Story-ideas-1011172

Jewish Kimberley: full of old wives’ tales

  • Kimberly
Kimberley, famed for its diamonds, has what is probably one of the most aesthetic gems of a synagogue, which houses the remnant of the Griqualand West Hebrew Congregation.
by SUZANNE BELLING | Oct 21, 2015

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A remnant it may be, but the former congregants from this congregation maintain nostalgic ties with the shul through Adrian “Barney” Horwitz, chairman and CEO of the congregation, who, with Barry Katz, is responsible for taking all the Shabbat services throughout the year.

“These High Holy Days we were privileged to have Nachi Ash and Yosef Shishler, who came from Johannesburg to conduct the services, while Jason Kree did the droshas. It was pure magic. Eleven people came from Johannesburg for the Yamim Noraim. The shul came alive,” Horwitz told SA Jewish Report.

“On Succoth and Simchat Torah we did our own thing as usual and the atmosphere was wonderful,” Horwitz said.

Services began in Kimberley in 1869, but the current synagogue was built in 1901/1902. The consecration of the shul was carried out during an elaborate ceremony 113 years ago.

Kimberley was the third Jewish community to be established in South Africa, the first being Cape Town and the second Port Elizabeth.

Despite its size, Kimberley produced no fewer than six Jewish mayors - William Sagar, Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, Bernard Cohen, Gustav Bowman “Gus” Haberfeld, Lionel Jawno and Cecil Jack Susman between 1906 and 1967, some having served more than one term.

“The grand old man of South African Jewry” Colonel Sir David Harris, a director of De Beers and commander of the Kimberley Town Guard during the siege in 1900, was a member of parliament for Kimberley and Griqualand West in the old Cape Parliament and subsequently in the Union Parliament.

Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, who moved his residence from Kimberley in 1916, succeeded Sir David, retaining his parliamentary seat till 1938.

There was a vicious rumour regarding the Oppenheimer family. It has been debunked by both Horwitz and Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, country communities rabbi of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies, among others.

Sir Ernest’s son, Harry, had been part of the congregation and in Kimberley, where the latter was born. It is documented that Harry had his bris in the shul. But, after the death of Harry’s mother, May, Sir Ernest married out of the faith and the family converted to Christianity.

The story went that, as they no longer practised Judaism, Harry Oppenheimer requested that the plaque to commemorate his barmitzvah be removed and if necessary he would buy and rebuild the shul, minus the plaque.

In recent years there has been no rabbi of the congregation, which falls under Rabbi Silberhaft. He confirms that Harry had not attained barmitzvah age when the family moved and therefore the story of the alleged plaque and the barmitzvah was untrue.

“No such thing happened - there never was a plaque and Harry Oppenheimer was 11 when he left Kimberley, so there was no barmitzvah for him there,” Rabbi Silberhaft and Howitz concur.

But, in a strange turn of events, Sir Harry’s granddaughter Victoria Waddell, now Freudenheim, chose to marry a Jewish man in London and to undergo conversion in a return to her roots.

When Rabbi Silberhaft met with Harry Oppenheimer on another matter, the tycoon was even able to recall his Hebrew name.

Jews have been prominent in this mining town and, today, Horwitz, a practising attorney in Kimberley, is instrumental in arranging tours which include historical sites and memorials as the area was one of the strategic battle sites during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 - 1902.

Horwitz, a keen historian, has a firm belief that the large Jewish Lithuanian immigration to South Africa was divinely inspired - the hand of Hashem leading them away from the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis. He likens this escape to Noah’s building of the Ark at G-d’s behest.

The continuation of the traditions of Ashkenazi Jews, including the treasured heritage of the Vilna Gaon, was perpetuated in South Africa.

“Copies of the Vilna (Vilnius) Talmud were almost all destroyed during the Holocaust, but the Kimberley Synagogue boasts a complete set.

“As opposed to bringing lots of clothes and possessions, those Ashkenazi Jews brought their Talmud and Sifrei Torah,” Horwitz said.

Rabbi Silberhaft believes the Kimberley Synagogue is the most beautiful in South Africa. Its Byzantine architecture was modelled on a shul in Venice. It was built on land donated by De Beers.

5 Comments

  1. 5 COLIN PORTER 27 Oct
    very interesting and movingdlu
  2. 4 Bruce Cohen 06 Apr
    Sadly many of the smaller platterland towns, including some of the cities have lost many of their congregations to immigration.  I have seen here in Sydney (eastern suburbs) congregations which have almost been taken over due to the influx of South Africans.
  3. 3 Lynette Rosenbaum 26 Jun
    My great grandmother was Sir Davids sister,he got her and her two daughters out of London during the war with the help of Jan Smuts
  4. 2 Marc Kopman 01 Aug
    Truly a beautiful shull, first saw it during 1983 when I lived in Bloemfontein and a delegation from our Bnai Brith travelled to Kimberley to attend the opening induction of their Bnai Brith Lodge , we arrived at the shull around Saturday maariv and a Rev Cooperman asked us if we were also "shvetsing" in Bloem, we went in and joined the minyan, I was called up for Hagbah and a wonderful induction party in the shull hall was enjoyed by all motzei Shabbos---
  5. 1 Brian Hatzkilson 29 May
    I was a boarder at Kimberley Boys School from 1960
    Rabbi Lappin taught me my bar mitzvah in 1962
    What a wonderful man and what a magnificent shul.
    I now live in the USA and will be visiting Kimberley March next year, and would love to visit my old synagogue.
    Please let me have a contact name and telephone number.
    Many thanks,
    Brian
     

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