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Historic Gardens Shul still plays a vital role

  • Shul
Visitors to Cape Town’s classy Mount Nelson Hotel may have come across a plaque recording that a little over 160 years ago the first formal Jewish religious services took place in that part of the complex. Back then, the site was occupied by Helmsley Place, the home of 1820 Settler and entrepreneur Benjamin Norden Esq.
by DAVID SAKS | Jul 29, 2015

On September 26, 1841, Norden and 16 other adult men gathered there on Erev Yom Kippur to form the first recorded minyan in southern Africa. Thus was born Tikvath Yisrael - The Hope of Israel - later to be known as the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. The “Mother Congregation” of South African Jewry, it continues to play a significant role in Cape Town Jewish life to this day.

Cape Town’s first synagogue was built in 1849, next to what are today the Parliament Buildings. That year also saw the appointment, short-lived though it proved to be, of the country’s first Jewish clergyman, Rev Isaac Pulver (dismayed by the still low standards of observance, he departed for Australia two years later and was replaced by Rev Joel Rabinowitz.

In 1863, the congregation moved into larger building in Government Avenue, just a few hundred metres away. Today, this forms part of the South African Jewish Museum complex.

The congregation moved into its third and final home, conveniently located right next to the old building, in 1905. Previously referred to as the Great Synagogue, but now more commonly called the Gardens Shul (since it adjoins the famous Company Gardens), the synagogue is celebrating its 110th anniversary this year.

Like its counterpart in Wolmarans Street in Johannesburg, Cape Town’s Great Synagogue, itself a magnificent, ornate structure, served as the de facto headquarters for Cape Jewry. It was the seat of the Chief Rabbi of the Jewish congregations of the then Cape Province, as well as of South West Africa and the Sephardi Congregation of Rhodesia (only since 1986 has South Africa had one Chief Rabbi for the whole country).

Like Wolmarans Street, it also took the lead in fostering Jewish religious education, and it was there that the community at large has gathered for such important prayer meetings as the Day of Mourning for victims of Nazism (1942) and, more recently, the memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin following his assassination in 1995.

The membership of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation progressively declined with the move of most of the Jewish population from the City Bowl area to suburbia. However, it gained a new lease of life through becoming incorporated within a new and vibrant Jewish campus from the late 1990s onwards. That campus today includes the SA Jewish Museum, the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, the Jacob Gitlin Library, function and conference centres and a restaurant and book shop.

As a result, the membership of the congregation picked up steadily. Today numbering some 800 souls under the current spiritual leadership of Rabbi Osher Feldman, it once again has a full complement of clergy, as well as world-class choir, and important public prayer gatherings continue to be held at its historic premises.  

4 Comments

  1. 4 Solly Berger 30 Jul
    Thank you for an accurate report
    Celebrations by the entire Jewish community marking 175 years of organised Jewish activities in South Africa is being launched in November. A year of celebrations including a Gala concert by the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra and a Gala Banquet hosting Chief Rabbi Mervis are in the throes of being organised. The community is taking this opportunity to showcase the Jewish contribution to the SA society. Lectures and an exhibition by the SA Jewish Museum are some of the other activities planned. The Board of Deputies will be playing a joint leading role.
    Watch the press for details
    SOLLY  BERGER
    Chairman
    Cape Town Hebrew Congregation
  2. 3 Eli Rabinowitz 03 Aug
  3. 2 Olga (Poritz) Zabludoff 04 Aug
    I enjoyed reading your informative report on the Cape Town Gardens Shul. I remember with much emotion that awesome shul from my years of growing up in Cape Town. Mazel Tov on the commemoration.
  4. 1 Kelly Brett 08 Jul
    Benjamin Norden was my great grendfather. His Son Raphael had a daughter - Mary Jane who had a son called Bertram. Bertram was my Grandmother Beryl's father. This is all very interesting to me. 

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