Advocating greater CT & JHB connectedness
The Cape Town community is much more secular and with the majority of Jews concentrated in a few areas like Fresnaye, Sea Point and Camps Bay, our existence is quite shtetl-like. But pondering the question further after the interview, I realised there was quite a bit more to say on the topic, including the sometimes complex relationship between the two communities.
A healthy rivalry between Johannesburg and Cape Town Jews has long existed, just as it has between the Jews of Toronto and those of Montreal or those of Jerusalem and those of Tel Aviv.
The Cape Town community takes pride in the fact that the first Jews got off the ships and settled in the Cape. In fact the first official gathering of Jews to pray in southern Africa was on a spring evening in September 1841 in Cape Town on erev Yom Kippur, quite a few years before the City of Gold came into being.
The Jews of Cape Town have also reacted with a modicum of disdain when the GP licence plates descend on the Cape coast over December. Although the actual numbers of Jews among these holidaymakers is insignificant, the arrival of new faces on Clifton beach, Muizenberg and the dining spots frequented by the Jewish establishment, sends the Capetonians scurrying away to Plettenberg Bay or quieter towns along the Cape coast.
The Johannesburgers have their own sentiments about their Cape Town counterparts – they are “small town”, “small time”, “uncharitable” and “insular” – to name a few!
Despite the perception of a lack of generosity, it must be said for Cape Town that at a communal level, it is probably better organised. A very comprehensive list of almost every Jewish person’s contact information is maintained in a community register. No communal institution has got into serious financial difficulty in at least 75 years.
Also, with very few exceptions, one umbrella body raises funds for all community institutions – the schools, museums and welfare organisations – so as not to exhaust the donor base by subjecting them to numerous, repeated requests for charitable funds.
In Johannesburg, although there is a much larger donor base and organisations like the Chevrah Kadisha and Chabad’s Miracle Drive are extremely successful, there are a myriad institutions competing for the same Jewish philanthropic rands.
As for the differing levels of religiosity – the observant demographic in Johannesburg has grown considerably in the last two decades. Visiting areas like Glenhazel, Orchards and neighbouring suburbs for the first time in 20 years, I was pleasantly surprised by the numbers of shuls, schools, and kosher and religious places of business.
Why its coastal counterpart is less so, I cannot really answer. People sometimes assume that a lack of personal security and fears about the future, are encouraging people to find safety in religion. Others say it is due to the greater number of religious school options in Gauteng which nurtures a frum way of life.
It is difficult to get the exact figures of the South African Jewish population today. A 2005 statistical survey put the community at between 72 000 and 85 000, compared with an estimated 120 000 at its height. Two thirds of those are in Johannesburg and a quarter in Cape Town with pockets in Durban, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and elsewhere.
Community leaders and schools are also noticing a small trend of Jewish families leaving Johannesburg and moving to Cape Town. Although the movement is not significant enough to substantially change the numbers, Herzlia estimates that about 45 families (a few from overseas too) have enrolled their children at one of the 10 campuses around the city in just the last few months. Reasons are usually not for work opportunities but rather for perceived quality of life.
Johannesburg offers the advantages of a large and busy metropolis where one actually feels like one is living in Africa. Cape Town is more “white” and coastal and could be a city anywhere in the world. But whatever unique recipe of lifestyle each of these cities offer, they will continue to be the two hubs of South African Jewry.
Unfortunately they seem to operate very independently of one another. In fact Cape Town community leaders habitually complain about their lack of coverage in the Jewish Report and say that Johannesburg is not very interested in what happens in Cape Town.
I would answer that it is not the case. Starting on these very pages that you are reading, we intend to get the balls of co-operation rolling! I think it’s obvious that we could all benefit from more connectedness, co-ordination and from the lessons already learnt by one other.