Rabbi Werner moved to Kimberley were offered batmitzvah classes. In 1955 Gwynne Schrire who was tutored by Rabbi Bloch was the first known batmitzvah in Kimberley. It was almost standard practice that once a boy or girl completed their barmitzvah or batmitzvah they ceased attending cheider for the very reasons already explained and also because furthering their studies in Hebrew offered no incentive in the secular schooling credits towards their matriculation. However, children who attended Jewish Day Schools in the larger cities and who wrote the Joint Matriculation Board examination were able to obtain credit for Hebrew in their final examination.

Daphne Gillis (nee Toube) confirmed that “most boys left after barmitzvah and the girls about the same time”. Daphne also recalls that Rabbi Jack Klewansky who was married to her mom’s sister, Lily was the Hebrew Schools inspector.

Above is the first Batmitzvah group of 1959 with Rabbi Werner: (from left to right) Pearly Goldenbaum, Pamela Hotz, Delia Brown, Josie Shapiro, Madeline Hammer, Sharon Werner and Brenda Frank in the foyer of the Kimberley Shul.


The shul service also offered a limited exposure to Judaism however the majority of congregants did not understand Hebrew and had to rely on the English translation. The Rabbi’s sermon was perhaps for those who did not attend cheider the only real lesson they received in Judaism but many of the young people would choose this time to exit the shul to socialize.

Although cheider classes provided instructions in tefilla it was very limited in scope and most of the Jewish youth finished their education without being able to conduct any of the services covering the morning, afternoon or evening prayers. While cheider provides a very basic level Jewish education it is far short of the results achieved by Jewish Day Schools for the reason that the hours of tuition are very limited. Active attendance at the shul was not a high priority not only amongst the youth but with their parent generation as well. There were a handful of religious congregants who attended every Friday night and Saturday morning and of those only a few could conduct a full service. Jock Awerbuck and I were the only two barmitzvah boys that I can recall that were able to conduct the entire Friday night service.


The youth movement was also another forum where some Jewish traditions were taught to the youth. During my period as Rosh Madrich of Kimberley Habonim movement the focus was more on Israel, Hebrew songs and social games.

The picture below from circa 1953 shows some of the youth in uniform who attended Bnei Zion (the forerunner to Habonim) while waiting for the inauguration ceremony of the first Jewish Mayor Gus Haberfeld.  In the background what came to be known as the Minor Hall is visible where the ‘Brochas’ were first held after the services. The young boys are Leon Chonin in the front, then Jock Awerbuck, Stanley Eberlin, and further back could be Leonard Hammar; the girls in front were the Garsh sisters, Gill and Brenda. We can also see Beverly and Lynette Buirski. The Madrichim are Leslie Stein, Maureen Kroll and Sarah Cohen.


Since secular education was segregated within the White community between English and Afrikaans speaking students and between boys and girls, the majority of Jewish students attended the English schools of Kimberley Boys High or Kimberley Girls High and their feeder primary schools Belgravia Junior and Kimberley Junior Schools. Those who could afford private education attended the only two that were Roman Catholic controlled namely Christian Brothers College (for boys) and Convent Girls High. Many Jewish students from the surrounding rural areas and from smaller towns and villages would be enrolled at the school hostels that were Francis Oats House (FOH) and Bishops House for boys and Beit House for the girls.

Some government schools offered Christian religious instructions, but Jewish students were not required to participate and were allowed to excuse themselves and use this period for homework preparation. Where separate classrooms were not available the Jewish students would have to sit in the back rows of the class which regretfully did expose them to Christian theology and their interpretation of the Old Testament. It was also a daily requirement to attend assembly at the start of the day which opened with Christian prayers followed by school announcements. Jewish students were not expected to be present during the Christian prayers but needed to be present for the school announcements. I recall in my earlier years that during Christian prayers the Jewish students gathered in one classroom for reciting tefilla which on occasion was led by the Reverend but in my later years at high school this practice seemed to have discontinued and it became a social gathering. Geraldine Auerbach confirms that a very similar program was followed at Kimberley Girls High.

Because Jewish students were permitted to stay away from school on all Jewish holidays as it was expected that they should attend shul services. Geraldine Auerbach recalls that shul attendance during Jewish holidays was bolstered by the youth who at least became familiar with the prayer service.


