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Community shrinking but resilient, survey shows




“Yes, the community has declined in number over the past decades, but the smaller size belies a surprising degree of dynamism and regeneration within the community. The story is one of vitality and adaptation.”

That’s according to Associate Professor Adam Mendelsohn, the director of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, which released the long-awaited Jewish Community Survey of South Africa (JCSSA) this week. The survey is the largest and most extensive study of its kind ever undertaken.

It finds that the Jewish population in the country has declined by about 20% over the past 20 years, mainly as a result of migration, but also due to the natural ageing process. The population now numbers “an estimated 52 300”, with the Johannesburg population at 30 000 (an equivalent of 58%), Cape Town 12 500 (24%), and Durban 3 400 (7%). Of the final 11%, most are located in the orbit of Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban, with smaller communities in other cities like Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, and a scattering elsewhere.

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the Australian census, and the census of England and Wales suggest that just more than 10 000 Jews may have left South Africa for Australia, Israel, and the United Kingdom (UK) between 2001 and 2015. Data from the JCSSA indicates that 15 245 Jews have migrated in total since 2001. The countries of residence of immediate family members who have left South Africa are Israel (26%), the United States (21%), Australia (20%), and the UK (20%).

Emeritus Professor Stephen Miller, a specialist in the social scientific study of Jews who provided independent academic advice and feedback on the study, says, “The estimate of population size is no more than that, an estimate. But given the exceptionally careful analyses and comprehensive range of data sources on which it is based, it’s likely to be close to the true figure.”

The report, titled “The Jews of South Africa in 2019: identity, community, society, demography” is a collaboration between the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR), a London-based independent research organisation, consultancy, and think-tank; and the Kaplan Centre.

For Mendelsohn, the most unexpected outcome of the survey was “the strength of Jewish identity in South Africa relative to other similar communities. We see this in a variety of measures, allowing us to conclude that overall, Jewish identity in South Africa appears to be stronger, and more religious, than in either Australia or the UK.”

The survey upends the preconception that South African Jewry is an ageing community. “The median age of the South African Jewish population – 45 years – is almost exactly the same as that of Australia. We have long heard that the Jewish community is ageing. What the median age data reveals is that the pattern is more complicated. Far from fading away, there is evidence of demographic sustainability.”

He emphasises that the period since 2001 has produced “notable patterns of innovation, including the emergence of several new religious and cultural initiatives, as well as new ways of caring for the health and safety of the community. These include initiatives like the Community Security Organisation, Hatzolah, the Sinai Indaba, the Shabbos Project, the Jewish Literary Festival, the regional Nahum Goldman Fellowship, the Eliot Osrin Leadership Institute, the growth of Limmud and Melton, the innovative outreach of the Holocaust & Genocide Centres in Cape Town and Johannesburg, the South African Jewish Museum, and many others.

“The paradoxical effect over these two decades has been a decline in the size of the Jewish population and an apparent strengthening of Jewish identity and a remaking of Jewish communal life.

“We can expect some trends to continue. But whether the rate of emigration rises or falls will depend on what happens in the broader society,” Mendelsohn says.

Miller, who resides in the UK, agrees. “The British experience demonstrates that such trends don’t necessarily continue in perpetuity, and that the growth in the Haredi sector of the community can start to compensate for – or even reverse – the erosion of the mainstream sector.”

The study reveals that 89% of Jews in South Africa were born in the country, and 74% have a very or quite strong sense of belonging to South Africa. Sixty-one percent are satisfied with their life in South Africa, although 92% feel that anti-Israel sentiment has increased over the past five years, and 10% of respondents said they have had to reduce the size of their meals over the previous year because they didn’t have sufficient money to buy food.

Ninety-four percent say that unemployment is a “very big” problem in South Africa; a similar proportion says the same about government corruption and crime levels. Twenty-three percent of householders have been the victim of a burglary in the past five years, but only 5.3% of individuals have been the victim of an assault in the same time.

The study shows that the community has a strong Jewish and Zionist identity. Eighty-one percent attend a Passover seder, and 99% have circumcised their son(s). Eighty-eight percent in Johannesburg completely agree with the statement, “I’m proud to be a Jew”. The equivalent proportion in Cape Town is 81%. “The low intermarriage rate (17% for 2010-2014) immediately jumps out,” says Dr Kerri Serman, an applied experimental and behavioural economist and research fellow at the Kaplan Centre.

The community’s Zionism is demonstrated by the fact that 89% of community members have visited Israel, and 32% say it’s likely they will permanently settle in Israel at some point. Ninety-two percent agree that “Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people”.

“The position of South African Jews on Israel is similar to that of UK Jews in terms of attachment to Israel and self-definition as Zionist,” says Miller. “However, South African Jews are far less likely to support public criticism of Israel than British Jews.”

Seventy-five percent of school-aged Jewish children in South Africa attend Jewish schools, and 78% of community members said they had attended at least one Jewish communal event in the previous year. Seventy-four percent agree with the statement that “the organised Jewish community goes to great lengths to help the underprivileged majority in South Africa”.

“The survey highlights the extent of philanthropy within the community. For example, 81% of Joburg community members donated money to the Chevrah Kadisha in the 12 months preceding the survey,” says Serman.

“The survey has captured a moment of uncertainty in the collective communal mindset,” she says. “For example, 15% of respondents indicate that they are likely to leave South Africa within the next five years. Moreover, 43% have considered leaving South Africa in the year preceding the survey. While this might not necessarily reflect intent, it does speak to a feeling of uncertainty and impermanence.” The preferred destination for would-be emigrants is Israel (51%), far ahead of any other country or location.

Serman points out that “the community has a high rate of self-employment, with almost one out of five respondents being self-employed. Looking forward, this makes it vulnerable to the economic pressure associated with COVID-19.”

Mendelsohn says that while challenges lie ahead, “What I take to be heartening is all the evidence that points to resilience and adaptability. Yes, the Jewish population of South Africa may well be smaller in ten years, but there is plenty to suggest in the data that our community will still be a lively, creative, and dynamic one.”

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Office of the Chief Rabbi, Chevrah Kadisha, South African Board of Jewish Education, and South African Zionist Federation said in a joint statement, “We are heartened by many of the findings of the survey. We look forward to engaging further with the two institutes responsible for the report and, in particular, to better understand their demographic estimates which have been based on various assumptions and which we believe require further examination and testing. Having a more exact idea of the demographics of the community will play a vital role in future planning.

“The story of the Jewish community in South Africa has always been less about large numbers and more about vibrancy, creativity, and perhaps above all, a shared loyalty to and identification with the Jewish people and their heritage, including their connection to the state of Israel. What is particularly heartening about the results is how they demonstrate the resilience and vitality of South African Jewry.”

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