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Bloem’s Jewish community – small in numbers, huge in spirit

Small in number but big in spirit, best describes Bloemfontein’s small Jewish community. “Presently there are just over 50 souls,” says Leah Chabas, organising secretary and archivist for the congregation.





Shabbat services are conducted by members of the community. All Yomtavim like Purim, Pesach, Shavuot and Succot are celebrated and suitable functions are held.

Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft, the SA Jewish Board of Deputies’ country communities rabbi, takes a deep interest in the Bloemfontein community. He pointed out that the Orthodox shul goes back to the 1890s. However, in 1996 the Reform shul was consecrated as the Orthodox shul by the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, as the original Orthodox synagogue had become too big for the dwindling community.

Theology students of the University of the Free State regularly visit the shul as well as a number of other non-Jews, says Chabas. According to Rabbi Silberhaft the relationship between the different religious groups in the city is very cordial.

Popular Cantor Chaim Ehrlich conducts the High Holy Days. The present chairman is Alan Berelowitz, who is also chairman of the Chevrah Kadisha.

Says Chabas: “The highlight of our year is the communal Breaking of the Fast in the shul hall. It is a great social event.”

Julian and Benita Kowal who are 91 and 83 respectively, are good examples of lively active congregants. They have lived in Bloemfontein all their married lives. “Our days are busy with reading, gardening, walking and playing bridge, and of course visits from our daughter Lesley Harris and two grandchildren who live in Johannesburg, which we visit often,” says Benita. Husband Julian only recently gave up bowls.

The late Ronnie Rosen as a past president was instrumental in establishing the archives with Dr Sheila Aronstam. This has proved to be a vital source of information for many visitors to the Jewish Communal Centre. Descendants of former congregants enjoy strolling through the archives, remembering their loved ones.

Thinking back on her youth in Bloemfontein in the 60s and early 70s, Lesley Harris recalls the thriving and energetic large Jewish population of the town. Orthodox and Reform shul services were well attended. 

The bayit was the meeting place for Habonim. Many visitors spent holidays in the city. There were countless high achievers who made their community proud and who contributed in many fields.

Tenacity and faith keep this small community going, boxing way above their weight. Despite not having had a rabbi for more than 20 years, they are still continuing to hold their own and to live their Yiddishkeit.

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  1. katrien vd Merwe

    Dec 14, 2016 at 8:13 am

    ‘I love to visit and make contact with you.’

  2. Diane Berkow

    Jun 4, 2017 at 9:56 am

    ‘To whom it may concern,

    I would be most grateful if I could ask for your advice. I am from Pretoria and need a cottage or granny flat accommodation for a year for my daughter who will be qualified at the end of the year and has to do her service to the state in Thaba Nchu, where there is a veterinary clinic. We are looking for accommodation from January 2018. I was wondering if there is a family who are renting out a cottage or granny flat that you know of so I can feel she is safe and comfortable.

    Thanking you in anticipation.

    Diane Berkow’

  3. elana

    Mar 21, 2018 at 8:44 pm

    ‘looking to join in a communal sedar for 1st night Peach  in Bloemfontein for  2 adults plus a teen. We will be visiting for a sports even my son is participating in Bloem. 

    Much appreciated.


  4. Georgia Noy

    Mar 26, 2018 at 7:18 am

    ‘Looking for info about my family. They lived in Bloemfontein.  They owned a hotel. Anyone knew the Nathan family. Butie Nathan ? ‘


    Mar 27, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    ‘I appreciated seeing this article. It harkens back to the mid 80s when I was stationed in the SADF base of Tempe. This community was tremendous in making the Jewish servicemen welcome and I have retained contact with some of those fine families i.e. Horwitz, Shevel. I recall other family names such as Meltz (Cecil Meltz arranged our visits), Roth, Stern, Carpel, Pincus among others, who made us so welcome. Thank you once again! This is absolutely something that must be acknowledged and archived in the history of the Jewish Community in South Africa.

    Very best           Jonathan Maister, Toronto, Canada

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Shabbat Around The World beams out from Jozi



More than 75 devices around the globe logged in to Beit Luria’s World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Shabbat Around the World programme on Friday, 15 January.

Whether it was breakfast time in California, tea time in Europe, or time to break challah in Johannesburg, participants logged in to take part in Beit Luria’s Kabbalat Shabbat service.

Among those participating were Rabbi Sergio Bergman, the president of the WUPJ; chairperson Carole Sterling; and Rabbi Nathan Alfred, the head of international relations. Singers Tulla Eckhart and Brian Joffe performed songs from a global array of artists, along with Toto’s Africa to add a little local flair to the service. After kiddish was said and bread was broken, Rabbi Bergman thanked Beit Luria for hosting the WUPJ. The shul looks forward to more collaborations with its global friends in the future.