There were some incredibly talented Jewish academic students and thanks to the efforts of Marvin Cohen, a former FOH boarder from Upington, we are able to publish the information gathered from the Kimberley Boys High School (KHS) major scholastic and sporting achievement boards. KHS had erected a number of these boards which engraved on an annual basis the Dux Medalists, the Honours Board for excellence in sport and leadership, the Head Prefect board and the Springbok Board. During the initial years of the school’s establishment matriculation boards had also been erected but were discontinued after a number of years.

Focusing solely on the academic achievement board called the Dux Medalists who were scholars who had excelled in their studies the following list of Jewish students have been identified from their names. It is however possible that the names listed below from 1892 to 2008 while resembling Jewish surnames may not necessary be of Jewish origins.

It should also be recognized that Kimberley High School was initially a co-educational institution until Kimberley Girls High was established.

Dux Medalists:

1904  Sarah Liebson

1906  A Liebson

1916  L Broude

1918  L David

1924  G Bartlett and B. Bennett

1931  L. Schrire

1932  C. Edelstein

1933  V. Schrire

1942  I. Maresky

1948  L. Maresky

1950  P. Freeman

1953  D. Rosenberg

1956  T. Toube

1959  H. Hecht

1960  C. Witepski  (Michael)

1967  N. Kurland

1976  I. Boiskin

1978  A. Goldstone and E. Jacobsohn

1979  J.E. Shles

1981  J.B. Klein

1991  A. Chin

It would appear that over the period of 116 years approximately 20% of the students were from the Jewish community. Civic awards were also presented to Samuel Klein, Trevor Toube, Harold Hecht, Michael Witepski at Kimberley Boys High and Brenda Frank and Josie Shapiro at Kimberley Girls High.

It is also interesting to note the following outstanding achievements from the Jewish scholars.

Honours Board for sport and leadership achievement:

1988  D. Datnow

1991  A. Chin

Head Prefect Board:

1988  D.A. Datnow

Springbok Caps Board:

F.C. Smollan

W. Rosenberg

Both South African rugby players

Considering the very small Jewish community in Kimberley the academic excellence displayed by its youth was absolutely incredible. A number of these scholars went on to record even greater achievements and some have already been mentioned in other articles written on this website.

The picture above displays the Civic and Dux medals awarded in 1931 to Louis Schrire and in 1933 his brother, Velva (Val) Schrire also won the Dux Medal, as well as the Kimberley City Council award for the top student in Matric in the Province. Val also completed his Hebrew Matriculation examination, as did Helen Maresky (the first girl to do this) in 1933 when both were tutored by Rev Konvisser of the Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation.

You can read about the brothers, Louis and Val Schrire, under ‘Families’ on the website


Jewish education is a very vital ingredient in promoting ties to religious life as in very many cases those who chose not to attend cheider classes were at risk of assimilation and loosing their Jewish identity. I witnessed assimilation within my own family and the risk escalated where Jews lived in very small rural communities or towns. It was one of my motivating reasons for not returning to Kimberley after I completed my university qualifications. I was adamant that my children would attend a Jewish Day school at least during their primary years in order to provide them with a solid foundation in Hebrew and Judaism.

Today I regret moving my children from King David Primary to a government high school not only because it cut short their Jewish studies, but the academic excellence provided by the Jewish Day Schools exceeds the standard offered by many of the government schools. In fact, my younger daughter was subjected to peer bullying at the government school because she was a bright student who excelled in her studies whereas her peers lacked the incentive to strive for excellence and wanted her to conform to their standards of achievement.

In hindsight I believe that opportunities could have been pursued to have included Jewish studies in the matriculation curriculum for children in the smaller towns and rural areas like Kimberley by either correspondent courses or expanding the cheider program. Jewish education is at the centre of the struggle to prevent assimilation and as the South African Jewish community shrinks because of emigration the greater should the emphasis be placed on promoting the Jewish Day School movement.  I am proud that my grandchildren all attended Jewish Day Schools in the United States and in Canada. It has instilled in them the love of Judaism and of the Jewish people. They have all visited Israel and have developed a bond with the ideals of the Jewish people. They are able to proudly identify themselves as practicing Jews and will be able in time to take leadership roles in their respective communities.