The Year in Review the Jews of South Africa
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The Year in Review the Jews of South Africa

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The most impressive aspect of Jewish life in South Africa in the year 5741 was the intensification of religious life. There were more people than ever attending synagogues as well as religious classes, and there was a greater observance of kashrut.

The Lubavitch movement in Johannesburg made a concerted effort to become a vital force in the community. Its day school, the Torah Academy, acquired a large property on 22 acres of land which is rapidly becoming one of the most advanced educational complexes in the country. Apprehension has been expressed in certain educational circles that the project will have a detrimental effect on other Jewish educational institutions by drawing away the limited number of potential pupils whose parents are committed to intensive Jewish education.


A disturbing feature of religious life has been the emergence of acrimony between the Orthodox and Reform segments of the community as a result of Israeli Labor Party Knesset member and former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s statement that a Labor government would legalize the status of Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israel.

The Chief Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues of South Africa warned that this touched the very core of Jewishness and threatened the very existence of the Jewish State. He was supported by the South African Rabbinical Association, the Lubavitch Foundation and the United Mizrachi Organization.

The Reform community in South Africa, which this year celebrated its 50th anniversary, responded to this view in a statement issued by Rabbi Walter Blumenthal, chairman of the Central Ecclesiastical Board of the South African Union for Progressive Judaism who said: “Any religious denomination which is worthy to survive and propagate does not need protection from civil law to confer upon it exclusive validity.”

In other religious-related developments, the first Sephardi synagogue was established in Cape Town. It was consecrated by Dr. Solomon Gaon, the spiritual leader of the World Sephardi Federation. In addtion, a notable innovation in the life of the Jewish community was the launching of a social action program by the Oxford Synagogue in Johannesburg to help improve the quality of life of Black people living and working in the vicinity of the synagogue.

The project is aimed at ameliorating living conditions, providing social and recreational facilities, adult education and insurance planning. A medical and dental clinic is also being contemplated.


There was little evidence of anti-Semitism during the year. Recently, the press devoted a great deal of publicity to the leader of an extreme rightwing group, Eugene Terreblanche, who made a number of anti-Semitic statements. But neither he nor his group, the Afrikaanse Weerstand Beweging, whose rowdies sport Nazi-type uniforms and display Nazi emblems as they scurry around on motorcycles, is taken very seriously by either the Jewish community of the government, although both are maintaining a careful watch on the group’s activities.

Relations between Israel and South Africa continued to be satisfactory and to improve in certain areas, particularly trade. Israel is South Africa’s fastest growing trade partner, together with Switzerland. Bilateral trade, which amounted to 10 million Rand in 1970, grew to 127 million Rand by 1980.

In other developments, Yosef Mendelevich, a former Soviet Jewish Prisoner of Conscience who now resides in Israel, made a profound impact on audiences throughout the country when he, together with Rita Izakson, chairman of the World WIZO, came to South Africa for the 24th biennial congress of the South African Women’s Zionist Organization. Mendelevich was the subject of a number of profiles in leading newspapers throughout the country.


A number of plays and books by South African Jews appeared this year. One of the books, “Jew and Gentile: The Philo-Semitic Aspect,” by Prof. S. Rappaport was well received by both the general and Jewish press. The book dealt with relations between Jews and Christians. Rappaport is the former head of the Department of Hebrew Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Also, a number of Jews received awards for outstanding achievements. Dr. Percy Amoils was awarded the Medal of Honor for his research in cryosurgery by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Edward Epstein, another specialist in this field, received international recognition for his research. The American Intra-Ocular Implant Society established a Research Fellowship in his name in recognition of his modification of lens implants to restore the sight of persons suffering from cataracts.

Prof. Philip Tobias, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, was the recipient of the highest award of the Rotary Foundation. Prof. Margaretha Isaacson was awarded the country’s top scientific honor for her work in Marburg on Haemorrhagic Fevers research. Helen Suzman, member of Parliament, was awarded a medal for “heroism” by Mayor Edward Koch of New York City who lauded her as a “hero” who has “continuously spoken out for the nation’s disenfranchised non-white majority.”

And last, but not least, there was a new communal development with the establishment of the Association of Jewish Communal Professional Executives to promote the interests of the professionals involved in the operation of Jewish communal institutions.

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