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UJW Sewing School graduates model creations



The outfits modelled by graduates of the Union of Jewish Women’s (UJW’s) Sewing School were all the more spectacular for the fact that some of their creators had never seen a sewing machine prior to the four-month course.

They were modelled at the school’s graduation ceremony at Oxford Shul on 15 December to much excitement and applause.

UJW executive member and Sewing School Manager Ariane Heneck expressed her gratitude to Chido Tsodzo, the school’s superb teacher, and the event ended with a much appreciated lunch for graduates and their invited guests.

The self-empowerment Sewing School for unemployed men and women was started by the UJW 10 years ago. It now has a small production team of ex-students, and some of its graduates have been employed in factories, while others are selling their own creations.

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Israel Rugby 7s to camp with the Blitzbokke



The thrill-a-minute Rugby 7s have captured the hearts of fans around the world. The Blitzbokke, South Africa’s national Rugby 7s team, ranks second in the world, and is among the most exciting, formidable, and feared of 7s teams.

Exactly 9 191 km away are the Israelis, an emerging rugby nation that has talent, determination, and a world-class coach in South African Kevin Musikanth. Now, these two squads will meet. The Israeli 7s side will be travelling to the SAS Rugby Academy in Stellenbosch to train with the Blitzbokke.

The Blitzbokke will have the opportunity to prepare for the coming 7s rugby season by measuring their skills of play against the Israelis. And the Israelis, well, they will be rubbing shoulders with, and learning from the best in the world and honing their skills for their coming European Rugby season.

“It’s an opportunity for our boys to learn from the world’s best,” says Musikanth. The SAS Rugby Academy is run by the legendary Frankie Horn, a technical expert whose coaching guidelines and methods are second to none in World Rugby 7s.

Musikanth took over as Rugby 15s head coach in Israel in 2018, and in October 2019, he became director of rugby for the Israeli Rugby Union and head coach for the national programmes of both the 15s and the 7s.

Horn visited Israel last December at the behest of Rugby Israel and its supporting Olympic body and since then, the partnership has continued to grow. The upcoming training camp will begin in Israel, where Horn, together with Phil Snyman, the former Blitzbok captain and multiple world champion winner, will spend a week with the players and coaching staff at Wingate, Netanya, the home base of Rugby Israel. They will then all travel to Stellenbosch for a week’s camp with the Blitzbokke.

“We’ve already seen the difference through our partnership with Frankie. Two of our players were spotted by him on his previous trip to Israel, and have been training at SAS on the off-season,” says Musikanth. The two players are Omer Levinson (scrum half) and Yotam Shulman (lock).

Horn, technical advisor to Rugby Israel’s 7s, says “It is a great opportunity for both teams to derive positive benefit from the camp.”

Israel Rugby has been making considerable professional strides since Musikanth took over the reins. Israel 15s played their 100th test match against Cyprus and celebrated with a 34-22 victory.

“We’re in the top 25 in Europe in 15s and in the top 16 in 7s, the toughest, most competitive continent in world rugby,” says Musikanth, “and I can realistically see us setting our sights on the Top 15 and Top 12 respectively in the future.”

Currently, there are three eligible South Africans who are on the Israeli national squad: Jayson Ferera as flanker (Pirates Rugby Club), Daniel Stein as fly half (studying in Israel), and Jared Sichel as prop (Hamilton’s Rugby Club, Cape Town). Eligibility to play for a national team in rugby is stricter than in other sports. One does not qualify just because one has a passport. One has to have had a parent or grandparent that was born in that country or one has to have lived in the country for at least three years.

“With so much Jewish rugby talent around the world, we would be able to put a world-class Israeli national team together if not for the measures that restrict eligibility to national call ups,” says Musikanth.

The Israel Rugby development project was accelerated thanks to Musikanth initiating Bridges through Rugby. This project is the collective effort of a few South African Jewish businessmen who appreciate the long-term vision of Israel becoming a stronger rugby nation. They have come on board to assist with this most opportune tour. National financial support is fixed and, as such, is limited. While the strong players and national coaches will be attending the training camp in Stellenbosch, there will be some that will, unfortunately, have to stay behind.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our players and coaches. To get to see the best upfront and feed off their knowledge is going to be incredible,” says Musikanth. “Everyone is eager to go, of course, but there is a cap to the support we have in place. We would like to take a development u20 squad as well as coaching staff who would carry the benefits of this into the future. A rugby visit to Stellenbosch can change rugby lives in many respects. Stellenbosch is rugby utopia!”

Rugby aside, with the Israelis and South Africans camping together, the question of what will be for dinner after a gruelling day’s training may be a matter of contention. A tussle for whether to serve boerewors or shwarma may result in a scrum in the SAS dining hall to determine the outcome.

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