For the first time in years, there were High Holiday seats available in South Africa’s most popular synagogues.
The reason for the vacancies: Jewish emigres fleeing the country’s rampant crime.
Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris, who has repeatedly called on the country’s Jews to remain and work toward creating a better future for South Africa, gave sermons at several synagogues over Rosh Hashanah calling on Jews not to “occupy the twilight zone of hesitation and inactivity.”
“Those who felt South Africa had a chance — albeit not a good one — should make a contribution toward a successful outcome,” he said.
In the 1970s and earlier, Jews emigrated to protest the country’s system of apartheid; in the 1980s, they left because they feared a revolution in South Africa’s transition to democracy.
But since the 1994 elections in which Nelson Mandela was elected president, the main reason South African Jews are leaving is crime.
During the apartheid years, the country’s white population was largely oblivious to the high incidence of crime in the black townships.
But with the end of apartheid, crime has spilled over into the affluent suburbs, although the crime rate in the black townships remains higher than in white areas.
A young doctor, who prefers to remain anonymous for professional reasons, said he is emigrating to Australia with his family “because I’m concerned about the crime and violence [and] their toll on the economy.”
He said he did not consider making aliyah “because I can’t speak Hebrew and Australia is very similar to South Africa.”
Uri Bar-Ner, a shaliach based at the South African Zionist Federation, feels people leaving for countries other than Israel “are making a big mistake. They should go to Israel for ideological reasons — because that is our Jewish homeland.”
He called on the 20,000 former South Africans living in Israel “who have made a tremendous success of their lives there” to convey this message to their former compatriots.
“They are not highlighting their achievements, the quality of life in Israel, and are perpetuating the perception that living in Israel is difficult,” he said.
The South African Jewish Board of Deputies maintains that the statistics for Jews leaving are exaggerated.
The umbrella group representing South African Jewry is also angry that the Jewish community has been singled out by the secular media when it comes to reporting on emigration.
“The Jewish population is less than half of one percent of the South African population,” said Seymour Kopelowitz, the board’s national director. “Jewish emigration from South Africa is relatively minuscule compared to the total emigration figures.”
While Kopelowitz agreed that a “few hundred” Jews have left the country because of crime, he said they are not leaving in the thousands.
“Jewish emigration statistics from South Africa are hard to obtain,” he added. “Indications for this year are that figures are low. Nevertheless, the community is always personally affected, as someone always knows of someone else who is leaving — and that is hard for those who are left behind.”
The board’s national chairperson, Marlene Bethlehem, urged Jews to “stay home and make a difference in South Africa or go home and make a difference in the State of Israel — but don’t sit on the fence.”
She said it is easy to retain a Jewish identity here and cited several factors as proof: the wealth of Jewish institutions in South Africa, the availability of kosher facilities, the extensive network of Jewish schools and the fact that South Africa has one of the lowest rates of anti-Semitism in the world.
Bethlehem, however, expressed concern about the impact of emigration on the funding of communal welfare bodies.
Among the emigres are some of the largest donors to those bodies, she said.
Jewish emigration also has had repercussions on the country’s Jewish day school movement.
Jeff Bortz, chairman of the South African Board of Jewish Education, said two principals, several teachers and about 100 students have left the country’s King David school system this year.
Because many of the parents who emigrated were able to afford the full school tuition and many of those remaining require financial assistance, the schools are now hurting financially, Bortz said.
Yeshiva College, which serves the most observant segment of the community, has meanwhile been largely unaffected by emigration.
“One or two families have left — but if we lose children, they usually go to Israel,” Rabbi Avraham Tanzer, the head of Yeshiva College and spiritual leader of the adjacent Glenhazel Synagogue, said.
“This year our synagogue had the highest attendance ever. If people leave, they are replaced by others.”
For those Jews who stay in South Africa, crime remains a chief concern.
Some 93 Jewish residents in the community of Glenhazel, a suburb of Johannesburg with a large number of observant Jews, have helped bring down the level of local crime by joining the police services as reservists, with the full powers accorded to police.
The Jewish Community Security Organization ensures that its volunteers guard every synagogue.
But just the same, they are powerless to protect those walking home – – particularly at night — and those who are hijacked in the cars at traffic lights or in the driveways of their homes.
One Jewish leader has been seeking presidential help with the crime problem.
Rabbi Siggi Suchard, spiritual leader of the Beth Hamedrash Hagadol in the community of Sandton, has been seeking a meeting with Mandela to appeal to him to fight crime in South Africa and to encourage Jews to remain in the country.
Suchard requested the meeting in a letter he handed to Mandela when the president recently attended a bar mitzvah in Johannesburg.
In his letter, Suchard stressed the Jewish contribution to South Africa — as Mandela did when addressing the bar mitzvah boy — and stated that Jews bring blessings to the countries in which they live.
“I intend to ask the president to do everything possible to combat crime,” said Suchard. “People can live with a lowering of standards, but they leave when their lives are in danger.
“And, from every country which Jews have been forced to leave, they eventually are asked to return. Jews make a difference in the countries in which they live.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.