Stellenbosch, South Africa


The Jewish Community Looks Back

Southern African Jewish Genealogy Special Interest Group Newsletter

Vol. 4, Issue 4

June 2004

Myrel Ginsberg

Myrel Ginsberg, a well-known Stellenbosch resident wrote this article for the local Stellenbosch newspaper, The Eikestadnuus.

This article was originally published in The Eikestadnuus on 10 December 1999 and is re- printed with permission.

This will not be an accurate history of the Stellenbosch Jewish Community. We hope that it will provide glimpses into the past of Jewish communal achievement. It is with grateful thanks and pride that we draw the curtain on the “stage of the past”.

Like Simon van der Stel 200 years before, the founders of the Stellenbosch Jewish Congregation, recognised the unique beauty of this valley and began to settle here in approximately 1900. It is recorded that in 1903 the first religious services were held in a building in Bird Street, between the present Rennies Travel and Foreign Exchange and the University Art Gallery.

The small nucleus of Jewish families, then mainly business men and farmers, were gradually joined by others. When the Bird Street prayer building became inadequate, the leaders purchased the ground and house then known as Callabassenkraal. In 1923 the cornerstone of the present synagogue was laid by the late Rev. A. P. Bender. Mr. Boet Zetler recalls that the then Mayor of Stellenbosch, Mr. Charlie Neethling, placed a few “tickey” coins under the cornerstone, presumably for “good luck”!

One of the early congregants was a Mr. Sam Meyer who was a craftsman of repute. It was he who made the synagogue pulpit and benches which gracefully adorn the synagogue and serve the congregation to this day.

The congregation was led by various religious leaders in the years that followed. However, it was the late Rev Isaac Pakter who held office from 1950 to 1972 who helped the community to grow, flourish and reach a membership of some 85 families. Under his leadership, inter- denominational services were held bringing Jews and Christians together in a spirit of understanding and mutual respect. The late Prof W. J. van der Merwe and his theological students frequently attended synagogue services.

The Dutch Reformed Moederkerk and the Jewish Community took turns annually to entertain each other. This “toenadering” of Jew and gentile did much to build bridges and generate inestimable goodwill.

This goodwill was never better demonstrated during the Yom Kippur War in Israel in 1973. The day after was broke out, Rabbi David Lapin held a service in the synagogue which was also attended by many prominent non-Jews who all expressed shock and support for Israel. The pianist Lionel Bowman offered his services and the University provided the Conservatory for a recital. All the proceeds were sent to the was effort.

There is scant information in our records as to the building of the communal hall adjacent to the Skuinshuis and synagogue. We know that it was built in 1932 and became the focal point of all Jewish communal life. Many a joyous wedding and Bar Mitzvah was held in the hall and all religious festivals were celebrated in the “Talmud Torah” hall.

The Callabassenkraal House, now known as the Skuinshuis (because of its angle to Ryneveld Street) for a short while was occupied by the Reverend of the congregation. It was then let to various tenants but soon became very run down. It was then refurbished and used as a meeting place by the Jewish students attending the Stellenbosch University. Many a lively and often controversial meeting took place there.

The teaching of Hebrew and the education of the children was always a top priority and from the very beginning Jewish children were taught Hebrew and instructed in Jewish customs, traditions and the ethics of their forefathers. These Cheder classes were the responsibility of the Reverend of the day.

SA-SIG Newsletter, Vol. 4, Issue 4, June 2004 Page 11

The women of this community always stood by their men in all communal matters. In the early 1940’s a branch of the Union of Jewish Women of SA was founded and today, some 60 years later, the Stellenbosch Branch of the UJW is still alive and active. The Union works for and is of service to all sections of the community, irrespective of race, colour or creed. There is excellent co-operation with other local welfare organisations and committees and the Union gives generously both financially and supportively.

Two celebrations of significance bear highlighting. In 1950 under the leadership of the late Rev. Pakter, the Golden Jubilee of the Congregation was commemorated in suitable style. Rabbi I. Abrahams, chief Rabbi of Cape Town addressed the congregation. The choir from the Gardens Synagogue added their magnificent voices to the service. At that time there were some 85 families in the congregation. In 1973, with Rabbi David Lapin as our spiritual leader, the 50th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the synagogue was celebrated with a banquet held in the Communal Hall. At this celebration the late Frank Bradlow, a member of the Simon van der Stel Foundation was the guest-speaker. And it was at this function that the Stellenbosch Jewish community pledged itself to the restoration of the Skuinhuis. This community felt that it was their duty and privilege to restore this historic house to its former beauty and glory and in this manner express in some small measure their appreciation to fellow South Africans for their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War.

It took from 1973 to 1980 to achieve this restoration and on 1 December 1980, the late Mr. L. Ginsburg, chairman of the congregation for 25 years, unveiled the National Monuments Commission’s plaque declaring the restored Skuinshuis a Historical Monument! What an occasion! What an achievement! Especially as the congregation had dwindled from 85 families in 1950 to only 20 in 1980!

There is no doubt that the restoration of the Skuinshuis and all it means to Jewry, to Stellenbosch and to South Africa was the most significant achievement of this congregation during the past century!

These glimpses into the past have deliberately not highlighted any one particular person, but I now

bring onto the stage a most refined cultured and unusual person: the late Felix Gut. Felix was a man of great intellectual strength and sincere conviction. Having narrowly escaped the German concentration camps, Felix dedicated himself to collecting and assembling as complete a collection of books, articles and stories on the Holocaust as he could. These covered a period of 20 years and he presented them to the Stellenbosch University. The Gut Collection of over 300 books on the Holocaust are now housed in the J. S. Gericke Library. The University was so impressed with and grateful for this donation that they honoured Mr. Gut by the publication of a listing of these books. A bound volume of the many letters written by the University to Mr. Gut thanking him for this great generosity and commenting on each book as it was received, has also been published.

The most recent and final project of this undertaking by the Jewish congregation was the repairing and upgrading of the Jewish Cemetery and its surrounding grounds. As a community, we honour and revere the dead, and it is our privilege to maintain the cemetery which is situated in peaceful, beautiful surroundings.

The Jewish congregation, now only 17 families, has been able to maintain the synagogue, its cemetery, and make financial donations to numerous charities because of the income generated by the Skuinshuis.

“Their foresight is our inheritance”. These words appear on a plaque in the synagogue and commemorate the role by Lossy Ginsburg, Louis Perel, and Chippy Armstrong in the restoration of the Skuinshuis.

(Present chairman is Mr. G. Zetler, ably assisted by Dr. Gerry Rosendorff as secretary)